Marett, R. R.

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MARETT, R. R. (18661943), British philosopher and anthropologist, who introduced the theory of preanimism and the term animatism into the scholarly debate. Robert Ranulph Marett was born on the Channel Island of Jersey on June 13, 1866. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, specializing in the classics, philosophy, and ethics, and in 1891 he was elected fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, where he remained for the whole of his academic career. His anthropological interests were fired by reading his fellow-Oxonian Andrew Lang's book Custom and Myth (1884) and after 1893 by association with E. B. Tylor (18321917), whose friend and disciple he became. In 1893 he submitted a prize essay titled "The Ethics of Savage Races," which was examined by Tylor. Despite the difference in their ages, a close friendship began, and as Tylor's powers began to wane, Marett became his assistant. Marett later wrote a bibliographical memoir, Tylor (1936).

On Tylor's retirement, Marett was appointed in 1910 reader in social anthropology at Oxford, a post which he held until 1936, when he was succeeded by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. For some years he was also rector (i.e., president) of Exeter College. He traveled widely in Europe, visited Australia once, in 1914, and in 1930 delivered the Lowell Lectures in Boston. He was Gifford Lecturer at the University of Saint Andrews twice, in 19311932 and 19321933, and the two published volumes of these lectures, Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion (1932) and Sacraments of Simple Folk (1933), Marett believed to embody his best work. He also had an interest in prehistoric archaeology, and he conducted and supervised excavations at the Mousterian site of La Cotte de Saint Brelade on his native island of Jersey. He died on February 18, 1943.

As an anthropological theorist, Marett's reputation was made virtually overnight, by the publication in 1900 of his paper "Preanimistic Religion" (Folklore, June 1900), in which he called into question Tylor's theory of "animism" and introduced the terms preanimism and animatism (which are not synonyms). During the next few years he wrote extensively on this theme, suggesting that tabu is best understood as "negative magic" and emphasizing the importance of the Melanesianactually common Pacificword mana as its positive counterpart. Mana he explained most fully in a paper, "The Conception of Mana," delivered at the Oxford Science of Religion Congress in 1908, and in an article, "Mana," in Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 8 (1915).

Where Marett differed most strikingly from other late Victorian anthropologists in Britain was in his degree of fellow-feeling with and indebtedness to the French sociologists of the Année sociologique school. This made him, in effect, the first of the British social anthropologists and gave his later work especially a dimension largely absent from the writings of his predecessors.

Marett's style was always admirably lucid, often being further illuminated by wit and a certain irony. Today he tends to be evaluated chiefly for work done between 1899 and 1910, to the neglect of his more mature writings. He will, however, always have an important place in the history of both anthropology and comparative religion, and he was also highly significant as an advocate of academic anthropology and as a trainer of anthropologists.

See Also

Animism and Animatism; Preanimism; Tylor, E. B.


Works by Marett

In addition to works cited in the text, Marett's Anthropology (London, 1911) should be consulted, as should The Threshold of Religion, 3d ed. (London, 1915), a collection of his important early papers. Included in this collection are "Preanimistic Religion" (1900) and "The Conception of Mana " (1908). A Jerseyman at Oxford (Oxford, 1941) is Marett's highly informative and entertaining autobiography.

Works about Marett

There is no biography or full critical study, but see Custom Is King: Essays Presented to R. R. Marett on His Seventieth Birthday, edited by Leonard Halford Dudley Buxton (London, 1936). This work contains a personal appreciation by the editor and a full bibliography. See also the entry on Marett by John N. Mavrogordato in the Dictionary of National Biography, 19411950 (Oxford, 1959), and the discussion in my book Comparative Religion: A History (London, 1975), pp. 6571.

New Sources

Marett, R. R. The Early Sociology of Religion: Vol. 7 The Threshold of Religion by R.R. Marrett. Edited by Bryan Turner. London, 1997.

Eric J. Sharpe (1987)

Revised Bibliography