Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard

The English social anthropologist Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) did pioneer research in the social structure, history, and religion of African and Arab peoples.

Edward Evans-Pritchard was one of the foremost anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. The son of an Anglican clergyman, Evans-Pritchard read history at Exeter College, Oxford, and received a doctorate in anthropology at the London School of Economics. His first research was from 1926 to 1932 with the Azande of the southern Sudan and the Congo. He did further fieldwork in 1935-1936 and in 1938, mainly with the Nuer and other Nilotic peoples of the southern Sudan.

Acclaimed Scholar

Before World War II Evans-Pritchard served on the faculties of the London School of Economics, the Egyptian University in Cairo, and Cambridge University. During this period he produced his two most famous works: Witchcraft: Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940). The first is a brilliant exposition of the internal logic of a preliterate philosophy, indicating how such ideas may reasonably persist in the face of what, to an outsider, may appear to be damning discrepancies and disproofs. The second volume examines the mode of political organization of the Nuer, a society lacking any formal government. It served as a model for much of the subsequent anthropological research in the social organization of African societies. In its analysis of the blood feud, conflict, and limits set by environment on a seminomadic society, it owes much to the earlier work of William Robertson Smith.

During World War II Evans-Pritchard served as an officer in military intelligence in East Africa, Ethiopia, Libya, and the Middle East, and he was able to do some anthropological fieldwork in these areas. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1944, which may have influenced his subsequent attempts to reconcile the purported differences between social science and religious faith. In 1946 he was appointed to the chair of social anthropology at All Souls College at Oxford, which he held until his retirement in 1970. Twice he journeyed to the United States for scholarly pursuits: in 1950 he was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and seven years later he spent a year at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Set a Standard for Anthropology Writing

An extraordinarily prolific writer, Evans-Pritchard produced works that touch upon nearly every facet of social anthropology. In general his writings exhibit a blend of rich ethnographic detail with subtle and suggestive theoretical insights. Among his better-known books are The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949), Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951), Social Anthropology (1951), Nuer Religion (1956), and Theories of Primitive Religion (1965).

A year following his retirement, Evans-Pritchard was knighted for his contributions to science. He was father to five children with Ioma Nicholls, whom he married in 1939. Even after he retired from Oxford, he continued to teach and to produce influential publications in his field, including Man and Woman Among the Azande (1971). He was one of the strongest proponents of the value of historical perspective in anthropology and of recording African oral literature. Evans-Pritchard died in Oxford on September 11, 1973.

Further Reading

Evans-Pritchard and his importance in anthropology are discussed in Max Gluckman, Custom and Conflict in Africa (1955); Thomas Bieldelman, ed., The Translation of Culture (1971), and Mary Douglas, Edward Evans-Pritchard (1980). □

views updated

Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward Evan (1902–73) A leading British social anthropologist who undertook ethnographic studies of a number of African societies. He viewed social anthropology as a humanistic rather than a scientific study of society—perhaps, it is thought, because his first degree was in history. Because of this belief he distanced himself from A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (whom he succeeded as Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford between 1945 and 1970) and other functionalists who sought to generate laws or theories about societies in general. By introducing a historical element to his work, Evans-Pritchard showed how societies change and manage change over time, which represented a major advance on the static analyses of functionalism. At the same time, however, he was concerned to describe societies holistically, and in this sense can be seen as a follower of Émile Durkheim.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Evans-Pritchard played a major role in shifting the focus of anthropology from the study of the function of rituals in society to an examination of the meaning ascribed to rituals by members of that society. He saw one of the main tasks of anthropology to be the translation of one culture into terms understandable to members of another culture. This he achieved most memorably in the two early monographs which made his reputation and are still popular today—Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940).

If Evans-Pritchard was less concerned to be scientific than was Radcliffe-Brown, his work was nevertheless more theoretical than that of Bronislaw Malinowski, from whom he learned his enthusiasm for intensive fieldwork methods. The volume he edited with Meyer Fortes (African Political Systems, 1940) revolutionized political anthropology, and many of Evans-Pritchard's later writings (such as Essays in Social Anthropology, 1964) were about the relationship between anthropology and other social sciences, including sociology. They constitute important contributions to the sociology of knowledge, and offer provocative statements of the problems of subjectivity in social research, and of the need for comparative analysis. The sociological significance of his writings, especially for theories of language, rational action, and religion, is clearly explained in Mary Douglas's commentary on his life and work (Evans-Pritchard, 1980). See also MAGIC, WITCHCRAFT, AND SORCERY.

views updated

Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, 1902–73, English social anthropologist. He made several expeditions to Africa. His major contributions lie in the fields of social anthropology and comparative religion. His writings include The Nuer (1940), a classic of ethnography; Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951); Essays in Social Anthropology (1962); Theories of Primitive Religion (1965); and The Azande (1971).