Max Gluckman

A distinguished British anthropologist, Max Gluckman (1911-1975) pioneered the study of traditional African legal systems. His research stressed social conflict and mechanisms for conflict resolution while studying urbanization and social change in colonial Africa.

A member of the second generation of great British anthropologists, Max Gluckman was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1911. His parents, Russian-Jewish immigrants to South Africa, later resettled in the newly-formed state of Israel, where Gluckman died in 1975. Originally intending to study law, he chose instead to pursue a degree in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. In 1936 Gluckman, a lifelong scholar-sportsman, was awarded a Transvaal Rhodes Scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford. Though he attended Kaspar B. Malinowski's famous seminars at the London School of Economics, it was the structural analyses of Edward Evans-Prichard and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown that most strongly influenced him. Gluckman was trained in structural analysis of social systems as dynamic but ultimately balanced systems of conflicting forces.

In 1936-1938 Gluckman carried out fieldwork in Zululand. His chief interests were the study of African legal systems and the dynamics of local conflict and its resolution. While remaining within the tradition of structural analysis, Gluckman's work had a distinct orientation. Rather than viewing African societies as closed, stable systems, Gluckman recognized the sometimes chaotic changes brought about by colonialism and race relations. He distinguished between the relatively stable forms of conflict characteristic of pre-colonial Zululand and the much more complicated and volatile colonial situation. This early work attempted to apply structural analysis to social situations much more complex and unstable than was the practice for anthropologists at that time.

In 1939 Gluckman joined the staff of the Rhodes-Livingston Institute in what was then Northern Rhodesia. From 1942 to 1947 he was the institute's director, shaping its research interests through the force of his powerful personality and through his intellectual and moral sensibilities. His links to the elegant structuralism of Evans-Prichard and Radcliffe-Brown grew weaker. Here in central Africa Gluckman developed his interests in the complexities of social and political relations that took for granted racial, political, and cultural pluralism. He encouraged research in the urbanizing areas of southern and central Africa. In addition to scholarly papers, Gluckman supported the publication of works that would be of practical help to local administrators.

Never having fully abandoned his interest in law, Gluckman produced during this period a classic treatise on the principles of jurisprudence among the Barotse of central Africa. In this detailed analysis, Gluckman examined the legal concept of the "the reasonable man" in the context of an indigenous central African legal system.

Despite his interest in conflict and in culturally complex settings, Gluckman always assumed that social systems could be analyzed as integrated systems. Thus his most enduring work is on rituals of rebellion, demonstrating how ritualized forms of hostility can serve ultimately to promote social cohesion by providing controlled expression of hostility to authority.

In 1947 Gluckman returned to England to teach at Oxford but almost immediately accepted an offer to head up a new anthropology department at Manchester University. What Gluckman established, however, was more than a new department. Gradually he assembled a group of colleagues and students that collectively became known as the Manchester School of Anthropology. Most of these anthropologists continued to carry out work in sub-Saharan Africa as did many other British anthropologists of the time. Yet the work of the Manchester School was distinctive for its emphasis on detailed village studies examining various social mechanisms for dealing with conflict.

Among Gluckman's numerous distinguished students perhaps Victor Turner is the most famous. In Turner's brilliant early work in the 1960s, Schism and Continuity in an African Society, Gluckman's interest in the dynamics of structural contradictions in society was carried out with particular success. As with many of Gluckman's students, Turner retained a strong interest in cultural outlets for such conflicts and contradictions. Witchcraft accusations, disease and curing rituals, rites of status reversal, or the role of village headmen as mediators with outsiders were all cultural themes that interested Gluckman and his students at Manchester.

In stressing the role of conflict in social life and in taking into account the role of colonialism and race relations in modern African societies, Gluckman moved social anthropology in Britain in a Marxist direction. Yet he never completely abandoned the more traditional British interest in societies as stable self-regulating systems. His ethno-graphic analyses were distinguished by the use of a detailed single case study to illustrate general structural principles. Moreover, Gluckman and his students refined the use of statistics in the analysis of social structure and the introduction of historical materials as evidence for the contrast between periods of social stability and change. In all his work, Gluckman insisted on the highest standards of scholarship.

Max Gluckman published numerous books and articles. Among the most important of his works are Custom and Conflict in Africa (1955), Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (1963), The Ideas in Barotse Jurisprudence (1967), Essays on the Ritual of Social Relations (1962), and Closed Systems and Open Minds (1967). His Frazer lecture, "Rituals of Rebellion," is the most famous and succinct treatment of his approach to the structural study of conflict.

Less well-known is Gluckman's longtime commitment to the development of anthropology in Israel. He cooperated in the development of joint research projects between his own university and several Israeli universities. Israeli students were encouraged in these efforts to carry out community studies of Bedouin populations in their country.

Max Gluckman's prodigious energies were not restricted to his anthropological research. He remained throughout his life a strong supporter of organized sports and became an acknowledged expert on soccer and an avid soccer fan in Manchester. Perhaps such an active interest in organized sports was an understandable extension of Gluckman's lifelong interest in the delicate balance between social conflict and order.


Further Reading on Max Gluckman

An extensive analysis of Gluckman's work is contained in chapter 6 of Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School by Adam Kuper (1983). Briefer treatments are contained in A History of Ethnology by Fred Voget (1975) and An Introduction to a Social Anthropology by Lucy Mair (1965). The London Times of April 13, 1975, carried a long, informative obituary of Max Gluckman. Of Gluckman's numerous published works, Essays on the Ritual of Social Relations (1962) and Closed Systems and Open Minds (1965) are of particular interest to a general audience.