Richards, Audrey Isabel (1899–1984)

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Richards, Audrey Isabel (1899–1984)

English social anthropologist . Born in London, England, on July 8, 1899; died on June 29, 1984; daughter of Sir Henry Erle Richards (a diplomat and law professor) and Isabel (Butler) Richards; Newnham College, Cambridge University, M.S., 1922; London School of Economics and Political Science, Ph.D., 1929.

Awards and honors: awarded the Wellcome Medal for applied anthropology and the Rivers Memorial Medal for field work; named commander of the Order of the British Empire (1955); president of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1960–62); president of the African Studies Association (1963–66); named fellow of the British Academy (1967).

Selected writings:

Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe (1932); Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia (1939); Bemba Marriage and Present Economic Conditions (1940); Chisungu: A Girl's Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia (1956); The Changing Structure of a Ganda Village: Kizozi, 1892–1952 (1966); The Multicultural States of East Africa (1969); Some Elmdon Families (co-written with Jean Robin, 1974).

Born in England in 1899, Audrey Isabel Richards spent her childhood in India (which was then a British colony), where her father served on the British Viceroy's Council. She returned to England in 1911, when her father became a law professor at Oxford University, and attended boarding school. Richards then studied natural sciences at Newnham College of Cambridge University from 1919 to 1922. Afterwards, she worked in Germany for the Ambulance Unit Family Welfare Settlement, and was a secretary in the labor department of the League of Nations from 1924 to 1928.

In 1926, Richards enrolled as a graduate student in anthropology at the London School of Economics, where she was a student of Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of the functional school of anthropology. (Functional anthropologists believe that human institutions can be best understood if they are studied within the context of the entire culture surrounding those institutions.) Influenced by Malinowski's teachings, Richards became a functionalist herself; her doctoral thesis, for which she was awarded a Ph.D. in 1929, was subtitled "A Functional Study of Nutrition among the Southern Bantu." The thesis was published in 1932 as Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe.

Between 1930 and 1934, Richards spent two and a half years in Africa studying the Bemba tribe in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), while also lecturing in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. As an anthropologist, she was careful not to be too tidy in her categorizations of human social behaviors. She was not afraid of the loose ends, or unexplained data, that remain after an anthropologist's analysis, for she was aware that any analytical framework had its limits, especially if she were studying a social group that was undergoing rapid change.

Richards published a number of books over the course of her career, and lectured in social anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 1938 to 1940. During World War II, she worked on the staff of the British Colonial Office in London. After the war, she taught social anthropology at the University of London until 1950. Richards spent the next six years as director of the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, where she supervised numerous Institute fellows and associates conducting dozens of surveys and studies. She held a number of important teaching and administrative positions in social anthropology between 1956 and her retirement in 1967.

Richards worked hard to be an attentive hostess to the many friends who visited her. She was also a generous friend. After her mentor Bronislaw Malinowski's wife Elsie Masson died in 1935, Richards became the guardian of their three daughters for a time, and stayed in touch with them for many years. She also had a fine sense of humor and was not averse to telling stories on herself. Once, while studying a village in Essex, England, as she sat "in what I hoped was the conventional pose of poker-face and blank psycho-analytical, shock-proof visage," she wrote, she "was startled by an informant in an area where religious factions were political factions and political feeling ran high. My visitor suddenly shouted, 'You! You say you are not a Protestant, not a Catholic and not a Muslim. There isn't such a person!' and he stumped off."

The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Wellcome Medal, the OBE, and a term as president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Richards died on June 29, 1984, little more than a week before her 85th birthday.


The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Contemporary Authors. Vols. 21–24, 1st revision. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1977.

Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series, vol. 27. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Proceedings of the British Academy: 1992 Lectures and Memoirs. Oxford University Press.

Patrick Moore , Associate Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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Richards, Audrey Isabel (1899–1984)

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