Elizabeth Florence Colson (1917-2016)
Anthropologist, Africanist

Elizabeth Colson, one of Africanist anthropology’s greatest ethnographers, passed away on August 3, 2016, less than a year shy of her hundredth birthday.  Those close to her recount that when she died she was seated on the veranda of her home in Monze, Zambia enjoying the local birds. This seemingly mundane detail in fact offers a profound reminder of a passionately keen observer:  Colson herself once employed it as a metaphor, describing the ethnographer’s craft as "something like that of a birdwatcher. You kept very quiet until they got used to your being there, and then you could move" (Riess 2002, 190).

Colson was born on June 15, 1917 in central Minnesota (USA) and grew up in the small town of Wadena (pop. 2,000 or so).  She was the second of four children, with two sisters (Katherine and Barbara) and a brother (Henry).  Her paternal grandparents had migrated to North America from Sweden and Germany and settled locally as homesteaders in the 1870s; the kin of her mother (née Damon) were of New England and Ohio stock and ran a network of general stores.  Colson’s parents were well educated and became educators, in turn:  her father was the sole member among his siblings to attend college, graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1901, and her mother spent a year at the University of Minnesota before transferring to Carlton College, where she graduated in 1899.  They met while working in Lamberton, Minnesota, where her mother was the high school principal and her father the superintendent of schools.  Upon marriage her mother stopped working (it was unseemly for a married woman to do so at the time).  Her father became a banker and moved the family to Wadena, where Elizabeth and her siblings were raised. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins lived close by on local farms or in town.

Colson’s natal household was well-known locally for its bookishness. With their range of skills her parents could augment the children’s schooling in a host of subjects—mathematics and the sciences, literature and history, and Latin, Greek, and German.  Colson’s mother (whose family nickname was “Nose-in-the-Book”) was an especially avid fan of Dickens, her father of poetry, and adults and children alike gave books to one another as gifts at Christmas and on their birthdays. In Colson’s words, “we were all buried in our books…The joke was if you came over to play with the Colson children, you were handed a book and said, ‘Here’” (Riess 2002, 25).1  For a time, Colson flirted with the idea of being an astronomer or naturalist; a family subscription to National Geographic sparked interests in archaeology and First Nations cultures.

Colson was a stellar student, skipping sixth grade.  She spent a year following high school mastering shorthand and typing, skills that would prove invaluable for employment as a graduate researcher.  As an undergraduate she attended the University of Minnesota because archaeology was taught there. In part out of economic necessity she completed her BA in three years, graduating in 1938 summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, writing an honors thesis on “the stone ages of Africa” (Reiss 2002, 34). She then earned an MA in 1940, also at Minnesota, while working nearly full-time to pay her fees. Ruth and William Wallis—a physical anthropologist and archaeologist—were important mentors, and Colson worked as their research assistant on various projects that sent her to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the library collections at the University of California, Berkeley. Colson then entered the graduate program at Radcliffe College of Harvard University (Ruth Wallis had studied there as an undergraduate), and here Clyde Kluckhohn emerged as a key advisor.  Colson was awarded a second MA in 1941 after passing her oral exams; in 1945 she earned her PhD.

Although Colson was warned early on that jobs in anthropology were scarce, and that opportunities were even less promising for women, Colson remained steadfast in her determination (while often patiently enduring the entrenched sexism of academia that could render invisible the sole woman in a room full of men).  Her fortitude paid off:  unquestionably, she led an illustrious career.  For instance, from the mid-1940s and into the early 1960s she was Senior Research Officer of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, serving as its Director from 1947-1951 once Max Gluckman had left for Manchester University (UK); subsequently, she herself taught at Manchester before moving to the States, where she served on the faculties of Goucher College, Boston University, and Brandeis University. At Brandeis she achieved tenure and became a professor and chair; she resigned her post alongside other colleagues in protest of the unfair handling of another’s tenure case.  Following a year at Northwestern University, she arrived in 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley, where she remained until she retired in 1984.

Needless to say, retirement did not slow her down.  After a year as a Visiting Professor at the University of Zambia in 1987, she spent 1987-88 as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford (UK), where she played a formative role in forging the program’s key concerns and purpose. Today, an associated Professorship in Forced Migration and an annual Public Lecture at the Centre are named in her honor.2   In time, she would begin to build a modest home in Zambia, sell her home in the Bay Area in California, and settle permanently in Monze.

Colson’s career is marked by still other prestigious accomplishments, including the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectureship at the University of Rochester (1973); the Bernard Moses Lecture at the University of California (1981); the Rivers Memorial Medal of the RAI (1982); the Malinowski Distinguished Lecture of the Society for Applied Anthropology (1985); the Distinguished Africanist Award of the American Association for African Studies (1988); and an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Zambia (1992).  She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978, and in 1982 the Society of Women Geographers granted her their Outstanding Achievement Award.  
Colson’s name is synonymous with the study of forced relocation and its consequences; longterm (and, for her, a lifetime of) ethnographic engagement within the same field site; and a style of meticulous observation and analysis that evidences the subtle, synergistic relationship between ethnography and theory.  Although sometimes described as an American anthropologist, her training from the very start was characterized by a wide exposure to North American and, even more so, British theory and methodology, alongside direct association with a wide swath of seminal thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.  Indeed, she self-identified as a social (Reiss 2002, 179)—and not cultural—anthropologist, and her formative years were shaped by those trained in the tradition of Radcliffe-Brown or by those associated with the Manchester School of Max Gluckman, rather than, say, of Franz Boas. Colson read widely, eclectically, and voraciously. At Berkeley she was known to spend much of a day each month sitting at a table in the Lowie Library poring over the latest volumes of available anthropology journals as a means to stay well-informed of developments in the field.  Those close to her can attest she had a knack for discovering even one’s most obscure publications and writing a letter—and astute critique—of the work.  This sort of lifetime engagement with her former students and longstanding colleagues was a quintessential aspect of Colson’s character.   

Evidence of her strength in synthesizing theory and ethnography abounds in her work.  Colson was well aware, nevertheless, that others faulted her for being “atheoretical.” She chalked this up to a tendency to “do the characteristic female thing.”  As she once explained,

“Women like to go through developing an argument and come to a conclusion, having proved it, so that people can't challenge. They put the most important idea [near the end]. They don't move in head on. They prefer to lead a reader along gently.  Men are much more likely to state the proposition at the outset…Women start out and go ahead, trying to convince you as they go along. It's a …non-confrontational style. I didn't spot it for years, but I see it in myself and I see it in other women…it's something I've tried to teach women students that they were doing” (Reiss 2002, 64).

The beauty of Colson’s scholarship is the trust she placed in her readers:  characteristically, one is left to assess on one’s own the significance of her observations and, as such, her meticulous ethnography has informed and generated new theory among scholars who perceived and appreciated the astonishing depth of her knowledge and understanding of social lives in flux.3  At a time when many Boasians were engaged in salvage anthropology, early in her career Colson was already forging a very different sort of American anthropology, one that recognized both the subtle and dire consequences of social disruption, the associated exacerbation of social inequalities, and how people responded in creative, eclectic, or disturbing ways over time to uninvited disruptions.  It is especially important to note that she was always drawn to complex, and socially fraught, contexts, even at a time when such interests were not necessarily fashionable.

Most readers know of Colson as an Africanist. Her earliest fieldwork, however, was based in North America, not Central Africa. As a student at Minnesota she spent the summers of 1939, 1940, and 1941 participating in an intellectually-intensive and highly interdisciplinary field school based in Northern California that involved faculty and students from anthropology, sociology, literature, and psychology.  Burt and Ethel Aginsky—who were friends and colleagues of the Wallises—directed this program under the auspices of New York University’s Field Laboratory for Research in the Social Sciences.  Of key concern was, in Colson’s words, “the interplay among townspeople, ranchers, migrant agricultural workers, and [Native American] Pomo” inhabitants.  Colson would later describe this as “a dynamic situation with strong overtones of caste.” Even at this early stage Colson was already mindful of the significant interplay between land alienation and racial inequality, as reflected in her statements about the work forty years later.   Typical of Colson’s straightforward style, she did not pull her punches, but openly recognized the violence of racial domination. As she recounted in 1989, “older Pomo told of being hunted down for internment at Round Valley and returning to find their lands preempted by whites…domination was strongly reflected in the life histories of the Pomo women with whom I spent much of my time during those summers” (Colson 1989, 8-9). This work informed her MA thesis, a study of acculturation as it specifically affected, disrupted, and redirected Pomo women’s lives.  In this sense alone, she was a trailblazer in gender studies.

A dedication to longitudinal study is also central to her work—indeed, when one considers her Zambia research (1946-2016), one would be hard-pressed to find another anthropologist with such a lengthy and uninterrupted commitment to the same place and people, with a strong sense that societies are dynamic and not static entities.  In her earlier fieldwork elsewhere, one can already detect a wariness in Colson to the presumed benign qualities associated with writing in the “ethnographic present” (as clearly evidenced in the works of, say, Margaret Mead), alongside an assumption that anthropology should be confined to small-scale societies. Yet again, one encounters path-breaking work.  Consider, for instance, Colson’s dissertation research, which she conducted in 1941-2 in Makah territory of Neah Bay in Washington State, a region where, in her words:

“the town doubled in size as construction workers arrived to build a naval base and soldiers came to guard the seafront against a possible Japanese invasion.  My field data inevitably reflected a period in the history of the town that all knew to be ephemeral, though it would have consequences for the future.  This experience convinced me of the importance of grounding ethnographic description in the historical moment, whatever one does in analysis.  Dates are as important in ethnography as they are in history” (Colson 1989, 7-8).

Of particular interest to her were people’s disagreements about history and social status.  Of special concern, too, were issues of land ownership, and the Makah’s willingness “to use the courts to fight off efforts to displace them” (Colson 1989, 8).  By 1942, Colson was entrenched in the study of forced relocation in yet another setting, this time, through Kluckhohn’s connections, by joining psychiatrist Alexander Leighton and social anthropologist Edward Spicer in their work at the Japanese internment camp at Poston, established on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in southwest Arizona following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Only after Poston did Colson write her dissertation on the Makah, and one may safely conclude that one project informed her thinking about the other.  These paired experiences mark early evidence of what would become a lifetime commitment to witnessing and documenting these sorts of “gross violation of civil rights” (Colson 1989, 9) alongside fostering a burgeoning expertise as a skilled comparativist.

Colson is most famous, of course, for her long-term commitment to tracking the consequences of forced resettlement on the lives of the Gwembe (Valley) Tonga in the wake of the building of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River in what is now Zambia.  Her initial involvement in this project stemmed from her acquiring a job at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Northern Rhodesia, which had been founded only a few years before under director Godfrey Wilson (husband of yet another eminent anthropologist, Monica Wilson).  The trip involved sailing from San Francisco and around Cape Horn to Capetown.  As Colson later explained, “by the time the war [WWII] ended, I was eager for further field work, this time outside the United States. It was exhilarating to arrive…[there]… in 1946 and to discover scholars who shared my approach and interests.”  When she arrived in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Max Gluckman was director of the Institute.  Colson set to work on research within communities of Plateau Tonga where foci including kinship, court systems, the rain shrines, social control and vengeance, and, more generally, refining her methodological approaches.  Fellow researchers included Clyde Mitchell and John Barnes, both of whom were still students.  (The three of them soon accompanied Gluckman to Oxford for a year, where Colson encountered E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, Beatrice Blackwood, Raymond Firth, Darryl Ford, Edmund Leach, Kenneth Little, Siegfried Nadel, Audrey Richards, Lucy Mair, and Phyllis Kayberry.)  Colson was especially influenced by Gluckman’s situational approach and notion of “time as an important methodological tool” as well as Victor Turner’s extended case method approach known as “processual analysis,” where interests in conflict lay at the very core of such approaches.  In addition to Monica Wilson, three other formidable female anthropologists—Audrey Richards, Lucy Mair, and Hilda Kuper—were also working in the region (Colson 1989, 10-11; see also Reiss 2002, 89-92).

Upon Gluckman’s departure for Manchester, Colson assumed the directorship of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute from 1947 to 1951, followed by a two-year post as Senior Lecturer in Gluckman’s program; she subsequently moved back to the States.  Although at this point in her career Colson considered shifting her research to New Guinea (drawn by the scholarship developing there), by 1956 she had returned to Zambia, where she started what would become a lifetime project of tracking the longterm effects of forced relocation on the Gwembe Tonga, collaborating with Thayer Scudder (who was, initially, a graduate student at Harvard and with whom she would collaborate for decades to come).  Within anthropology, The Social Consequences of Resettlement (Colson, 1971) is widely considered Colson’s most significant work, although she had been writing—and publishing—on her Zambian research since the mid-1940s.4   Her involvement in this region is formidable, spanning 70 years of engagement, where she continued to publish on her findings until the year of her death.  Indeed, as the meticulous work of N. Buchignani reveals (Buchignani 2016), one encounters a staggering scholarly corpus that includes close to ten single-authored books—nearly all of which concern her Zambian research—and over three hundred single and co-authored articles, book chapters, published lectures, and review essays.  Colson was a generous collaborator, conducting research with and co-authoring a plethora of works with a wide range of, most often, far more junior scholars.

Those who knew her will profess that she was brilliant, yet modest; a meticulous chronicler of social life who was also ever alert to subtlety, paradox, and contradiction; a voracious reader who could grow impatient with scholars who overlooked both the relevance of history and failed to acknowledge the works of their scholarly predecessors; and an exacting mentor who bolstered others for decades onwards.  She was, in short, extraordinary.  With her passing, anthropology has lost a truly magnificent mind, and marvelous human being.  


1 A love of literature would persist for a lifetime.  As Colson notes in her oral history, “I always told my students to—when they're going to the field, take along Jane Austen. Good style, and something you could re-read” (Reiss 2002,168).  I can personally attest to the truth of this statement.

https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/news/professor-elizabeth-florence-colson-1917-2016, consulted 6/2017

3 For an article that demonstrates this quintessential style see (Colson 2000).

4 In her life history, Colson remarks that Tradition and Contract (Colson 1974) was widely used and cited by political scientists, although not well-known among anthropologists (Reiss 2002, 159).

Sources Consulted

Colson, Eliabeth, 2000, “The Father as Witch,” Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, 70:3:333-358.

--, 1989, “Overview,” Annual Review of Anthropology 18:1-16.

--, 1974, Tradition and Contract. The Problem of Order. The 1973 Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures. Chicago:  Aldine.

--, 1971, The Social Consequences of Resettlement: The Impact of the Kariba Settlement on the Gwembe Tonga, Manchester: Manchester University Press for Institute of African Studies, University of Zambia.

Buchignani, Norman, 2016, “A New Bibliography of Elizabeth Colson,” August 22. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9j45p150

Riess, Suzanne B., 2002, Elizabeth Colson, Anthropology and a Lifetime of Observation. Interviews conducted by Suzanne B. Riess, 2000-2001, Introduction by Laura Nader. http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt7w10088w&doc.view=entire_text 




June, 2017

Lesley A. Sharp
Barbara Chamberlain & Helen Chamberlain Josefsberg ‘30
Professor of Anthropology
Barnard College, Columbia University
New York, NY USA

To cite this article:

SHARP, LESLEY A. 2017 'Elizabeth Colson (1917-2016) Anthropologist, Africanist'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2017. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/elizabeth-florence-colson)


APTHORPE, RAYMOND. 2017. ‘Elizabeth Colson, 1917-2016’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2017. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/elizabeth-colson).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=Elizabeth%20Colson