Edmund Leach: Biographical Studies from Tambiah and Others

Adam Kuper  in London Review of Books Vol. 24 No. 10 · 23 May 2002

  • Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life by Stanley Tambiah
    Cambridge, 517 pp, £60.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 521 52102 5
  • The Essential Edmund Leach: Vol. I: Anthropology and Society by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw
    Yale, 406 pp, £30.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 300 08124 3
  • The Essential Edmund Leach: Vol. II: Culture and Human Nature by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw
    Yale, 420 pp, £30.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 300 08508 7

Edmund Leach was Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, KBE and FBA, a trustee of the British Museum, a senior fellow of Eton College, the president of societies ranging from the Royal Anthropological Institute to the British Humanist Association, and a noted collector of committee chairmanships. I once asked him how he could square all this with his regular insistence that he was a scourge of the establishment. He responded, reasonably enough, that he had opened King’s to women students, a revolutionary move at the time, and then added that when he came to correct his Who’s Who entry every year he found himself laughing: ‘Who is this comic clown?’ But in practice he liked to have things both ways, and seemed to believe that, when it came to politics, this was a sort of hereditary privilege. He once claimed that all the Leaches ‘have an odd way of being Rebel and High Tory at the same time’, and elected as his role model his mother’s uncle, Sir Henry Hoyle Howorth MP FRS, who published a five-volume History of the Mongols but was notable chiefly as a maverick. ‘He refused to believe in ice ages long after everyone took them for granted,’ Leach once told me proudly. ‘In politics, when an MP, he formed a splinter party on the Irish issue. Which side he was on I have no idea. But I am told that his New Party could at most marshal two votes and that he was thrown out at the next election.’

Whatever their political views, the Leaches seem to have been typical Victorian entrepreneurs, and were very clannish. Edmund grew up, he often remarked, ‘in a world consisting exclusively of kinsmen and family domestics, a good start for an anthropologist’. All four of his great-grandfathers were Rochdale mill-owners who lived within a couple of miles of each other. Their descendants diversified into Argentinian plantations but continued to intermarry and to breed on a generous, Victorian scale. His father – nearly 60 when Leach was born in 1910 – was one of 13 children, and Edmund had 30 first cousins. He followed his father and uncles and cousins to Marlborough, where he was the 21st Leach, but he turned out to be the first who was unable to hit a cricket ball or bring down a pheasant, and accordingly was miserable. He found his years there even more dreadful than his time as a guerrilla in Burma during the war. At home he was under the thumb of his mother, much younger than her husband. A frustrated artist and a devout Christian, it was her forlorn hope that he would become a missionary. ‘I was her nearest and dearest,’ he told me. ‘It made it very difficult to grow up. She slaughtered my girlfriends one after another.’

Perhaps he never did grow up. In 1967 he delivered the Reith Lectures, in which he argued that ‘in our runaway world, no one much over the age of 45 is really fit to teach anybody anything,’ adding, slightly more generously, that when it came to research or technological development ‘no one should be allowed to hold any kind of responsible administrative office once he has passed the age of 55.’ Leach was 57 at the time, and a powerful figure in practically every grant-giving agency in the social sciences. But in his own eyes he remained the gangling, untidy public school rebel, still recognisable in David Hockney’s official portrait of him as Provost. ‘Quirky, unpredictable, a believer that truth emerges from contradiction, a roughneck in argument’, according to Noel Annan, his predecessor as Provost of King’s. His friend Audrey Richards said that he could only get going on any topic by finding some established position to attack. There was also an element of showing off, and a strong desire to score in argument. ‘His forte was the quick and clever or even clever-clever,’ Stephen Hugh-Jones, a former student, remarks. His old antagonist, Meyer Fortes, the professor of social anthropology at Cambridge, said that Leach had the public schoolboy notion that just by turning an argument on its head you were being original.

Leach more or less accepted all this, even gloried in it. In an interview I did with him in 1985, he explained that one develops intellectually by way of a sort of dialectic. Malinowski, the man who had brought him into anthropology, was, he said, ‘the greatest and most original of all social anthropologists’, but Leach was never a constant disciple.

There was a point in my anthropological development when Malinowski could do no wrong. In the next phase Malinowski could do no right. But with maturity I came to see that there was merit on both sides. I see this as a Hegelian process, a very fundamental element in the way that thinking in the humanities develops over time. But always the process involves the initial rejection of your immediate ancestors, the teachers to whom you are most directly indebted.

This isn’t just gossip. So far as Leach was concerned, autobiography was of the essence. Towards the end of his life – after flirting with functionalism, structuralism, Marxism and cognitive science – he briefly embraced Postmodernism and now insisted that ethnographies were largely projections of the personalities of their authors. ‘How could it be otherwise?’ he demanded. ‘The only ego I know at first hand is my own. When Malinowski writes about Trobriand Islanders he is writing about himself; when Evans-Pritchard writes about the Nuer he is writing about himself. Any other sort of description turns the characters of ethnographic monographs into clockwork dummies.’ The logic here is very dicey. Even if you can only know yourself at first hand, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is impossible to know anyone else. And the ethnographer doesn’t have to choose between describing clockwork dummies and describing himself. In any case, Leach’s self-representations were shot through with the most disconcerting contradictions.

As an anthropologist, he was famously divided against himself. ‘I feel that sometimes I am both sides of the fence,’ he once confessed. During his most creative years, which his biographer, Stanley Tambiah, identifies as the period from 1940 to 1961, he embraced the incompatible doctrines of two great 20th-century anthropologists, Malinowski and Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss was a philosopher of Kantian tendencies, who represented the Amazonian Indians as idealist philosophers of the Kantian school. Like good Kantians, they lived out the principles of their system of thought. No individual could escape from the collective mindset. Even the most canny shaman ends up believing his act. Malinowski represented the Pacific Islanders he studied very differently. They were down-to-earth entrepreneurs, every man out for number one. The job of the anthropologist was to work out what the natives were up to. When they started prating about laws and customs, however, they were just having you on. Not so much witch-doctors as spin-doctors, their only real interest in myths was in who ‘owned’ them and how they could be used to justify land titles.

Leach made no attempt to suggest that Malinowski’s functionalism could be reconciled with Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism. He would say that he was a functionalist on weekdays and a structuralist at the weekend. His most important monograph, Political Systems of Highland Burma, published in 1954, was, he said, ‘organised as a kind of dialogue between the empiricism of Malinowski and the rationalism of Lévi-Strauss’, though in this case it was Malinowski who was given all the best lines. The political units of Highland Burma ranged from small states to tiny, egalitarian village communities that were little more than extended families. Leach argued that these structures were extremely unstable. The states were continually undermined by conflicts within the aristocratic families, while independent villages were always vulnerable to local warlords. Politics was a matter of raw individual ambition, competition, compulsion and manipulation. However, people were not content to understand their situation in these down-to-earth terms. The politics had to be fitted into some larger conception of life and the world, described in symbols and reproduced in rituals. But rituals and symbols (‘play-acting and pretence’, Leach called them) did not impede the self-interested entrepreneur. This is because they can always be adjusted to fit virtually any real world circumstances. Rituals send messages in a rigid format, but they are ambiguous. Indeed, ritual works precisely because of its ambiguity: ‘different individuals, quite legitimately, fill in the details of the ideal schema in different ways.’

Leach may not have been able to decide between structuralism and functionalism, but he was unyielding in his opposition to the school of anthropology associated with Durkheim’s disciple A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. According to this school, traditional societies were coherent and orderly systems based on kinship groups, held together by a shared ethic of solidarity and by rituals that buttressed authority. Leach called Radcliffe-Brown and his followers the Oxford structuralists, but Radcliffe-Brown’s most loyal adherent was Meyer Fortes in Cambridge, where Leach arrived from the LSE in 1953. Leach’s spirit of opposition ensured that Cambridge anthropology was riven for the next two decades by his feud with Fortes. His major ethnographic study of the period, Pul Eliya, was organised as an attack on Radcliffe-Brown’s British followers, and on Fortes in particular. It gave an account of a village in Sri Lanka, which, according to Leach, was not in any sense a community but just ‘a collection of individuals who derive their livelihood from a piece of territory laid out in a particular way’. Later, even he had to admit that this was stretching things. When a postgraduate student at Harvard wrote to query various inconsistencies, he disarmingly admitted that he had gone over the top, ‘but I think there was a case for overstating the argument in order to be provocative . . . especially around here’ – Cambridge – ‘where as you know “kinship” has got rather out of hand.’

Pul Eliya, which appeared in 1961, was generally regarded as a failure. Leach’s own case materials showed that caste, kinship and community were important, even to men on the make. Political Systems of Highland Burma has lasted better. In its way it was a brilliant counter to the traditional ethnography which depicted a conservative tribe following age-old customs, changeless and perfectly self-contained. Leach showed that the political units of the Highlands were intricately interconnected, and that they were in a constant state of flux, growing into states and collapsing back into village units. However, he did not take the obvious next step and relate the petty politics of the Highland tribes to the imperial ambitions of their Burmese and Chinese neighbours. Nor did he document their reaction to British colonialism, though he was a shrewd observer of the British in the East, and served as a guerrilla leader and colonial administrator during World War Two. In a letter to friends, in 1939, he reported that the plains area around Bham is part of Burma proper and is controlled by the Burmese Government, the inhabitants solemnly elect MPs and so forth – (the Westminster-model Burmese Constitution is incidentally a complete and ludicrous farce, but that’s by the way); all the surrounding mountains on the other hand come under the Burma Frontier Service, who are responsible only to the Governor. The DC at Bhamo, however, operates in both spheres.

If he had treated this in his ethnography, it might have been easier to understand the dynamics of politics in the Highlands.

His biographer remarks that after about 1960 Leach wrote mostly essays, often polemical essays, rather than serious books. He also turned from the study of kinship and social organisation to art and mythology, and began to publish rather lightweight structuralist interpretations of Biblical stories, sometimes crudely designed to upset the believer. (A final riposte to his mother, perhaps.) And he let his delight in shocking the bourgeoisie run away with him. The Reith Lectures were filled with remarkably silly judgments. ‘Far from being the basis of good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.’ All whose discontents? ‘Privacy is the source of fear and violence.’ Perhaps we need an anti-privacy law then? If it’s true that ‘every manifestation of national consciousness is an evil; that respect for tradition is an evil,’ why did Leach accept a knighthood?

As a postgraduate student in Cambridge in the 1960s I was of the school of Fortes, but that was a pretty dull school. Leach’s arguments seemed much more exciting, and I devoured everything he wrote. Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw have made an excellent selection from his writings, filling two large volumes, and contribute well-informed and perceptive commentaries. Ploughing one’s way through the later pieces is a dispiriting experience, however. The polemics were always pushed that bit too far, and issues that seemed so important at the time are now forgotten. Tambiah reviews all the controversies in great detail, setting them in the context of the debates of the day. He can’t make them seem exciting this time around, but then Leach was a wonderful teacher precisely because he always wanted to be in opposition, and was often at war with himself. Any Leach campaign was, like Great-Uncle Henry’s New Party, scornful of the voters.

**** ****


* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Leach

* https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/online-resources/online-exhibitions/fields-of-study-sir-edmund-leach-the-social-anthropologist



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