Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard: 1902-1973

With the death of Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard in September last, in his seventy-third year, social anthropology lost its most distinguished practitioner of this century. The main facts of his life and career will be sufficiently familiar to readers of these Proceedings, and need only be briefly recapitulated here. Born in 1902, and educated at Winchester College and Exeter College, Oxford, where he read modern history, Evans-Pritchard went on to study post-graduate anthropology at the London School of Economics where he was taught by Seligman and Malinowski. From 1926 to 1938 he carried out field research in several parts of East and North Africa, but mainly in the Southern Sudan. During this time he also held teaching appointments at Cairo (as professor of sociology), London and Oxford. He saw war service in Cyrenaica and Syria. After the war came a readership at Cambridge, whence he returned to Oxford in 1946 to succeed Radcliffe-Brown in the Chair of Social Anthropology. He occupied this post, which is linked with a fellowship at All Souls College, with distinction for twenty-four years, until his retirement in 1970.

From the beginning of his career Evans-Pritchard kept up a steady flow of articles and books, the contents of many of the latter first published in article form, and all marked with a singular clarity, originality and understanding. Many were early recognised as classics. As recognition grew to established preeminence the list of academic distinctions grew likewise. He won all the usual Medals and Lectureships— Rivers, Frazer, Marett, Myers—as well as a few less usual ones. He was elected F.B.A. in 1956: later he received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Chicago, Manchester and Bristol. He was knighted in 1971, and in 1972 he was made Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, an award which he especially prized. Evans-Pritchard was a former President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and since 1968 he had been Life President of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth.

Among his writings, it will be agreed that first must come his two great ethnographies, on the Azande and the Nuer. In both he broke, and tilled, new ground. As every anthropologist knows, his first major study on the Azande showed for the first time how a preliterate people’s apparently irrational beliefs about witchcraft could form a coherent system of ideas which, seen in context, make good sense as a means both of thinking about misfortune, and of doing something about it. But, more than this, it brought into focus problems about the quality of ‘primitive’ thinking, and so of all thinking, which are still of lively scholarly concern today. With the swing in recent years away from functional towards ‘cognitive’ anthropology (a movement in which Evans-Pritchard himself played a key role), the importance of his Zande study grows rather than decreases.

The first and best-known of his Nuer trilogy has been hardly less influential. As the first fully adequate field study of a lineage-based society, using the concepts of equilibrium (‘balanced opposition’) and fission and fusion, The Nuer was, as a Times Literary Supplement reviewer recently suggested, the supreme achievement of Radcliffe-Brownian structural-functionalism. That it was also, in its concern with Nuer ideology as well as with Nuer social relationships, rather more than this has recently been pointed out by Louis Dumont in his Introduction to the French edition of the work. Followed by Kinship and marriage among the Nuer, and Nuer religion (the last almost as influential among theologians as the Azande has been among philosophers), Evans-Pritchard’s work has made this intractable people of the Southern Sudan one of the best described in anthropological literature.

If we add to these his brilliant study of the Sanusi order in Cyrenaica, and his published work on others of the Nilotic peoples, notably the Shilluk and Anuak of the Southern Sudan and the Luo of Kenya, the unique range and quality of Evans-Pritchard’s ethnographic achievement becomes plain.

Evans-Pritchard was less concerned than some contemporary social anthropologists are with contributing to anthropological ‘theory’ for its own sake; indeed he would have rejected any firm division between ‘theoretical’ anthropology and ethnography. His writings are refreshingly free from the jargon that is all too characteristic of the work of some of our latter-day theorists. But his contributions to the general orientation of the subject have none the less been immense. His celebrated (at the time notorious) 1950 Marett Lecture anticipated and vividly expressed—if it was not the sole cause of—the trend away from Radcliffe-Brown’s ‘scientism’ towards the analysis of symbolic (as distinct from social) systems and ‘meanings’ in their own right, the field with which many contemporary social anthropologists are mainly engaged. His early studies of Pareto, the ‘English Intellectualists’ Tylor and Frazer, and Lévy-Bruhl have contributed greatly to our better assessment of these writers. Evans-Pritchard was always specially concerned to emphasise the importance of the French Année Sociologique school for the development of modern social anthropology. Many of his insights in these contexts, especially in their bearing on the sociology of religion, are to be found in his Theories of primitive religion, but much of his work on these and others of the ‘founding fathers’, British as well as French, remains unpublished. A full and useful bibliography of Evans-Pritchard’s writings (up to 1971) is to be found in the collection of essays for him edited by T. O. Beidelman under the title The translation of culture.

Evans-Pritchard’s contributions as teacher and colleague were hardly less notable. During the years of his headship of it, the Institute of Social Anthropology at Oxford grew beyond recognition. His personal fame brought graduate students to Oxford in increasing numbers (and of growing quality) from many countries, not least non-Western ones. The fact that before he retired the number of former students of the Institute who held professorial or other teaching posts in universities throughout the world was well over a hundred was a source of pleasure to him. But he founded no ‘school’. The breadth of his own scholarship was reflected in the varied interests of his pupils as well as of his colleagues. All were allowed, even encouraged, to pursue their separate interests, and the variety of their achievements is a measure of the extent to which they did so.

In the days before encroaching bureaucracy consigned most things to committees (and when the Oxford Institute was very much smaller than it is today), Evans-Pritchard’s graduate department functioned with a minimum of fuss. He never suggested what, or how, his colleagues should teach. He used to say, perhaps not wholly accurately, that until the printed lecture list for each term appeared, he never knew who was lecturing or on what. The fact that the Institute’s formal teaching, centred on its postgraduate Diploma course, turned out to be reasonably cohesive and comprehensive was probably due less to chance than to the effectiveness of the informal modes of communication that prevailed. Evans-Pritchard’s professional relations with colleagues and students were also essentially personal ones. Many will remember the genial continuation of seminar or other discussions over a beer at the Lamb and Flag or the Royal Oak: his colleagues and students, especially while the Institute was at 11 Keble Road, will also recall the occasional invitation (the declining of which caused no offence) to take half an hour off to walk with him around the adjoining University Parks.

Unless he was asked to do so, Evans-Pritchard rarely expressed an opinion on the writings, published or unpublished, of his Institute colleagues, though his comments on the work of his contemporaries elsewhere were sometimes pungent. But when a colleague, however junior, asked him to read and comment on a manuscript he willingly took time to do so, and if his comments were usually brief they were always very much to the point, and offered quite without dogmatism.

The warm regard in which Evans-Pritchard was held, both as teacher and friend, is shown in the remarkable number of dedicatory volumes and festschriften which have appeared for him in the last few years of his life. Six have been published so far, and at least one more, a collection of essays by his former colleagues at the Oxford Institute, is in the press.

To those who did not know him, or who did not know him well, Evans-Pritchard could sometimes convey an impression of prejudice, even of dogmatism. But those who knew him better, or who understood that not everything he said was meant to be taken seriously, found in him a quite exceptional charm, sensitivity and considerateness. To those in need of help or advice he was unfailingly generous of his time and counsel, though the latter was given only if asked for. His kindness—though he himself would not have spoken of this—sometimes assumed more material form as well. He made few claims on his colleagues, but they could, and did, rely always on his full support and loyalty. Though always genial and delighting in company, younger people’s as well as that of more senior age-groups, he was in many ways deeply reserved, perhaps more so after the illness and death of his beautiful and attractive wife Ioma, which cast a shadow over his later years. It was a source of satisfaction to him (as it continues to be for his family and friends) that a scholarship, later to become a fellowship, was founded in her memory at St Anne’s College, Oxford. ‘E.-P.’ inspired, and gave, deep affection. His writings have made him indisputably a major figure in the history not only of social anthropology, but of twentieth-century scholarship. But very many people, and not only anthropologists, will remember him also as a person, with love as well as with respect.

John Beattie

This obituary first appeared as: Beattie, John. 1973. 'Obituaries'. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1973, p. 55-56 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

BEATTIE, JOHN. 1973. 'Obituaries'. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1973, p. 55-56 (available on-line: