William Johnson ‘John’ Argyle 1931-2021

John Argyle was born in 1931 in Matlock, in the Peak district of Derbyshire, and was brought up in Woodthorpe, Nottingham, where he attended the Henry Mellish grammar school. After leaving school he completed eighteen months of National Service with the Royal Navy, which he much enjoyed, before proceeding to Magdalen College, University of Oxford, to read history.

John’s subsequent interest in social anthropology was piqued by coming across an account of the potlatch custom of the Salish people of the North-West coast of Canada, which he deemed so extraordinary that he felt he had to learn more about anthropology and duly enrolled for the diploma programme at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, (ISCA) in Oxford. Rather than the Americas or Asia, the late 50s was the heyday at ISCA of Africa, led by Edward Evans-Pritchard who encouraged his students to do fieldwork in various parts of the continent which were then mostly soon-to-be ex-colonies of Britain. Armed with a distinction in the diploma, John completed a library thesis for a BLitt on the Fon of Dahomey, which was published by Clarendon Press.  John’s chosen area for fieldwork for a DPhil was a study of the Soli of eastern Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia.  Arriving as Research Officer at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (RLI) in Lusaka, now a department of the University of Zambia, he was invited by Elizabeth Colson on one of her visits to Lusaka to spend a few days with her in Mazabuka among the Valley Tonga.  This brief visit was in effect an introduction to fieldwork in Africa for John. John’s last publication was a chapter in a volume commemorating Elizabeth Colson’s work, edited by Raymond Apthorpe and Amanda Vinson, to be published in 2022. 

John also at this time formed a life-long friendship with Raymond Apthorpe who had been appointed at about the same time as John to a post as Research Secretary at the RLI. For both, this was their first employment after leaving Oxford. Raymond remembers that having acquired a driving licence shortly before, he insisted on driving  John from Lusaka to his Soli fieldwork area over John’s protestations that he first needed to finish reading the many volumes of Dickens he had brought with him to Africa before arriving in the field. 

In 1962 John accepted a post teaching anthropology in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  The course was part of an unsuccessful attempt by Rhodes University, based in Grahamstown about sixty miles away to set up a campus in Port Elizabeth. The Nationalist government had no intention of allowing a ‘liberal’ English university to become established in a city it was determined to transform into an Afrikaner domain and the fledgling college was shut down after a couple of  years. On a happier note, it was there that John met his wife Anne (Andy) who was teaching French and whom he later encouraged to study librarianship in Durban.

After the Port Elizabeth interlude, John then moved to Durban, where he took up a senior lectureship in social anthropology at the University of Natal when Eileen Krige held the Chair.  He was appointed Warden of the Alan Taylor residence for medical students in Wentworth, a predominantly Mixed Race area near the Bluff and the Medical School. The University of Natal Medical School was at the time the only medical school in South Africa where black students could enrol. Among its famous alumni was Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement and author of ‘I write what I like’, the manifesto of the movement which was banned by the regime for many years. John recalled that he spent many Sunday nights while Warden at Alan Taylor at the local police station posting bail for the students from the residence, who were regularly arrested for taking part in illegal demonstrations or other activities the regime deemed seditious. During this period at the University of Natal Durban (UND) John formed a lasting friendship with Stanley Trapido, then a lecturer in Political Science. Stanley, his wife Barbara and their family soon after left South Africa, in the face of continued repression by the regime, for an academic career in Britain. Barbara Trapido’s sister, Fran, later worked in the UND library alongside Anne. During his time in Durban, John sometimes accompanied Stan when he interviewed the families of black civil rights activists and collected documents of the struggle for freedom of black people in South Africa, particularly workers’ groups and early black trades unions.

In 1965 John returned to England to a lectureship in anthropology in the Geography department of Queen Mary College, University of London. The post was set up in an attempt to revive interest among students in the Geography department but was later abolished. During his years at Queen Mary College John was appointed reviews editor of MAN (JRAI). He retained a concern with clear and precise expression in academic writing and once told me that he learned much in this area from an Australian anthropologist he met at Oxford.

In 1971 Eileen Krige retired and John succeeded her to the Chair of Social Anthropology and Head of the Department of African Studies, at UND where he remained until his retirement in 1996. Eileen Krige and her late husband, J D Krige (who had trained as a lawyer), were the founders of the Department of African Studies at the University of Natal and the authors of, inter alia, ethnographies of the Zulu people and the Lovedu of the northern Transvaal, now Limpopo Province. Eileen had trained as a social anthropologist under Winifred Hoernle at the University of the Witwatersrand. Winifred in her turn was a pupil of Bronislaw Malinowski.  In 1978 John edited, together with Eleanor Preston-Whyte a festschrift for Eileen Krige - Social System and Tradition: Essays in honour of Eileen Krige.

British social anthropology at this time, influenced by A R Radcliffe-Brown and E E Evans-Pritchard at Oxford, was concerned to a great extent with social structure in the form of kinship relationships and obligations which were believed to be the main reason for social stability and the operation of law and order in traditional societies. John’s own research interests initially followed along these lines and he published several articles on rules of exogamy among the Zulu. He was also interested in traditional myths of royal origin, used to validate claims by outsiders or commoners to chiefship and kingship, which he first explored among Soli chiefs and later in the Zulu royal house, with reference to King Dingiswayo. These origin myths formed the basis of his inaugural lecture at the University of Natal. Another research interest was the phenomenon of faction fights, made famous by Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography of the Nuer, but also common among Zulu clans.

John encouraged his post graduate students to undertake research into extended kinship and family organisation among white and Indian families in and around Durban; here he was influenced by the work of Raymond Firth in east London. John was a supportive supervisor who often accompanied students on their field excursions, in my case to Hindu temples in and around Durban to observe and take part in Mariamman and Kavady festivals (not, however to walk barefoot over live coals as some Kavady devotees did). One of John’s predecessors at the University of Natal, Hilda Kuper, had written an early comprehensive account of the Indian settlers in Durban: Indian People in Natal. Hilda Kuper was a fellow student of Eileen Krige in the anthropology department newly founded by Winifred Hoernle at the University of the Witwatersrand, and also studied with Bronislaw Malinowski in London.

John insisted to his students that field notes be properly written up and at least three copies kept in different locations (accompanying this injunction were horrific accounts of field notes lost or stolen from cars and theses having to be re-written virtually from memory). The practice of keeping multiple copies of field notes was mandatory at the RLI, but Raymond Apthorpe suggests Elizabeth Colson may have been one of the few anthropologists there who actually did this. John was also very good at library browsing; ‘have a look at this’ he might say, handing over a latest find. These suggestions were very helpful to time stretched students. Among John’s students was Zubeida Seedat who completed a Masters thesis on the Zanzibari of Chatsworth (an Indian group area outside Durban). The Zanzibari were the descendants of East African freed slaves who, owing to their Muslim faith, were oddly classified as Indian rather than African under the Group Areas Act. They had owned land on the Bluff in Durban which was taken away from them when that was designated a ‘white’ area. This land has only recently been restored to the descendants of the original owners.

Another of John’s students was Sabitha Jithoo who taught anthropology and was Head of Department for many years at the University of Durban-Westville, an institution which is now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal but had been established in the apartheid years to cater solely for students of Asian descent.  John encouraged Sabitha to study Indian family businesses.

In later years John became interested in linguistics and African languages and spent three years studying isiZulu at UND, although he maintained that his knowledge of the language remained more academic than practical. Perhaps John’s most famous post-graduate student was David Lewis-Williams.  David gave a college lecture on his early rock art research which John attended, and he arranged for David to do a master’s degree (subsequently upgraded to a PhD) in the Department of African Studies under his supervision. David Lewis-Williams subsequently became well known internationally for his interpretation of southern African rock art as primarily of ritual and shamanistic origin and later occupied the first chair in the study of rock art at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.  John himself developed an interest in Khoe-San languages and published a couple of short notes on the subject.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw a huge rise in the use of computers and the development of the internet.  John was an early and keen adopter of this technology in the academic arena and made sure his department had whatever the latest available version was of computers and software at the time, although the staff sometimes complained it was more for his use than theirs. John was a kind and supportive colleague and head of department and an excellent writer of good references. He was not a loquacious man, but came into his own at conference dinner tables with colleagues, when his jokes reduced everyone to tears of laughter. These jokes were not repeatable, not because of their content, which was unexceptional but because their hilarity depended on very exact timing. The Department of African Studies had offices close to the Department of Sociology at UND where Professor Fatima Meer was an outspoken opponent of the increasing restrictions placed on academic research in the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa. John liked and had great respect for Fatima and her publications (which later included a biography of Nelson Mandela).

John was a founder member of the Anthropological Association of Southern Africa which was established in 1987, to promote a democratic and non-racial approach to anthropology after some decades of informal organisation by English speaking social anthropologists and in the teeth of opposition from Afrikaner ‘volkekundiges’ or ethnologists. The association organised regional conferences in Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe and more recently Malawi and Mauritius, as well as at South African universities. Student representation has always been an important component of these conferences, which John supported.
After his retirement in 1996 John and Anne returned to England, living first in Bideford, in Devon, and latterly in Bristol. John was devoted to Anne, their two daughters, Sarah and Charlotte and two grandchildren. He continued to write and maintained an interest in anthropology until shortly before his death.

Gina Buijs

Argyle, W J 1966 The Fon of Dahomey: A History and Ethnography of the Old Kingdom Oxford: Clarendon Press

Argyle, W J & E M Preston-Whyte (eds.) 1978 Social System and Tradition in Southern Africa: Essays in Honour of Eileen Krige Cape Town: OUP

Krige, E J 1965 The Social System of the Zulus Pietermaritzburg: Shuter & Shooter

Krige, E J & J D Krige 1943 The Realm of a Rain Queen: A Study of the Pattern of Lovedu Society Oxford: OUP for the IAI

Meer, Fatima 1990 Higher than Hope: a Biography of Nelson Mandela London: Hamish Hamilton


To cite this article:

BUIJS, GEORGINA. 2022 'William Johnson ‘John’ Argyle 1931-2021'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, April 2022. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/william-johnson-john-argyle)