Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard

The English social anthropologist Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) did pioneer research in the social structure, history, and religion of African and Arab peoples.

Edward Evans-Pritchard was one of the foremost anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. The son of an Anglican clergyman, Evans-Pritchard read history at Exeter College, Oxford, and received a doctorate in anthropology at the London School of Economics. His first research was from 1926 to 1932 with the Azande of the southern Sudan and the Congo. He did further fieldwork in 1935-1936 and in 1938, mainly with the Nuer and other Nilotic peoples of the southern Sudan.

Acclaimed Scholar

Before World War II Evans-Pritchard served on the faculties of the London School of Economics, the Egyptian University in Cairo, and Cambridge University. During this period he produced his two most famous works: Witchcraft: Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940). The first is a brilliant exposition of the internal logic of a preliterate philosophy, indicating how such ideas may reasonably persist in the face of what, to an outsider, may appear to be damning discrepancies and disproofs. The second volume examines the mode of political organization of the Nuer, a society lacking any formal government. It served as a model for much of the subsequent anthropological research in the social organization of African societies. In its analysis of the blood feud, conflict, and limits set by environment on a seminomadic society, it owes much to the earlier work of William Robertson Smith.

During World War II Evans-Pritchard served as an officer in military intelligence in East Africa, Ethiopia, Libya, and the Middle East, and he was able to do some anthropological fieldwork in these areas. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1944, which may have influenced his subsequent attempts to reconcile the purported differences between social science and religious faith. In 1946 he was appointed to the chair of social anthropology at All Souls College at Oxford, which he held until his retirement in 1970. Twice he journeyed to the United States for scholarly pursuits: in 1950 he was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and seven years later he spent a year at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Set a Standard for Anthropology Writing

An extraordinarily prolific writer, Evans-Pritchard produced works that touch upon nearly every facet of social anthropology. In general his writings exhibit a blend of rich ethnographic detail with subtle and suggestive theoretical insights. Among his better-known books are The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949), Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951), Social Anthropology (1951), Nuer Religion (1956), and Theories of Primitive Religion (1965).

A year following his retirement, Evans-Pritchard was knighted for his contributions to science. He was father to five children with Ioma Nicholls, whom he married in 1939. Even after he retired from Oxford, he continued to teach and to produce influential publications in his field, including Man and Woman Among the Azande (1971). He was one of the strongest proponents of the value of historical perspective in anthropology and of recording African oral literature. Evans-Pritchard died in Oxford on September 11, 1973.

Further Reading on Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard

Evans-Pritchard and his importance in anthropology are discussed in Max Gluckman, Custom and Conflict in Africa (1955); Thomas Bieldelman, ed., The Translation of Culture (1971), and Mary Douglas, Edward Evans-Pritchard (1980).

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