Evans-Pritchard, E. E.

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EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. (19021973), was an English anthropologist. Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard was the son of a clergyman of the Church of England. He took a degree in history at the University of Oxford and in 1927 a doctorate in anthropology at the University of London, where he was supervised by C. G. Seligman. His thesis was based on field research undertaken from 1926 to 1930 among the Azande of the Sudan. He carried out research among the Nuer, another Sudanese people, intermittently between 1930 and 1935 and also for brief periods among the Anuak, the Luo, and other East African peoples. During World War II he worked at intervals, when free from military service, among the bedouin of Cyrenaica. In 1944 he joined the Roman Catholic church. He taught at the University of London, Fuad I University in Cairo, Cambridge University, and finally Oxford, where in 1946 he succeeded A. R. Radcliffe-Brown as professor of social anthropology. He retired in 1970, was knighted in 1971, and died in Oxford in September 1973.

Evans-Pritchard's work in religion is unique. It is based on brilliant, sensitive, and meticulous field research, on his mastery of languages (he was fluent in Arabic, Zande, and Nuer), and on his deep knowledge and understanding of the work of his predecessors, in particular those sociologists (Durkheim et al.) associated with L'année sociologique. Most of his writings on religion fall into one of four main categories: works on the Azande, the Nuer, the Sanusi, and comparative and theoretical topics.

Each piece of Evans-Pritchard's research and writing is based on certain central problems in anthropology, although never limited to them in a narrow sense. His work among the Azande, a cluster of kingdoms of the southwestern Sudan, led to the publication of Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), perhaps the outstanding work of anthropology published in this century. It is concerned essentially with questions asked, although hardly answered in any convincing manner, by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl in his writings on "primitive" and "scientific" modes of thought. The questions as to whether there are differences between these two modes of thought and, if so, what they are and how they might function in social contexts are basic to anthropology, and Evans-Pritchard's discussion of them has changed the nature of anthropological inquiry. He writes about Zande notions of magic, witchcraft, and divination, that is, their notions of natural and supernatural causation and interference in people's everyday lives. He shows that Zande ideas are rational and systematic; given certain premises of knowledge they are closed and self-perpetuating, and they are not held in isolation but are consistent with forms of authority and power found in Zande society. This is essentially a study of rationality and corrects all earlier views about the "irrationality" of so-called primitive peoples. Later Evans-Pritchard published an immense number of Zande texts, in both Zande and English, with commentaries. This work is probably the greatest single corpus of the myths and tales of an African culture that has yet been published and confirms one of his strongest beliefs: that "primitive" texts are not quaint "folkloristic" stories but are as worthy of careful analysis as those of literate cultures.

Evans-Pritchard's Nuer Religion (1956) is the final volume of a trilogy on the Nuer of the southern Sudan (the others are The Nuer, 1940, and Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer, 1951). In this book he presents Nuer religious thought and ritual as a system of theology that has a subtlety and profundity comparable to those of literate cultures. Here he takes up another basic problem raised by Lévy-Bruhl, that of "mystical participation" between human beings and what in ethnocentric terms are called the supernatural and the natural. This problem is examined within the context of a series of related aspects of Nuer religion: conceptions of God, spirits, the soul, and ghosts; symbolism; sin and sacrifice; and priesthood and prophecy. Because of Evans-Pritchard's great skill in unfolding the complexity of Nuer religious thought, never since has it been possible for scholars of comparative religion to dismiss a nonliterate religion as "primitive" or as a form of "animism." Throughout this work, as in that on the Azande, Evans-Pritchard stresses what he considered to be the central problem of anthropology, that of translationnot the simple problem of translation of words and phrases in a narrow linguistic sense, but the far more complex question of translation of one culture's experience into the terms of another's.

Evans-Pritchard's other "ethnographic" work on religion is rather different, taking as its basic problem the relationship between prophets (a topic raised earlier in his work on the Nuer) and forms of religious and political authority as exemplified in the history of the Muslim Sanusi order in Cyrenaica (The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, 1951). Here he was able to use written records as well as his own field research, and he produces a model account of religious history and change.

Evans-Pritchard's last achievement in the study of religion is his many critical writings on the history of the anthropology of religion, of which the best known is Theories of Primitive Religion (1965). It is a superb and sophisticated study of the relations between thought, ideology, and society.

The influence of E. E. Evans-Pritchard's writings in the anthropological study of religion has been immense. There has been little later analysis made of modes of thought, systems of causation, witch beliefs, sacrifice, notions of sin, and ritual symbolism that has not been influenced by, if not based upon, his work. In addition, much recent research on the philosophy of knowledge has leaned heavily on his book on the Azande. Evans-Pritchard's influence upon younger anthropologists has been great. The anthropological, historical, and comparative study of religions owes more to him than to any other anthropologist.


The main works of Evans-Pritchard are cited in the article. The most insightful view of his work, in the form of an obituary, is by T. O. Beidelman, "Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, 19021973: An Appreciation," Anthropos 69 (1974): 553567. Beidelman is also the editor of A Bibliography of the Writings of E. E. Evans-Pritchard (London, 1974). Mary Douglas's Edward Evans-Pritchard (New York, 1980) is a fuller but rather uneven account.

New Sources

Burton, John W. An Introduction to Evans-Pritchard. Fribourg, Switzerland, 1992.

John Middleton (1987)

Revised Bibliography