Seligman, C. G.

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Seligman, C. G.



Charles Gabriel Seligman (1873–1940) was one of that remarkable group of young biological scientists (among them, W. H. R. Rivers, C. S. Myers, and William McDougall) who, under A. C. Haddon’s inspiration, established scientific field work as the basis of professional anthropology in Great Britain during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Seligman’s research broke ground for Malinowski’s field work in Melanesia between 1914 and 1918 and for Evans-Pritchard’s work in the Sudan twenty years later.

Seligman drifted into anthropology by chance. Originally trained as a physician, he had embarked on research in medicine when, in 1898, he learned of Haddon’s plans for the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait and volunteered to join it. At first Seligman confined himself to medical investigations, but his colleagues soon drew him into their anthropometric and ethnological studies. On returning to England in 1899, he resumed his medical research until, in 1903, he met a wealthy American businessman, Major Cooke Daniels, and persuaded him to finance the expedition to New Guinea that resulted, inter alia, in The Melane-sians of British New Guinea (1910). It was only after this expedition that he finally committed himself to anthropology by accepting the first lectureship in ethnology (in 1913 it became the chair of ethnology) established at the University of London.

In 1904 he married Brenda Z. Salaman, who collaborated in all his later field research and in many of his major publications. Her influence on their joint work was important: while Seligman himself had, for example, little interest in the minutiae of kinship custom, his wife, under the influence and instruction of Rivers, became adept in this branch of anthropology and took the responsibility for it. The Seligmans carried out a series of officially sponsored expeditions, to Ceylon in 1907–1908 to study the Veddas (see 1911) and their first expedition to the Sudan in 1909–1910. They made two further trips to the Sudan in 1911–1912 and 1921–1922.

In the intervals between these expeditions, while preparing their results for publication, Seligman continued his pathology researches and received for them, in 1911, the coveted distinction of a fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, as well as other medical honors. In 1919 he also became a fellow of the Royal Society.

Like Haddon and Tylor, whose conception of a “science of culture” he admired, Seligman regarded anthropology as embracing every aspect of the life of the simpler societies (1926). He approached field work in the spirit of a Darwinian natural historian, considering a living society in terms of its geographical and historical setting as well as in terms of its racial composition, cultural make-up, and psychological foundations. Gifted also with a sensitive aesthetic judgment, Seligman built up a choice private collection of early Chinese art, notably of ceramic and bronze ware, and was thus drawn into research on Chinese history and civilization, a subject that was peculiarly congenial to his somewhat reserved temperament.

During World War I he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was, with Rivers, assigned to the staff of a hospital for victims of shell shock. Clinical experience convinced him of the general soundness of Freudian theory, and in later essays he applied psychoanalytical and related theories to the problems of ethnology.

Descriptive ethnology . Two features are characteristic of Seligman’s anthropological and ethnological contributions: they are exploratory rather than definitive in aim, and they concentrate on factual data as opposed to theoretical interpretations and generalizations. Seligman’s expedition to New Guinea set the pattern for his later ethnological work. Its aim was to establish the distinctive racial, social, and cultural features of the peoples of this region, with a view to their ethnological classification. All available sources were utilized, including the works of travelers, government reports, and notes and memoranda provided by long-resident missionaries and administrators, but the chief emphasis was on information obtained from native informants and eyewitness description.

Considering that the field work took less than a year and was carried out either in pidgin English or with the aid of often inadequate interpreters, the results are impressive. Malinowski (1922) paid tribute to the excellence of Seligman’s observations. The data were for the most part new to anthropology. Where they were doubtful or defective, this was scrupulously indicated. Though Seligman made no attempt to investigate any subject in the depth achieved by the next generation of ethnographers, he did deal quite exhaustively with some topics (e.g., totemism), and he did not fail to draw penetrating conclusions, as in his elucidation of the powers and authority of chiefs.

Seligman’s 1910 book remains a “basic and systematic work” on Melanesia (Elkin 1953, p. 47). It covers, in varying detail, every significant facet of tribal life: the geographical setting, racial composition, kinship and family structure, chieftainship and rank, property, trade, warfare, morals, magic and religion, material culture, feasts and ceremonies. It contains an important and comprehensive account (contributed by F. R. Barton) of the kula-type trading voyages of the Motu and an outline of Northern Massim culture on which Malinowski, and subsequently Reo Fortune, built. [SeeOCEANIAN SOCIETY.]

The field work that resulted in the two joint works entitled The Veddas (1911) and Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan (1932) followed the same procedures as those used by Seligman in New Guinea. The Veddas represents a valiant attempt to salvage what could still be found out about the culture and mode of life of the remnants of the aborigines of Ceylon, and it remains a standard work. The results of the Sudan venture, however, turned out to be more important. The three Sudan expeditions, prepared for with exemplary thoroughness and supported by both the Sudanese government and British learned societies, were pioneer undertakings in every sense. In this huge territory, still barely pacified, living and traveling conditions were arduous. Communication with informants, in Arabic, was difficult; the Seligmans had only a working knowledge of the language and the southern Sudanese often no more than a smattering of it. Nevertheless, the Seligmans opened up an area until then ethnologically uncharted.

The works they published between 1911 and 1932 about this research made ethnological history. In particular, it was Seligman’s description of the cult of Nyakang and the divine kingship of Shilluk (see 1911) that, as Evans-Pritchard commented, “brought. . . [divine kingship] to the notice of Sir James Frazer and into the main stream of ethnological theory” (1948, p. 1). Pagan Tribes summed up the results of the field research of the Seligmans and other investigators during the twenty years following the first expedition.

Seligman espoused the theory that successive waves of pastoral Hamites had, in the distant past, spread via the Horn of Africa westward and southward, mingling with the autochthonous Negro population to produce the Nilotes (Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer, etc.) and Nilo-Hamites (Bari, Lotuko, etc.) and the chain of peoples in the Great Lakes region stretching through the Hima elements (e.g., in Ankole) to the Masai, all distinguished by their greater or lesser adherence to pastoralism (1913). Conjectural as the theory of Hamitic migration may be, the ethnic classification remains valid, as its continued use (e.g., in the Greenberg language classification) testifies. The theory became a cornerstone of Seligman’s synoptic review of the peoples and cultures of Africa (1930). These are divided into six major ethnic clusters–the Bushmen and Hottentots, the true Negroes of west Africa, the Hamites (eastern and northern), the Nilo-Hamites and Nilotes, the Bantu, and the Semites. It is a singular feat of compression and still the best over-all introduction to African ethnology. [SeeAfrican society, article on sub saharan africa.]

Historical ethnology. Seligman’s concern with historical ethnology grew naturally out of his descriptive studies. It was also a response to the challenge of the extreme diffusionist theories advocated by Elliott Smith and Rivers. Seligman flatly rejected these theories, contrasting them with genuinely historical reconstruction based on geographical connections and evidence derived from material culture and institutional relationships (1927). Thus, when he himself carefully considered the evidence for the supposed Egyptian origin of divine kingship in Africa, he came to the conclusion that its most characteristic features go back to an “old and widespread Hamitic belief” to which some specifically Egyptian elements only later became attached (1934). [SeeKingship.]

It was in the pursuit of these and other historical and distributional associations that Seligman undertook his investigations into prehistory (e.g., of Egypt and the Sudan) and his studies of artifacts and objets d.’art. Coupled with his passion for Chinese art and civilization, these studies culminated in his joint paper, with H. C. Beck, on Chinese glass (1938). Here Seligman sought to clarify the routes and modes of transmission by which various products and technical skills reached China from western Europe even before the second century B.C.

Physical anthropology. The investigations in physical anthropology that formed for Seligman the necessary basis for the organization of cultural and historical data now appear relatively crude. Without such modern techniques as genetic analysis of blood groups, he obtained anthropometric and anthroposcopic data that have only limited validity.

Cross-cultural psychology . Seligman’s psychological investigations began with the application of sensory discrimination tests to the Veddas; the results were discouraging. Later he became convinced that the psychology of the unconscious was the key to many fundamental problems of anthropology, and in his first presidential address to the Royal Anthropological Institute he stressed “the borderland where social anthropology, psychology, and genetics meet in common biological kinship” (1924, p. 13). (He reverted to this theme in his Huxley Memorial Lecture in 1932). He enlisted the aid of field ethnologists, psychoanalysts, orientalists, and a variety of other specialists, as well as laymen, in the pursuit of these inquiries. Malinowski was one of the many who owed his introduction to psychoanalysis to Seligman (Malinowski 1927, preface).

Guided by Freud’s theory, Seligman produced evidence from many different cultures for the universality of such “type” dreams as those involving the loss of teeth, flying, and raw meat. He found that conventional interpretations of such dreams often implicitly recognized their symbolic nature. He inferred that there is in the unconscious of all peoples “a proved common store on which fantasy may draw” in the construction of myth and ritual beliefs and even of technical processes (1924, p. 41). His interpretation of magical rites was that they are “symbolic dramatizations” that drain away unconscious anxiety and that are thus comparable to neurotic symptoms. Taking a different perspective, he assembled cross-cultural evidence to test the universality of the stages of individual psychosexual development postulated in Freudian theory. Emphasizing the scanty and conflicting nature of the ethnological data then available, he concluded that they tended to confirm rather than to refute (as Malinowski maintained) the Freudian hypothesis (1932). Also impressed with Jung’s extrovert-introvert dichotomy of temperamental types, he applied it in tentative studies of art styles, of the national character of the Japanese, and of psychosis in different cultural settings (1931). He concluded that psychosis was rare in stable primitive societies but tended to emerge as a result of conflicts engendered by contact with European culture, conflicts he connected also with the then incipient nativistic movements now called cargo cults.

These studies claimed no more than to demonstrate the significance of psychoanalysis for anthropology at a time when there was a strong reaction in British anthropological circles against such an application of psychoanalytic theories. [SeeCulture and personality.]

Just as Seligman rejected all-embracing diffusionist explanations of ethnological connections, so also he was chary of evolutionist constructions of the kind favored by Frazer and L. H. Morgan. With his strong biological bias, he saw living mankind as a single species with common and uniform mental and physical capacities and dispositions but distributed over the globe in racially diverse and culturally varied communities in different phases of historical development. Though Malinowski’s functionalism grew up directly under his eyes, and not without his sympathy, he never aligned himself with this movement; he was too much of an empiricist. The task of scientific ethnology, as he saw it, was to approach particular areas and particular problems by as many methods and from as many angles as could serve to reveal useful data and throw light on them.

Meyer Fortes

[Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofFrazer; Haddon; Malinowski; Rivers; Tylor.]


1910 The Melanesians of British New Guinea. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1911 Seligman, C. G.; and Seligman, Brenda Z. The Veddas. Cambridge Univ. Press.

1913 Some Aspects of the Hamitic Problem in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 43:593–705.

1918 Seligman, C. G.; and Seligman, Brenda Z. The Kababish: A Sudan Arab Tribe. Harvard African Studies 2:105–185.

1924 Anthropology and Psychology: A Study of Some Points of Contact. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 54:13–46.

1926 Anthropology. Volume 1, pages 131–143 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. 13th ed. Chicago: Benton.

1927 [A Book Review of] Psychology and Ethnology, by W. H. R. Rivers. Nature 120:685–687.

1928 The Unconscious in Relation to Anthropology. British Journal of Psychology 18, part 4:373–387.

1929 Temperament, Conflict and Psychosis in a Stoneage Population. British Journal of Medical Psychology 9, part 3:187–202.

(1930) 1957 Races of Africa. 3d ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

1931 Japanese Temperament and Character. Japan Society of London, Transactions and Proceedings 28:124–138.

1932 Anthropological Perspective and Psychological Theory. The Huxley Memorial Lecture. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain andIreland 62:193–228.

1932 Seligman, C. G.; and Seligman, Brenda Z. Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge.

1934 Egypt and Negro Africa: A Study in Divine Kingship. The Frazer Lecture for 1933. London: Routledge.

1938 Seligman, C. G.; and Beck, H. C. Far Eastern Glass: Some Western Origins. Stockholm, & Ostasiatiska samlingarna, Bulletin no. 10:1–64.


Elkin, Adolphus P. 1953 Social Anthropology in Melanesia: A Review of Research. Oxford Univ. Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1948 The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Fortes, Meyer 1941 Charles Gabriel Seligman. Man 41, no. 1:1–6.

Haddon, A. C. 1934 Appreciation. Pages 1–4 in Essays Presented to C. G. Seligman. Edited by E. E. Evans-Pritchard et al. London: Routledge.

Huntingford, George W. B. 1953 The Northern Nilo-Hamites. Ethnographic Survey of Africa, East Central Africa, Part 6. London: International Africa Institute.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1922) 1960 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London School of Economics and Political Science, Studies, No. 65. London: Routledge; New York: Dutton. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Dutton.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1927) 1953 Sex and Repression in Savage Society. London: Routledge; New York: Harcourt. → A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Meridian.

Myers, C. S. 1941 Charles Gabriel Seligman. Royal Society of London, Obituary Notices of Fellows 3:627–646. → Includes a BIBLIOGRAPHY of Seligman’s works.