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date: 19 April 2019

Anthropology and the Study of Africa

Summary and Keywords

Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. It developed from the 19th century with a focus on the study of societies located outside Europe, often colonized peoples. It has since transformed and diversified but maintains an interest in cross-cultural comparison and social and cultural diversity. Anthropologists often conduct long-term ethnographic research, or fieldwork, living among a community in order to learn their language and become familiar with local norms, ways of life and cultural assumptions. The method is also referred to as participant-observation, which captures its dual nature. Anthropologists aim both to join in, and learn though participation, and to maintain a degree of critical distance from which to observe and question what they see and hear around them. Their findings are generally written up in the form obf ethnographic monographs and articles detailing their research and discussing their observations in relation to the work of other anthropologists working in similar and/or distant locations.

Africa has long been central to anthropological research, particularly for British-trained anthropologists. This is in part a reflection of British colonial history, as colonialism afforded opportunities for anthropologists to travel to Africa and live among African communities. African scholars and research assistants have played important roles in developing the anthropology of Africa and continue to do so. Contemporary ethnographic writing tends not to be holistic in the sense of aiming to produce a exhaustive account of a particular people and their way of life, but rather focuses on particular issues of interest in connection to wider debates, both scholarly and policy-oriented. In the 21st century, anthropologists of Africa study a wide range of topics, from gender relations to religion, development projects to social media.

Keywords: anthropology, Africa, ethnography, colonialism, functionalism, structural-functionalism, apartheid, tribes

The study of Africa has long been central to the discipline of anthropology. While the first British ethnographic expedition focused on areas of the Pacific, it wasn’t long before anthropologists, inspired by Bronislaw Malinowski’s pathbreaking study of the Trobriand Islands, turned to British colonial territories in Africa to carry out immersive ethnographic field research.1 Many of these early researchers have since been described as functionalist or structural-functionalist anthropologists, and they famously include Meyer Fortes, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Audrey Richards, and Isaac Schapera.

In traditional tellings of the development of anthropology and the study of Africa, these people are key figures, yet it is also well documented that the field of anthropology in Africa has always been more diverse than these accounts suggest. Not only were women anthropologists important actors (notably Elizabeth Colson, Hilda [Beemer] Kuper, and Monica [Hunter] Wilson), but African intellectuals and research assistants were also indispensable.2

This article provides an account of the development of the anthropology of Africa that incorporates both the dominant narrative and some of the less celebrated contributions. It will necessarily be a partial account, and will provide references to texts that flesh out further details. Readers may notice that this is also a largely UK-centric account. This is because Africa was less central to the development of anthropology in the United States and elsewhere, although with notable exceptions.3

A Brief History of Anthropology in Africa

Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown feature prominently in any account of the history of anthropology. While neither was a specialist in African anthropology, both men left their mark on the anthropology of Africa, not least through their influence as teachers.

Radcliffe-Brown taught for several years at the University of Cape Town, where he served as professor of social anthropology from 1921 to 1925. Among others, he taught Winifred Hoernlé and Isaac Schapera, and he examined the theses of Eileen and Jack Krige, Max Gluckman, Ellen Hellman, and Hilda (Beemer) Kuper.4 He later worked at the University of Oxford (1937–1946), during which time his influence on the development of British social anthropology was cemented.

As Chair in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics from 1927, Malinowski ran an anthropology seminar by means of which many rising stars of the discipline encountered new ideas and approaches to the study of societies and cultures.5 Among the attendees at Malinowski’s seminars were Audrey Richards, Meyer Fortes, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Max Gluckman, and Jomo Kenyatta (the future Prime Minister of Kenya). These attendees went on to produce some of the most widely read early anthropological studies of African societies. They took from Malinowski an emphasis on the importance of long-term, immersive fieldwork, which involved living in a single community for an extended period of time, usually at least a year, acquiring the local language(s), and learning through participant-observation.

Both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown articulated approaches to social anthropology that broke with the earlier preoccupations of those who are often referred to as diffusionists and evolutionists. These earlier schools, despite their differences, were preoccupied with what Radcliffe-Brown termed “conjectural history” as opposed to “the functional study of society.”6 By contrast, neither Malinowski nor Radcliffe-Brown was concerned with tracing the origins of social formations or cultural traits, and nor did they seek to understand the transmission of social and cultural phenomena from one society to another over time and space. Rather, they were interested in understanding the workings of particular societies at a particular point in time (this is sometimes referred to as synchronic analysis), and they sought to base their studies on first-hand observations by anthropologists. They did not deny the fact that historical change took place, but they produced accounts of societies based on empirical evidence produced at a certain time, and they made use of the ethnographic present tense in their writing. As a result, their texts often read as if the societies they described were stuck in the present, unchanging and enduring. This approach has since been critiqued and largely abandoned in anthropology.7 Nevertheless, it is difficult to overemphasize its importance for much of the 20th century.


The anthropological paradigm associated with Malinowski is known as functionalism. Key monographs that can be seen as belonging to this school include Richards’s Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia and Schapera’s Married Life in an African Tribe.8 These were descriptive texts but not particularly theoretical. It was not their concern to identify general rules or laws governing social organization. As such, they did not seek to abstract kinship or economic “systems” from the broad social practices they described.9 Anthropologists working in this vein tended to describe individual behavior and misbehavior, and to admit of the messy realities of life in a particular setting.

Functionalism operates on the premise that societies are integrated wholes and their various institutions need to be understood in relation to one another and in terms of the “functions” they fulfill. Functions could be physiological—meeting reproductive or nutritional needs, for example—psychological, such as the alleviation of anxiety, or societal in the sense of ensuring social reproduction. The aim was a holistic depiction of a society as a whole, since the various aspects—political authority, economic activities, religion, family relations, and so on—were understood to be fundamentally interrelated. In achieving a holistic understanding, Malinowski’s intention was “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world.”10 He wanted to understand what the practices he observed meant to the people who carried them out, what motivated them, and how they conceived of their actions.

In the canon of Africanist anthropology, Evans-Pritchard’s study of Azande witchcraft stands out as having been influenced by Malinowski’s teachings.11 Here, Evans-Pritchard sought to understand witchcraft, oracles, and magic very much “from the native’s point of view.” Against 20th-century prejudices that saw witchcraft practices and beliefs as fundamentally irrational, Evans-Pritchard demonstrated the inherent logic of Zande beliefs and practices in the context of their social and cultural life. Interestingly, Evans-Pritchard subsequently went on to provide the paradigmatic example of structural-functionalist analysis in his later book The Nuer.12


Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalism shared with Malinowski’s functionalism the rejection of the earlier idea that observable customs were survivals from the distant past and thus both evidence of how our human ancestors lived and potentially without present significance or utility. Instead both schools of thought held that contemporary customs needed to be studied in their temporal context, and in relation to the society as a whole.

For Radcliffe-Brown and other structural-functionalists the overarching “function” of social institutions was social cohesion and social reproduction. Radcliffe-Brown rejected Malinowski’s concern with functions at the individual level (such as fulfilling biological or psychological needs). His aim was to develop a scientific approach to the study of society through which social facts would be explained by reference to other social facts (ultimately in terms of the maintenance of society itself), rather than in relation to individuals, and ethnographic observations would be used to derive general laws. For this reason, he preferred to describe what he did as “comparative sociology,” and the influence of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim is particularly evident in his work.13

Radcliffe-Brown was a major influence on a generation of anthropologists during his time teaching at the University of Oxford. In particular, he inspired a focus on social structure, namely the configuration of social institutions and arrangements, rather than their function, content, or process.14 Structure is that which endures beyond the lifespan of particular individuals’ involvement. As a result, Radcliffe-Brown’s interest was in social roles (chief, mother, husband, etc.) rather than the particular individuals that occupied them at any given time, and in this lack of concern with individuals his work differed from that of Malinowski.

In part this new emphasis was a response to the African settings in which so much research was being carried out by this point. By contrast with the small island communities of the Pacific that earlier anthropologists had often focused on, African societies were larger scale, more internally differentiated, and difficult to physically demarcate. These societies were very often also under British colonial rule and this gave a particular urgency to questions of governance, especially in the context of British policies of “indirect rule.” The effort to understand how these societies were, and could be, governed fed into the interest in how political order was maintained in the absence of recognizably state-like structures. The answer, provided most famously by Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer, was that the kinship structure was also the political structure.15 Descent and lineage were, he argued, the keys to understanding Nuer political authority. Evans-Pritchard describes the Nuer as organizing themselves in a segmentary lineage system, in which the largest social group, the clan, was progressively subdivided into smaller and smaller groups on the basis of descent from common ancestors: first maximal lineages, then major lineages, minor lineages, and minimal lineages. At each level the lineages were in opposition to one another, but they were also united as common members of the larger groupings when necessary. The result was “a system of oppositions and alliances,” defined by kinship, that roughly mapped onto a series of political groupings and served to maintain social equilibrium.16 Seen in terms of political and territorial organization, the tribe as a whole was considered equivalent to the clan, and progressively divided and subdivided into primary sections, secondary sections, tertiary sections, and villages. Thus, at the bottom of the pyramid, villages roughly corresponded with minimal lineages. In this way kinship and political structure were one and the same.

The segmentary lineage system is exactly the kind of systemic abstraction that marked structural-functionalism out from functionalism. It was a vision of structure from the analyst’s perspective rather than an account that made sense in terms of the way in which the Nuer themselves experienced life as members of these various groupings. Evans-Pritchard’s approach enabled comparison and made a distinctive theoretical contribution to the study of so-called stateless societies. It answered Radcliffe-Brown’s call for a “comparative morphology,” by means of which, much like a biologist might compare organisms by extracting and examining their various “systems” (respiratory, digestive, etc.), anthropologists could compare kinship or political systems by removing them from their societal context in order to consider them alongside the equivalent systems from other societies.17 This allowed for systematic comparisons and classifications. The paradigmatic texts produced in this vein were two edited volumes, which both focused on African societies: Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s African Political Systems and Radcliffe-Brown’s African Systems of Kinship and Marriage.18

As Matei Candea has laid out, the influence of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, and the schools of anthropological theory they founded, on subsequent anthropological scholarship is complex.19 It is often not as simple as to say “so and so followed Malinowski, while so and so was heir to Radcliffe-Brown’s approach.” Candea gives the example of Evans-Pritchard whose earlier work, including the classic text Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande was clearly inspired by Malinowski’s emphasis on understanding social or cultural phenomena from the “native’s point of view.”20 His later work, including The Nuer and the edited volume African Political Systems, on the other hand, bore the imprint of Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalist emphasis on abstraction and comparison.21 And yet Evans-Pritchard did not dispense with the Malinowskian monograph form, nor with his emphasis on holism and local understandings. As Candea also highlights, the tensions identified between functionalism and structural-functionalism,

‘between the field and the armchair (although we now rather think of it as “the desk”), between a holistic description of single cases and comparative explorations of single problems, between rich ethnography and sharp theory, between an attempt to grasp individual motivation and the “point of view” from a particular sociocultural position and the conceptual vision of patterns and dynamics’, are tensions that live on in contemporary anthropology where they generally ‘operate as productive tensions within single anthropological works.’22

In other words, most anthropologists owe something of a debt to both of these approaches, even if few, if any, would nowadays identify as functionalists or structural-functionalists. The disavowal of (structural)-functionalism is strongly related to the growing emphases, from the late 20th century onwards, on power relations, inequality, and social change, none of which were foregrounded in approaches that celebrated the maintenance of social order and often understood violence and conflict as effective safety valves that helped to preserve the status quo. Gender was another blind spot in (structural)-functionalist work. With the notable exception of Audrey Richards’s Chisungu, studies in this vein tended to exclude women from view, seeing what were assumed to be their predominantly domestic roles as structurally (and politically) insignificant.23 These are both areas that subsequent work in the anthropology of Africa has sought to address, as they have also revived an interest in individual agency and motivation.


Implicit in the discussion above is the fact that functionalist and structural-functionalist approaches emphasized the unity of societies as “tribes.” Tribes were conceptualized as relatively small-scale societies made up of members who shared common customs and a common language. They were generally thought to occupy a delineated territory. Tribe became a useful concept for both anthropologists and colonial officials, since both had an interest in bounding societies—for ease of study, on the one hand, and ease of administration (e.g., tax collection), on the other. They were never a true reflection of social and political organization, however, and as Elizabeth Tonkin shows in relation to Fortes’s work on “the Tallensi,” even some of the anthropologists directly responsible for furthering the idea of discrete tribes simultaneously expressed reservations.24 The concept of tribes has since been thoroughly criticized.25 The lines drawn around tribes to mark them off from their neighbors have been shown to have often been arbitrarily imposed, and the term itself to convey an unhelpful us–them differentiation. As Archie Mafeje argued, “in African languages there is no equivalent of the term, ‘tribe’ and … the concept ‘tribe’ is a European imposition in Africa.”26 In the same vein, Grinker et al. point out that “few Europeans of the twentieth century refer to themselves with the term tribe, yet the word continues to be used today in academic work, and especially in the mass media, to refer to Africa.”27 “Tribal” and “tribalism” also tend to be used pejoratively in reference to Africa to imply a lack of unity and to explain violence. These terms encourage us to imagine African societies as timeless, homogeneous, and “other” rather than diverse, dynamic, and relatable. While anthropologists no longer use the term “tribe,” the concept lives on in journalistic accounts and popular imaginations in often prejudiced, distorting, and unhelpful ways.

Functionalism, Structural-Functionalism, and Apartheid

Although there were many connections between the functionalist and the structural-functionalist schools of thought, they also suggested two quite different approaches to a fundamental political question of the time: how should South Africa be governed? This was a question their respective founding fathers considered in some detail, and it was an area in which they felt anthropology might demonstrate its utility to policymakers and government officials. Radcliffe-Brown was employed as a professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town in the early 1920s. Malinowski served as mentor to several South African anthropologists during their studies in the United Kingdom (among them, Radcliffe-Brown’s students Eileen and Jack Krige, Schapera, Fortes, Gluckman, Ellen Hellman, and Hilda [Beemer] Kuper), and he visited the country in 1934.28 This was in the pre-apartheid era, but land alienation was well underway and Africans were subjected to legal restrictions on their rights to vote and acquire land, were treated very poorly as laborers in factories and mines, and any expressions of popular discontent tended to be countered by violence.29

Malinowski was a supporter of the British colonial policy of “indirect rule,” and he made the case that anthropologists were well placed to contribute to its smooth functioning through their development of ethnographic knowledge about the societies concerned in relation to such matters as native legal norms and practices of land use.30 In contrast to Radcliffe-Brown’s advocacy for integration in South Africa, then, Malinowski saw segregation as a more promising solution to the ills of racial inequality. His view was that it was best to “allow either race to lead its own life, free from interference”; what was needed, he argued, was “territorial, cultural and economic autonomy for either race.”31

Isak Niehaus has thus argued forcefully that “Radcliffe-Brown sought to promote scientific, sympathetic understanding of cultural difference within an integrated society,” while Malinowski’s “romantic, holistic vision of different cultures led him to propagate segregationist policies.”32 In hindsight, it is possible to recognize the different trajectories of these ideas: “Radcliffe-Brown’s work informed liberal activism against racial segregation, whereas Malinowski’s arguments provided intellectual legitimacy to the discriminatory systems of the Bantu Education Act and, ultimately, to apartheid.”33

That said, Malinowski was not uncritical of colonial rule. In 1939, he argued that

the contact anthropologist has to study the methods of recruitment and the wage system, the effects of the Colour Bar legislation and of the anomalous contracts of African labour, as well as of the Pass Laws. He must study these facts scientifically, objectively, and in relation to each other…. Thus, if he studies the budgets of a family dependent on wages, he will find that the income does not really balance with expenditure. Scientific field-work reveals that the wages received by a mine labourer do not compensate the tribal economy for the total loss caused by his absence. From this it would be his duty to draw the conclusion that a system which produces inevitable impoverishment in a native reserve must lead through malnutrition, disorganization, and demoralization to gradual demographic decay.34

Clearly, the relationship between anthropology and apartheid, and more broadly between anthropology and colonialism, is a complex political and intellectual question requiring nuanced analysis. This point is further illustrated when we consider the work of anthropologists associated with the Rhodes–Livingstone Institute.

The Rhodes–Livingstone Institute and the Manchester School

Founded in 1937 in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), the Rhodes–Livingstone Institute (RLI) facilitated fieldwork in south-central Africa, in the countries that are today known as Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. Max Gluckman joined the RLI, then under the leadership of Godfrey Wilson, in 1939, and was appointed Director in 1941. When Gluckman left the RLI in 1947 he went first to a teaching role at the University of Oxford and then to Manchester University, where he established a new anthropology department that ultimately lent its name to an approach referred to as the Manchester School of social anthropology. Gluckman maintained close links with the RLI and there was significant traffic between the RLI and Manchester as RLI fellows became associated with the Manchester department. As Lyn Schumaker has pointed out, the name “‘Manchester School’ focuses attention on the British metropolitan character of a group of anthropologists famous for specific advances in theory and method.”35 She prefers to maintain an emphasis on the RLI as a “more Africa-centred phenomenon.”36

Although it was established with the cooperation of the colonial authorities, the RLI nevertheless tried the nerves of those seeking to govern at times, as well as European mine owners, who were anxious about the effects of the anthropologists’ close working relationships with Africans and suspicious of their political leanings.37 The RLI played host to some of the most prominent anthropologists of the mid-20th century and it was a fulcrum of experimentation beyond the dominant structural-functionalist approach. African intellectuals, working as research assistants, played a significant role in the development of anthropology at the Rhodes–Livingstone Institute.38 Many worked for RLI anthropologists over an extended period, and some continued their “fieldwork activities, the writing of local history, and the cultural promotion of ethnic museums and traditional ceremonies” beyond their time at the Institute.39

Work done under the auspices of the RLI did more than previous studies had to acknowledge and incorporate the colonial context in which the research was being carried out. The emphasis was on understanding south-central Africa as a region made up of “heterogeneous culture-groups of Europeans and Africans, with a defined social structure and norms of behaviour, though it has many conflicts and maladjustments.”40 This vision entailed an emphasis on urban as well as rural settings, a commitment to seeing African migrant laborers as townsmen and workers in an industrial system, and not simply as out-of-context “tribesmen,” and the inclusion of white settlers and administrators in the field of study.41 It thus signaled an early departure from the (structural)-functionalist view of societies as bounded and stable wholes. Indeed, it was particularly difficult to assume bounded “tribes” when anthropologists worked in urban settings, and RLI scholars focusing on migrant workers’ lives in Southern African towns were quick to look for other ways of thinking about culture and its transformation.42

The work of RLI anthropologists is associated with particular theoretical and methodological advances. These include the “social situation” approach pioneered by Gluckman in his early study of the opening of a bridge in Zululand.43 Here, Gluckman described a one-off event, the opening of a bridge, and focused on the various actors involved, both Zulu and European. J. Clyde Mitchell’s The Kalela Dance also showcased this approach, in which, according to Richard Werbner, “the germ of later case methods was evident.”44 Victor Turner’s research introduced the notion of “social dramas,” or “moments invested with transformative potential in the flow of social life.”45 These innovations culminated in what came to be known as “the extended-case method,” which was an advance on the social situation approach because it followed the participants in particular events through time and space, rather than ending with the observation of the event itself. It has been argued that the extended-case method was particularly “well suited to the study of processes of conflict and conflict resolution.”46 It meant, for example, that conflicts or accusations of witchcraft could be traced over extended periods.47 As Harri Englund has pointed out, the extended-case method can thus be seen as an early, and too easily forgotten, precursor to the late 20th century’s emphasis on multi-sited ethnography.48

The extended-case method and related emphases on social networks and social fields had a political dimension, too. They served to oppose the idea of discrete and separate societies, “tribes,” or cultures in Southern Africa, showing instead that black and white actors were already integrated in social, political, and economic life in the region.

Anthropology and Colonialism

Talal Asad’s seminal volume Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter was the first to scrutinize the relationship between the discipline of anthropology and British colonial rule.49 In his introduction to the volume, Asad highlights the undeniable fact that anthropologists were dependent upon the colonial system for access to their African field sites, and they were often funded by the British government when they carried out their research. In this context, anthropologists tended to stress their usefulness for colonial governance. Not only, they suggested, could their knowledge help prepare colonial officers for their work in African settings, but it might also help shape colonial policy. As Asad explains, “it is not a matter of dispute that social anthropology emerged as a distinctive discipline at the beginning of the colonial era, that it became a flourishing academic profession towards its close, or that throughout this period its efforts were devoted to a description and analysis—carried out by Europeans, for a European audience—of non-European societies dominated by European power.”50 This is certainly true, as it is also true that Western-trained anthropologists were shaped, albeit to varying degrees, by the social mores of imperial society.51 However, it is also the case that colonial administrators generally paid little attention to anthropologists or their work.52

In reference specifically to the RLI, Richard Brown shows how, despite its reliance on funding from colonial governments and copper companies, “government officers, if they did not ignore the institute altogether, complained that what the anthropologists wrote and said was unintelligible or of little use in making day to day decisions.”53 Writing in the same volume, Wendy James suggested that the colonial-era anthropologist might be seen “as a frustrated radical: and his claims to scientific status, the separation of his work from any apparent moral or political views, and the avowal of its practical usefulness, as largely determined by the need to make a convincing bid for the survival and expansion of his subject.”54 As Asad later wrote, “the role of anthropologists in maintaining structures of imperial domination has, despite slogans to the contrary, usually been trivial … but if the role of anthropology for colonialism was unimportant, the reverse proposition does not hold.”55 This is a vital point and it goes some way to explaining the mistrust that has often been directed towards anthropology in Africa.56

Critiques of anthropology and colonialism have been part of a general move to bring history back into anthropological analysis, so as to place greater emphasis on transformation and change as well as broad political-economic forces. One area in which the challenges of restoring history, considering oppression, and theorizing social change were taken up was in Marxist-inspired anthropology, much of which was carried out in West Africa.

A Focus on West Africa

The discussion so far has largely focused on Southern and Central Africa, but West Africa has also been an important setting for the development of anthropology on the continent.57 It was in West Africa that Meyer Fortes conducted his early structural-functionalist studies of the Tallensi in what is now Ghana, and West Africa did not host studies only of so-called stateless societies.58 Important early work was also conducted on large-scale, complex, and often urban societies, such as the Nupe Kingdom located in northern Nigeria.59 More than other regions of Africa, studies of West Africa drew upon and developed structural Marxist theory, and key foundational works of economic anthropology emerged from West African research.60 The centrality of West Africa to economic anthropology has continued, notably in the work of Jane Guyer.61 It has also been a region in which women’s lives have attracted serious scholarly attention, particularly in terms of their economic roles, including as market traders, and in relation to questions of gender equality.62

A number of African anthropologists made significant contributions to the burgeoning literature on West Africa.63 Thomas E. Kyei, Principal Research Assistant to the Ashanti Social Survey of 1945–1946 (led by Meyer Fortes), was a significant figure whose contribution for too long went unrecognized. His revised typescript, dating from the time of the survey, was belatedly published in 1992, and his memoir, Our Days Dwindle, appeared a decade later.64

African Anthropology

The publication in 1938 of Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya was an important moment in the development of the anthropology of Africa.65 Not only was it one of the first anthropological studies published by an African scholar, but it was also strongly critical of colonialism and missionary activities. In the light of his subsequent political career, it is easy to see the appeal to Kenyatta of Malinowski’s emphasis on cultural autonomy, and he employed his anthropological knowledge to advocate for “an unpolluted Kikuyu polity.”66 Kenyatta was not the only African nationalist and future leader to study anthropology. Kwame Nkrumah also studied anthropology in London and later, as Prime Minister of Ghana, he encouraged the “Africanisation of the university curriculum, in which anthropology and African studies played a prominent role.”67 Nkrumah was also vocal in his criticism of anthropology, however, aware of the ways in which it could be put to the service of colonial authorities and lend support to chiefs and traditional authorities at the expense of educated Africans like himself.68 Nkrumah’s successor, Kofi Busia, worked with Meyer Fortes on a social survey of Asanteland and went on to complete a PhD, supervised by Fortes, at the University of Oxford. Like Kenyatta’s, Busia’s published work was critical of colonialism.69 Nnamadi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, also gained an education in anthropology, studying for an MSc at the University of Pennsylvania.70 Ntarangwi et al. argue that anthropology can thus be seen as important to anti-colonial debates and the development of African nationalism, even though African nationalists’ embrace of anthropology was far from uncritical.

Despite their exposure to anthropology, early independence leaders did not promote the discipline in their respective countries. In the colonial era, anthropology had been subsumed within sociology departments in African universities (as was often the case in the United Kingdom as well) and this dominance of sociology, at least in name, continued after independence and into the 21st century. Objections to anthropology in Africa targeted the definition of the discipline as the study of “primitive” or “tribal” people, as opposed to the “modern” or “civilized” subjects of sociological research, in addition to colonial entanglements resulting in part from funding sources and claims to be of practical use to the colonial enterprise. Anthropologists were accused of providing justification for colonialism through their depictions of African peoples, and their emphasis on cultural diversity and distinctiveness was also rejected by those concerned to promote national identities.

The development of anthropology in South Africa was somewhat different. Some of the key figures referred to above were born in South Africa, including Meyer Fortes, Max Gluckman, Archie Mafeje, and Isaac Schapera. The discipline was established there significantly earlier than in other countries on the continent, as signaled by Radcliffe-Brown’s professorship in Cape Town in the early 1920s. However, South African politics complicated the relationship of these scholars to the country of their birth and caused many, across several generations, to seek employment in Europe and North America (more recently, these scholars have included Jean and John Comaroff and Deborah James). For black anthropologists, among them Archie Mafeje whose appointment to a senior lectureship in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town was famously blocked by the university’s senate in 1968, a career in South African academia was often an impossible proposition.71

Even before the advent of apartheid, anthropologists were divided over the issue of whether or not they should assist the Department of Native Affairs’ Ethnology Section by compiling ethnological information. Some, but not all, anthropologists publicly rejected segregationist policies. During the apartheid years, there was a clear bifurcation of the discipline, and volkekunde came to prominence in many Afrikaans-language universities.72 Volkekunde “fed directly into apartheid ideology”; it operated with an essentialized understanding of culture, which it related to specific and clearly demarcated ethnic groups.73 This accorded with the apartheid regime’s homelands policies, and several advocates of volkekunde were directly involved in the development of apartheid rule.74 Over time, volkekunde lost ground and in the post-apartheid era there are very few South African anthropologists who would associate themselves with this tradition. Nevertheless, as the recent Rhodes Must Fall campaigns and efforts to accelerate the decolonization of the curriculum indicate, there remains a great deal more that could be done to transform South African universities and anthropological teaching, hiring, and research within them, and of course the same is true elsewhere in Africa, Europe, and North America.

Contemporary Anthropology of Africa

While it is possible, if perhaps ill-advised, to give a coherent account of the development of anthropology in Africa up to the mid-20th century, it soon becomes an impossible task. Anthropology of Africa from the late 20th century onwards is a diverse field, fractured into subdisciplines and regional specialisms. Anthropologists working in Africa today take their inspiration from a broad range of theoretical schools, and engage to greater and lesser degrees with calls to produce work that is of relevance to policymakers and development organizations. While classic themes continue to animate anthropological debates, from witchcraft to labor migrancy, marriage to agricultural production, urbanization to exchange, new themes have also come to prominence, including Pentecostal Christianity, HIV/AIDS, youth, social media and technologies of communication, infrastructure, and the politics and morality of dependency.

Two anthropologists who have had considerable influence over the direction of these recent trends are Jean and John Comaroff. South African-born and British-trained, their contribution has perhaps been greatest as scholars and teachers at the University of Chicago, where they were based from the late 1970s until 2012. There they trained a great many students who have gone on to transform the field in their own right, producing ethnographically rich studies of life in Africa with a focus on wide-ranging topics, from gender and Islam in West Africa, to urban Tanzanian popular culture.75 The Comaroffs have been central figures in the development of historical anthropology, as well as in the study of globalization and capitalism. While their earlier work was notable for its detailed and sensitive ethnography, their later publications have been broader and more general in scope, seeking to make more theoretically oriented contributions to anthropological debates.76

Jean Comaroff’s book Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance remains an important study over thirty years after its publication.77 One reason for this is that it exemplifies the potential of historical anthropology to shed light upon the past and the present, as well as to speak to wider debates in the discipline, bridging the seeming gulf between the local and the global. This kind of work responds explicitly to criticism of earlier anthropological studies, particularly those in the functionalist and structural-functionalist modes, which proceeded as if the people they studied lived somehow out of time, in an eternal present, untouched by wider political and economic forces and transformations. By contrast, Comaroff’s study focuses on the Barolong boo Ratshidi, a marginal group living close to South Africa’s border with Botswana, and their religious and spiritual symbolism and practices from the precolonial era into the late 20th century. Over time, the Barolong boo Ratshidi engaged with African Zionist Christianity, and Comaroff sees this as both a product of resistance to the apartheid state and a form of resistance in its own right. Her thesis has stimulated anthropological debates about Christianity, resistance, and historical approaches to anthropological research.

One area in which these themes have been taken up and furthered is in the study of gender relations and African women’s lives and livelihoods.78 There has been some excellent historical-anthropological research in this vein, including Dorothy Hodgson and Sheryl McCurdy’s edited volume “Wicked” Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa, which focuses on examples of women defying norms and resisting patriarchal control, transforming gender relations in the process.79 Janice Boddy has also explored women’s resistance through her study of the zâr cult in Sudan, and her work can be fruitfully read alongside that of Lila Abu-Lughod, who has studied the lives of Bedouin women and their engagement with poetry as a form of defiance and a means of expressing otherwise censured emotions and desires.80 Abu-Lughod’s research has developed in the decades since the publication of her first ethnography, and her more recent work looks more broadly at Muslim women’s lives in the 21st century against the backdrop of the so-called war on terror.81 Boddy and Abu-Lughod’s work are important examples of a rich and growing body of anthropological work that has focused on Muslim women’s lives in Africa.82 Such work has developed beyond a focus on women’s resistance to consider the ways in which Muslim women’s agency can be seen in their inhabitation of Islamic norms and practices.83

While the anthropology of Africa might be said to be thriving in the early 21st century in institutions outside Africa, African anthropology, as an area of teaching and research in African universities, faces particular challenges: “the shortage of resources for research and teaching (such as up-to-date literature) and low salaries have combined to cause a ‘brain drain’ and a disincentive to serious anthropological work of Africa by Africans.”84 Scholars who remain in African institutions tend to have to supplement their incomes through consultancy work for international organizations. The conditions under which such research is undertaken encourage the use of methodologies designed to produce rapid results, rather than long-term ethnographic fieldwork, and the resultant publications often offer pedestrian analyses and “raw data” rather than rich or challenging insights. Equally problematic is the fact that such consultancy work dramatically reduces the time available to these scholars to pursue their own research agendas (lack of available research funding does this too) and makes it difficult for them to keep pace with academic debates. There is a pressing need for enhanced investment in African universities and African scholars’ research within anthropology and beyond.

Further Reading

Asad, Talal, ed. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1973.Find this resource:

Bank, Andrew. Archie Mafeje: The Life and Work of an African Anthropologist (1936–2007). Alice: Fort Hare University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Bank, Andrew. Pioneers of the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Candea, Matei, ed. Schools and Styles of Anthropological Theory. London: Routledge, 2018.Find this resource:

Comaroff, Jean. Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Cornwall, Andrea, ed. Readings in Gender in Africa. Oxford: James Currey, 2005.Find this resource:

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940.Find this resource:

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976[1937].Find this resource:

Fortes, Meyer, and Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, eds. African Political Systems. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.Find this resource:

Gluckman, Max. Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand. Manchester: Manchester University Press for the Rhodes–Livingstone Institute, 1958 [1940].Find this resource:

Grinker, Roy R., Stephen C. Lubkemann, and Christopher B. Steiner, eds. Perpsectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and Respresentation. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010 [1997].Find this resource:

Hart, Keith. “The Social Anthropology of West Africa.” Annual Reiew of Anthropology 14 (1985): 243–272.Find this resource:

Hodgson, Dorothy L., and Sheryl McCurdy. “Wicked” Women and the Reconfiguration of Gender in Africa. Oxford: James Currey, 2001.Find this resource:

Kuper, Adam (1993 [1973]) Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Mafeje, Archie. “Who are the Makers and Objects of Anthropology? A Critical Comment on Sally Falk Moore’s ‘Anthropology and Africa’.” African Sociological Review 1, no. 1 (1997): 1–15.Find this resource:

Magubane, Bernard. “A Critical Look at the Indices Used in the Study of Social Change in Colonial Africa.” Current Anthropology 12, no. 4/5 (1971): 419–445.Find this resource:

Mitchell, James Clyde. “The Kalela Dance: Aspects of Social Relationships Among Urban Africans in Northern Rhodesia.” Rhodes–Livingstone Papers 27 (1956).Find this resource:

Moore, Sally Falk. Anthropology and Africa: Changing Perspectives on a Changing Scene. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.Find this resource:

Niehaus, Isak. “Anthropology at the Dawn of Apartheid: Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski’s South African Engagements, 1919–1934.” Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 77 (2017): 103–117.Find this resource:

Ntarangwi, Mwenda, David Mills, and Mustafa Babiker. African Anthropologies: History, Critique and Practice. London: Zed Books, 2005.Find this resource:

Schumaker, Lyn. Africanizing Anthropology: Fieldwork, Networks, and the Making of Cultural Knowledge in Central Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Werbner, Richard P. “The Manchester School in South-Central Africa.” Annual Review of Anthropology 13 (1984): 157–185.Find this resource:


(1.) George Stocking, After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888–1951 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995). Pre-“Malinowskian” fieldwork was also carried out in Africa; for example, Seligman’s survey work in Sudan in 1909–1912 and 1921–1922.

(3.) See, for example, Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey, an Ancient West African Kingdom (New York: Augustin, 1938).

(5.) Malinowski began teaching at the LSE in 1922.

(6.) Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, “A further note on Ambrym,” Man 29 (1929): 50–53, cited in Adam Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School (London: Routledge, 1993, originally published 1973), 4.

(7.) See, for example, Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: Univeristy of California Press, 1983).

(8.) Audrey I. Richards, Land, Labour and Diet in Northern Rhodesia: An Economic Study of the Bemba Tribe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939); and Isaac Schapera, Married Life in an African Tribe (London: Faber and Faber, 1940).

(9.) Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists, 70.

(10.) Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London: Routledge, 1999, originally published 1922), 25.

(13.) Durkheim argued for the importance of “social facts” as social phenomena that had to be explained in sociological (and not psychological, biological or historical) terms. He also worked with the analogy of societies as organisms made up of integrated and mutually-reinforcing parts. His interest lay in the functions that particular elements fulfilled in the maintenance and reproduction of the society (organism) as a whole, rather than in questions about their origins. This is clearly seen in his well-known study The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976, originally published 1912), in which he sought to understand religion’s function in the context of society as a whole, and not to answer questions about where religion came from or how it evolved.

(15.) Pritchard, The Nuer.

(17.) Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, (1940) “On social structure,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 70, no. 1 (1940): 1–12, cited in Candea, “Severed roots,” 46.

(18.) Meyer Fortes and Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, eds., African Political Systems (London: Oxford University Press, 1940); and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown, ed., African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950).

(19.) Candea, “Severed roots.”

(20.) Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande.

(21.) Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer; and Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems.

(22.) Candea, “Severed roots,” 47.

(23.) Audrey I. Richards, Chisungu: A Girl’s Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Zambia (London: Routledge, 1982, originally published 1956).

(24.) Elizabeth Tonkin, “West African ethnographic traditions,” in Localizing Strategies: Regional Traditions of Ethnographic Writing, ed. R. Fardon (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1990), 142.

(25.) See, for example, Archie Mafeje, “Who are the makers and objects of anthropology? A critical comment on Sally Falk Moore’s ‘Anthropology and Africa’,” African Sociological Review 1, no. 1 (1997): 1–15; Aidan W. Southall, “The illusion of tribe,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 5, nos. 1–2 (1970): 28–50; and Leroy Vail, The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (London: James Currey, 1989).

(26.) Mafeje, “Who are the makers and objects of anthropology?,” 12; see also Archie Mafeje, “The Ideology of ‘Tribalism’,” Journal of Modern African Studies 9, no. 2 (1971): 253–261.

(27.) Grinker, Lubkemann, and Steiner, “Introduction,” 67.

(28.) Niehaus, “Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid,” 104, 110.

(29.) Niehaus, “Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid,” 104.

(30.) Niehaus, “Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid,” 110.

(31.) Bronislaw Malinowski, “A plea for an effective colour bar,” Spectator 146 (1931): 999–1001, at 1000, cited in Niehaus, “Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid,” 111.

(32.) Niehaus, “Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid,” 104.

(33.) Niehaus, “Anthropology at the dawn of apartheid,” 105.

(34.) Bronislaw Malinowski, “The present state of studies in culture contact: some comments on an American approach,” Africa 12 (1939): 27–48, at 37–38, cited in Wendy James, “The anthropologist as reluctant imperialist,” in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, ed. T. Asad (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1973), 60­–61.

(35.) Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology, 5.

(36.) Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology, 5.

(38.) Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology.

(39.) Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology, 17.

(40.) Max Gluckman, “Seven-year research plan of the Rhodes–Livingstone Institute of Social Studies in British Central Africa,” Human Problems in British Central Africa/Rhodes-Livingstone Journal 4 (1945): 1–32, at 9, cited in Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists, 141.

(41.) See, for example, Arnold L. Epstein, Politics in an Urban African Community (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958); and James Clyde Mitchell, ed., Social Networks in Urban Situations (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1969).

(46.) Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists, 142.

(47.) See, for example, Max Gluckman, The Ideas in Barotse Jurisprudence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965); and Max Gluckman, Judicial Process Among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973, originally published 1955); Max G. Marwick, Sorcery in its Social Setting: a Study of the Northern Rhodesian Cewa (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965); James Clyde Mitchell, The Yao Village: A Study in the Social Structure of a Malawian People (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1956b); and Turner, Schism and Continuity in an African Society.

(48.) Englund, “From the extended-case method to multi-sited ethnography (and back)”; George Marcus, “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 95–117.

(50.) Asad (ed.), Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, 14–15.

(52.) Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists; and Moore, Anthropology and Africa.

(53.) Brown, “Anthropology and colonial rule,” 197.

(54.) James, “The anthropologist as reluctant imperialist,” 50.

(55.) Talal Asad, “Afterword: from the histroy of colonial anthropology to the anthropology of western hegemony,” in Colonial Situations, ed. G. W. Stocking (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 315, cited in Candea, “Severed roots,” 52.

(58.) Meyer Fortes, The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi (London: Oxford University Press, 1945); and Meyer Fortes, The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi (London: Oxford University Press, 1949).

(59.) Siegfried F. Nadel, A Black Byzantium (London: Oxford University Press, 1942).

(60.) See, for example, Claude Meillassoux, Maidens, Meal and Money: Capitalism and the Domestic Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, originally published 1975); Emmanuel Terray, Marxism and Primitive Societies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972); Paul Bohannan, “Some principles of exchange and investment among the Tiv,” American Anthropologist 57, no. 1 (1955): 60–70; Paul Bohannan and George Dalton, eds., Markets in Africa (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962); Keith Hart, “Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana,” Journal of Modern African Studies 11, no. 3 (1973): 61–89; and Polly Hill, Migrant Cocoa Farmers of Southern Ghana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).

(61.) See, for example, Jane I. Guyer, An African Niche Economy: Farming to Feed Ibadan 1968–88 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997); Jane I. Guyer, Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Jane I. Guyer, LaRay Denzer, and Adigun Agbaje, eds., Money Struggles and City Life: Devaluation in Ibadan and Other Urban Centers in Southern Nigeria, 1986–1996 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002).

(62.) Ester Boserup, Women’s Role in Economic Development (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970); Phyllis M. Kaberry, Women of the Grassfields: A Study of the Economic Position of Women in Bamenda, British Cameroons (London: Routledge, 2004, originally published 1952); Gracia Clark, Onions Are My Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands (London: Zed Books, 1987); and Ifi Amadiume, Reinventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture (London: Zed Books, 1997).

(63.) Kofi A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti (London: Oxford University Press, 1951); Maxwell P. Owusu, Use and Abuses of Political Power: A Case Study of Continuity and Change in the Politics of Ghana (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); and Victor C. Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965).

(64.) Thomas E. Kyei, Marriage and Divorce among the Asante: Study Undertaken in the Course of the Ashanti Social Survey (1945), Cambridge African Monographs 14 (Cambridge: African Studies Centre, 1992); and Thomas E. Kyei, Our Days Dwindle: Memories of My Childhood Days in Asante (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001).

(65.) Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1938).

(66.) Ntarangwi, Mills, and Babiker, African Anthropologies, 14.

(67.) Ntarangwi, Mills, and Babiker, African Anthropologies, 15.

(68.) Ntarangwi, Mills, and Babiker, African Anthropologies, 16.

(69.) Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti.

(70.) Ntarangwi, Mills, and Babiker, African Anthropologies, 18.

(71.) Andrew Bank, Archie Mafeje: The Life and Work of an African Anthropologist (1936–2007) (Alice: Fort Hare University Press, 2010); and Fred T. Hendricks, “The Mafeje Affair: UCT, Apartheid, and the Question of Academic Freedom,” African Studies 67, no. 3 (2008): 432–452.

(72.) Volkekunde was based on the German tradition of Völkerkunde, and is perhaps better translated into English as “ethnology.”

(73.) Andrew D. Spiegel and Heike Becker, “South Africa: Anthropology or Anthropologies?,” American Anthropologist 117, no. 4 (2015): 754–760.

(74.) Spiegel and Becker, “South Africa: Anthropology or Anthropologies?”

(75.) Adeline Masquelier, Women and Islamic Revival in a West African Town (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009); and Brad Weiss, Street Dreams and HipHop Barbershops: Global Fantasy and Popular Practice in Urban Tanzania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

(76.) See, for example, Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving toward Africa (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

(78.) See, for example, Jennifer Cole, Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Andrea Cornwall, ed., Readings in Gender in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2005); Dorothy L. Hodgson, Once Intrepid Warriors: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Cultural Politics of Maasai Development (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); Dorothy L. Hodgson, The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters between Maasai and Missionaries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005); Dorothy L. Hodgson, Gender, Justice and the Problem of Culture: From Customary Law to Human Rights in Tanzania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017); and Mark Hunter, Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

(80.) Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); and Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

(81.) See, for example, Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(82.) Susan F. Hirsch, Pronouncing and Persevering: Gender and Discourses of Disputing in an African Islamic Court (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Masquelier, Women and Islamic Revival in a West African Town.

(83.) Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

(84.) Ntarangwi, Mills, and Babiker, African Anthropologies, 30.