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Rivers, W. H. R.

Rivers, W. H. R.

Anthropological career



William Halse Rivers Rivers (1864–1922), British anthropologist and medical psychologist, was educated at Tonbridge School and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. He held a medical degree, was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and was a lecturer in experimental psychology at Guy’s Hospital, London. From 1897 on, he was a lecturer at Cambridge University and was responsible for founding the Cambridge school of experimental psychology. He became a fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1902. In 1898 he joined the Cambridge anthropological expedition to Torres Strait led by A. C. Haddon and was in charge of the psychological work. He made several ethnological investigations: of the Todas in south India in 1902, and in Melanesia, in 1908 and again in 1914. During World War i Rivers performed distinguished service as a psychopathologist working in military hospitals. He was one of the few English medical men of that period to recognize the far-reaching significance of the work of Freud; he himself made important contributions to the study of war neurosis. He received honorary degrees from the universities of St. Andrews and Manchester and was a fellow of the Royal Society. He was president of the Folklore Society in 1920–1921 and president of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1921–1922. His death following an operation was unexpected; he was only 58 and actively engaged in many intellectual activities.

Anthropological career

Rivers’ lifelong interest in the twin disciplines of medical psychology and anthropology had long antecedents. His father, the Reverend H. F. Rivers, had studied under his own brother-in-law, James Hunt, the owner of a fashionable (and very profitable) institute of speech therapy, which had been founded by Hunt’s father early in the century. On Hunt’s death in 1869, H. F. Rivers took over the institute and brought out a revised edition of Hunt’s book, Stammering and Stuttering: Their Nature and Treatment. But Hunt, besides being a practical exponent of experimental psychology, had been very prominent in the early history of British anthropology. He had been honorary secretary of the Ethnological Society of London from 1859 to 1862 and then founded and financed a breakaway institution called the Anthropological Society of London, which survived as a separate entity until 1871. The present Royal Anthropological Institute, of which Rivers was president at the time of his death, is a successor institution to the two parent bodies with which his maternal uncle had been associated at the time of Rivers’ birth.

Rivers’ professional status was that of a psychologist, but he is principally remembered for his contributions to anthropology. On the Torres Strait expedition of 1898 he developed a keen interest in ethnographic problems, particularly in the algebraic peculiarities of kin-term systems. He devised a “genealogical method” for recording the mutual kinship connections of the members of a closed community, a method that proved to be of lasting importance (Rivers 1900). Rivers brought to his anthropological studies a scientific detachment and experimental rigor wholly different from the spirit of classical scholarship that pervades the writings of his celebrated Cambridge colleague Sir James Frazer. It is primarily because of Rivers that most British social anthropologists now think of themselves as being engaged in a science rather than a literary exercise. By the standards of its time The Todas (1906) was an outstanding example of precise documentation, and for many years this book served British anthropologists as a model for ethnographic monographs.

Like all his contemporaries, Rivers took it for granted that the objective of the anthropologist is to reconstruct the history of the primitive peoples whom he studies. During the early part of his career Rivers’ historical assumptions were those of an evolutionist. In this respect he was a follower of L. H. Morgan, whose studies of kinship terminologies (Morgan 1871) had been largely neglected in England. The functionalist reaction against evolutionism, under the twin but discordant trum-petings of B. Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, did not achieve general acceptance until some years after Rivers’ death. Even so, Radcliffe-Brown, who made his expedition to the Andaman Islands in 1906 under the tutelage of Haddon and Rivers, retained throughout his career a strong interest in the problems of kinship terminology that had so obsessed Rivers. Although this interest led Rivers into many fanciful excesses of “kinship algebra,” whereby he deduced sociological conditions that can certainly never have existed, it was a bias which proved to be a crucial step in the development of the “structuralist” orientation of contemporary British social anthropology (which derives from Rivers by way of Radcliffe-Brown) as distinct from the “cultural” orientation which dominated the work of Tylor, Frazer, and Malinowski.

Around 1910 Rivers developed a close friendship with Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, a medical colleague who advocated an extreme diffusionist doctrine, claiming that the whole of human civilization was derived from that of ancient Egypt [see Diffusion, article on Cultural Diffusion]. Rivers’ uncritical acceptance of Smith’s dogmatic and wildly exaggerated assertions is a matter for astonishment. Nearly all of Rivers’ later anthropological writings, including the very important History of Melanesian Society (1914a) and Kinship and Social Organisation (1914b), show Smith’s influence to a marked degree, usually to their detriment. Rivers’ anthropological textbook, Social Organization (1924b), although it was mutilated by its editors, Elliot Smith and W. G. Perry, and was certainly not in the same class as R. H. Lowie’s Primitive Society (1920), still merits serious attention.

Rivers’ discrimination of concepts has a scientific clarity that is commonly lacking in anthropological writing. Although the problems of descent, succession, and inheritance are not so simple as Rivers supposed, he at least perceived the nature of problems that many later writers have ignored. Among his earlier works the ethnographic accounts of the Todas (1906) and of the Banks Islanders (1914a, vol. 1) have permanent merit, but the high esteem formerly placed upon his theoretical studies of kinship terminologies now seems misplaced. In studying kin terms, Rivers, like Morgan, assumed that classificatory usages must be “survivals” of an earlier state of society. Rivers’ most astonishing historical reconstruction of this kind occurs in Kinship and Social Organisation (1914b, pp. 33–38), where he invented a social system that required a man to marry either his mother’s brother’s wife or his brother’s daughter’s daughter. The reconstructions of history found in more modern work, such as Murdock’s Social Structure (1949), lack the preposterous quality which marks many of Rivers’ examples, but they rest upon assumptions concerning the nature of kinship that are basically very similar.

In sum, very little of Rivers’ “kinship theory” can still be taken seriously, but its influence can still be traced. In England, Radcliffe-Brown, Brenda Seligman, J. Layard, and A. M. Hocart all produced work in this field which derived from that of Rivers and which has had a lasting influence upon the thinking of British social anthropologists, even though the latter no longer concern themselves with historical reconstructions. Oddly enough, although Rivers’ influence in the United States is very indirect, there are some contemporary American writers, such as Robert and Barbara Lane, who stand very close indeed to Rivers’ way of thinking. Rivers’ influence on his psychological successors was much less pronounced, though some early work by his friend F. C. Bartlett, who was later professor of experimental psychology at Cambridge, perpetuates Rivers’ ideas (e.g., Bartlett 1923).

Edmund R. Leach

[For the historical context of Rivers’ work, see the biographies ofHaddonandMorgan, L. H.For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeSocial Structure; and the biographies ofBartlettandRadcliffe-Brown.]


1900 A Genealogical Method of Collecting Social and Vital Statistics. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 30:74–82.

1906 The Todas. New York and London: Macmillan.

1908 The Influence of Alcohol and Other Drugs on Fatigue. London: Arnold.

1914a The History of Melanesian Society. 2 vols. Percy Sladen Trust Expedition to Melanesia, Publication No. 1. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1914b Kinship and Social Organisation. London School of Economics and Political Science, Studies, No. 36. London: Constable.

(1920) 1922 Instinct and the Unconscious. 2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1923a Conflict and Dream. London: Routledge; New York: Harcourt.

1923b Psychology and Politics, and Other Essays. London: Routledge; New York: Harcourt.

1924a Medicine, Magic, and Religion. London: Routledge; New York: Harcourt.

1924b Social Organization. London: Routledge; New York: Knopf.

1926 Psychology and Ethnology. London: Routledge; New York: Harcourt.


Bartlett, F. C. 1923 Psychology and Primitive Culture. Cambridge Univ. Press; New York: Macmillan.

Haddon, Alfred C.; and Bartlett, F. C. 1922 William Halse Rivers Rivers, M.D., F.R.S. With a Bibliography Compiled by Ethel S. Fegan. Man 22:97–107.

Lowie, Robert H. (1920) 1947 Primitive Society. New York: Liveright. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Harper.

Morgan, Lewis H. 1871 Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Vol. 17; Publication No. 218. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

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