Leach, Edmund

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LEACH, EDMUND (19101989), a prominent British social anthropologist, is known for his critical adaptation of Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist principles in the interpretation of myths and social institutions.


Edmund Ronald Leach was born into a large, upper-middle-class family of entrepreneurs in Sidmouth, Devon, England. He studied mathematics and engineering at Cambridge University, graduating in 1932. The next year he obtained a commercial position with a trading firm with offices in China. The administrative duties it entailed soon grew onerous, but the country itself fascinated him, and he seized opportunities to travel and to study the language and culture. Before returning home in 1936, he visited Botel Tobago, a small island off Formosa, where he encountered a "primitive" people, the Yami, on whom he made extensive notes.

Back in England, he met Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942) and began attending his seminar at the London School of Economics. Here he decided upon anthropology as a career and embraced Malinowski's distinctive type of functionalism. Leach's most important and extensive fieldwork took place during World War II, under exceptional circumstances. He arrived at the intended study site in northeast Burma in August 1939, just before the outbreak of conflict in Europe. Burma was then a British colony, and Leach enlisted in the Burma Rifles. However, before being called to active duty nine months later, he was able to engage in preliminary fieldwork among the Kachin, a remote mountain people, and write up a draft of his notes. (This draft subsequently was lost, rewritten, then lost again.) After the Japanese invaded and overran Burma in 1940 to 1941, Leach continued his military activities clandestinely behind the lines, rendering invaluable service by recruiting and leading Kachin troops because of his fluency in their language. Both before and after the liberation of the colony, Leach's duties took him to many tribal communities. On the basis of this extraordinary, though nonsystematic research, plus intensive study of documents upon his return to England, he wrote his doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics in 1947 under D. Raymond Firth and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown.

Following a short government research mission to Sarawak, Leach was appointed lecturer in primitive technology at the London School of Economics in 1948. Soon he took a leave of absence to work on the book Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), which became a classic in social anthropology. In 1953, Meyer Fortes, formerly of the London School of Economics and by now head of the anthropology department at Cambridge University, invited Leach to join his faculty. Thereafter, this university would be Leach's base of operations. From July to November 1954 he engaged in concentrated fieldwork in a peasant village in Ceylon, on the basis of which he wrote Pul Eliya (1961a). In 1960 he was elected fellow of King's College, and in 1966 he became its provost. From 1971 until 1975 he served as president of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He was named to the British Academy in 1972, and was knighted in 1975.

Sir Edmund retired from the Department of Anthropology in 1978 and the next year from the provostship, but he continued to be active while health permitted: writing, attending meetings, and lecturing at universities in England, the United States, and elsewhere. His last public lecture was given in the United States in April 1986. After a long struggle with cancer, he succumbed to a brain tumor on January 6, 1989.

Theory and Method

The social anthropology in vogue in England and the United States when Leach was a student and began his career was functionalism. While this term covers a variety of individual approaches, functionalism in general may be defined as the attempt, using empirical data obtained from fieldwork, to determine how a society "functions" as a system. Furthermore, the elements that comprise a social system, such as marriage rules, economics, and religion, must be studied not as isolated entities, but in their total social context, as parts of a working whole. Malinowski exemplified this methodology.

Contrasted with this approach is that typified by James Frazer (18541941), who in his monumental The Golden Bough (19111915), a compendium of data about folklore, magic, and primitive religion, sought to discover fundamental truths about human psychology through comparison of apparently similar data, selected unscientifically from all times and places. Leach's fieldwork in northeast Burma focused on kinship structures, and his first published article on the Kachin (1945, in 1961b) was dominated by Malinowski's functionalism. However, when he read Claude Lévi-Strauss's Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949), he was strongly drawn to the French anthropologist's "structuralism." Thereafter, without renouncing all functionalist principles, he employed a method that owed much to Lévi-Strauss, but was not, he insisted, a "Lévi-Straussian methodology" (1983a, p. 2).

In a sense, structuralism can be classified as a continuation of Frazerian anthropology in that it seeks to establish facts true of "the human mind." Although Lévi-Strauss traveled extensively for some months in 1938 among "primitive" tribes in Brazil, his fieldwork is deemed shallow by functionalist standards, and his writings are not truly dependent upon it. Rather, his method derives from the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913) and Roman Jakobson (18961982). Significantly, Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson were colleagues in 1945 at the New School for Social Research in New York. (Similarly, Leach was Jakobson's colleague at Stanford from 1952 to 1953.) Just as Jakobson taught that in all languages, humans code and decode sounds into meaningful speech by combining them into bundles of binary oppositions, so Lévi-Strauss taught that the myths, rituals, eating customs, and all other aspects of a society express contrasting pairs (left/right, male/female, and so on), between which mediating elements intervene. This is the logic by which the human mind functions, he insisted, and his writings analyze these oppositions and mediations. Once a structure is identified in one society or text, comparisons can be made with others. In his later work, especially, he came under criticism from Leach for departing from empirical data in his search for universals applicable to all humanity (Leach, 1970, p. 104). Leach criticized him too for distinguishing between "cold" (primitive, ahistorical) and "hot" (historically conscious) societies (1983a, p. 2122).

Leach has said of his own magnum opus (1954) that it is a kind of "dialogue between the empiricism of Malinowski and the rationalism of Lévi-Strauss" (1982, p. 44). The latter's Les structures élémentaires had contained much about the Kachin, based on data obtained wholly from documentary sources. Although Leach made early use of Lévi-Strauss's structuralism in his 1954 book, he signaled ethnological errors in Lévi-Strauss's statements on marriage relations among these people. The criticism led to a protracted polemics, eventually ending in a rupture between the scholars when Lévi-Strauss refused, in the revised version of his book (1967, 1969), to acknowledge Leach correct. Nevertheless, there were numerous friendly exchanges between them from 1962 to 1966, when Leach was writing structural analyses of myths, and in 1970 Leach penned a lucid, concise, and mostly positive study of Lévi-Strauss that became a standard introduction to his thought.

To the end of his career, Leach continued to adhere to a basic principle of functionalism, namely, that "the real subject matter of social anthropology is the actual social behavior of human beings" (1970, p. 105), while also employing methods of structural analysis derived from Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss.

Myth and Religion

In private life, Leach was a Humanist (Leach, 1972), and his beliefs carried over into his scholarly work. Once when a fellow anthropologist called him a "vulgar positivist" (Clifford Geertz, in Banton, 1966, p. 35), he retorted, "This intended insult I take as a compliment," adding, "positivists, whether vulgar or otherwise, usually show signs of knowing what they are talking about, whereas theologians, even when disguised as Professors of Anthropology, do not" (Leach, 1969b, p. 86). When he wrote about the Kachin nats (spirits), he dismissed them as "nothing more" (1954, p. 182) than ways of describing relationships among persons and groups in the society. Religion, as such, did not interest him at this time.

Having been won over, largely, to the structuralist or symbolist view of myth by 1959 (Leach, 1961b), in the 1960s and 1980s Leach wrote several structuralist interpretations of biblical narratives and Christian doctrine (1969b, 1983a), fields his Parisian counterpart eschewed. The most complex of these is "The Legitimacy of Solomon" (1966), a tour de force of the Jewish scriptures, which disregards biblical criticism, theology, and historical concerns, and instead treats the text as "myth," taking it as a whole. Leach identifies recurring binary patterns concerning incest, murder/sacrifice, endogamy/exogamy, descent, and inheritance, and shows how the writers (consciously or unconsciously) found mediating agencies to resolve the "unresolvable" dilemmas in the narratives. For this article, Leach won the commendation of two prominent Jewish scholars, Jacob Neusner and Abraham Malamat (Tambiah, 2002, pp. 303305). In another article, "Virgin Birth" (1966) he shows how Christians can believe that Jesus was both supernaturally conceived (by the Holy Spirit through the Virgin Mary) and the human messiah, descended from David through Joseph. In this case, both Jesus and Mary are mediators between earth and heaven. Then Leach uses this illustration to contradict the claim of certain anthropologists that some primitive tribes are ignorant of the connection between copulation and con-ception.

Only once did Leach write expressly about the history of religions: in a 1966 review of Mircea Eliade's 1965 book Mephistopheles and the Androgyne. Since a major theme of this book is the coincidentia oppositorum, it was an appropriate volume for him to review, but in doing so, he also discussed nine other works by Eliade. He charged the author with being a "Frazerian," a "Jesuit," and a Jungian, with inflating his outdated bibliographies, with believing in a prelogical archaic mentality, and with speaking like "an enlightened prophet." He commends Eliade for stressing notions of polarity (sacred/profane, heaven/earth) and the necessity for connecting links between them, such as the yogin and the shaman, but he says that the true implications of these ideas have escaped him. Leach believed that "because Eliade has recognized that religious symbols occur not singly but as binary pairs, he is really committed to an analysis of structure."

The value of structuralist analyses of religious texts, for Leach, was not that they reveal truth or meaning, but that they afford the basis for looking at familiar materials in a new way. "Mediation between opposites is precisely what religious thinking is all about," he once said (Leach, 1983a, p. 16).

Leach also reviewed numerous books on religion by fellow anthropologists and wrote structuralist studies of religious art and architecture (1971b, 1978, 1983b, 1985). Although a few American religion scholars utilize Lévi-Straussian structuralist principles (e.g., Penner, 1989; Doniger, 1998), Leach is seldom cited. Leach is much better known and referenced by anthropologists, especially in the United Kingdom.

See Also



Cambridge Anthropology. Special Issue: Sir Edmund Leach 13, no. 3 (198990).

Doniger, Wendy. The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. New York, 1998. A great many references to Lévi-Strauss, but Leach is cited only three times.

Eliade, Mircea. Mephistopheles and the Androgyne: Studies in Religious Myth and Symbol. Translated by J. M. Cohen. New York, 1965.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. 3d ed., rev. and enl., 12 volumes. London, 19111915.

Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System." In Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Michael Banton, pp. 146. London and New York, 1966.

Leach, Edmund R. Political Systems of Highland Burma : A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London, 1954.

Leach, Edmund R. Pul Eliya, a Village in Ceylon : A Study in Land Tenure and Kinship. Cambridge, U.K., 1961a.

Leach, Edmund R. Rethinking Anthropology. London, 1961b. Besides "Jinghpaw Kinship Terminology: An Experiment in Ethnographic Algebra" (1945): 2853 and the ground-breaking essay, "Rethinking Anthropology" (1959): 127, the volume contains two short essays of interest to religion scholars on symbolic representations of time: "Chronus and Chronos": 124-132; and "Time and False Noses": 132-136.

Leach, Edmund R. "Sermons by a Man on a Ladder." Review of Mephistopheles and the Androgyne, by Mircea Eliade. New York Review of Books (October 20, 1966): 2831.

Leach, Edmund R. "High School." Review of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda. New York Times Review of Books (June 5, 1969a). A caustic critique of "the fashionable mysticism of hippydom."

Leach, Edmund R. Genesis as Myth and Other Essays. London, 1969b. Contains "Genesis as Myth" (1962), "The Legitimacy of Solomon: Some Structural Aspects of Old Testament History" (1966), and "Virgin Birth" (1966).

Leach, Edmund R. "'Kachin' and 'Haka Chin': A Rejoinder to Lévi-Strauss." Man (n.s.) 4, no. 2 (1969c): 277285.

Leach, Edmund R. Claude Lévi-Strauss. London and New York, 1970.

Leach, Edmund R. "Mythical Inequalities." Review of The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F. C. Wallace; Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology by Mary Douglas; and Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures by G. S. Kirk. New York Review of Books (January 28, 1971a).

Leach, Edmund R. "The Politics of Karma." Review of Buddhism and Society by Melford Spiro, Religion and Change in Contemporary Asia, edited by Robert F. Spencer, and Islam Observed by Clifford Geertz. New York Times Review of Books (November 18, 1971b).

Leach, Edmund R. "A Personal View." Humanist News (JanuaryFebruary, 1972).

Leach, Edmund R. "Michelangelo's Genesis: Structural Comments on the Paintings of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling." Times Literary Supplement (March 18, 1978).

Leach, Edmund R. Social Anthropology. Glasgow, 1982.

Leach, Edmund R. "Anthropological Approaches to the Study of the Bible during the Twentieth Century" (1980): 732; "Against Genres: Are Parables Lights Set in Candlesticks or Put under a Bushel?" (1982): 89112; "Why Did Moses Have a Sister?" (1980): 3366; and "Melchisedeh and the Emperor: Icons of Subversion in Orthodoxy" (1983) 6788. In Structuralist Interpretations of Biblical Myth, edited by Edmund R. Leach and D. Alan Aycock. Cambridge, UK, and New York, 1983a. This book also includes an important methodological introduction: pp. 16.

Leach, Edmund R. "The Gatekeepers of Heaven: Anthropological Aspects of Grandiose Architecture." Journal of Anthropological Research 39, no. 3 (1983b): 243264.

Leach, Edmund R. "Michelangelo's Genesis: A Structuralist Interpretation of the Central Panels of the Sistine Chapel." Semiotica 56, nos. 12 (December 1985): 130.

Leach, Edmund R. "Noah's Second Son." Anthropology Today 4, no. 4 (1988): 25. Opposing racial discrimination.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Les structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris, 1949. 2d rev. ed. Paris and the Hague, 1967. Translated as The Elementary Structures of Kinship by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston and London, 1969.

Malamat, Abraham. "Comments on E. Leach: 'The Legitimacy of SolomonSome Structural Aspects of Old Testament History.'" Archives Européennes de sociologie 8 (1967): 165167.

Neusner, Jacob. "The Talmud as Anthropology." Annual Samuel Friedland Lecture, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1979). See Tambiah (2002): 301303.

Penner, Hans. Impasse and Resolution : A Critique of the Study of Religion. New York, 1989.

Tambiah, Stanley J. Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life. Cambridge, UK, 2002. Thorough, sympathetic treatment of Leach's life and work, by a former pupil. Indispensable resource.

Mac Linscott Ricketts (2005)