An anthropologist's journey: Trying to make a meaningful connection
Preface and Part 1. Cambridge University undergraduate (1961-65)
The framework for this account of my journey in anthropology is a transcription (edited in 2023) of an interview with Federico Neibourg and Fernando Rabossi at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on May 23rd, 2011. A Portuguese version was published in 2019 by Revista de Sociologia & Antropologia in an issue about my anthropological work. This was organized by Fernando Rabossi and included this interview and articles by Horacio Ortiz, Theodoros Rakopoulos, Fernando and me, with a list of my writings (2000-2018).
I have reorganized the interview in five parts: 1. Cambridge University undergraduate (1961-65); 2. Doctoral fieldwork in Ghana (1965-68); 3. Informal economy and the development industry (1969-79); 4. Teaching in the UK and US, money, the Open Anthropology Cooperative (1971-2011); 5. Reflections on the personal/impersonal pair and nomadic anthropology (2011). I conclude with 6. More online links to myself in the world (2023). Occasionally I include a link in the text to a relevant online publication of mine.
To read further, click on Keith’s Newsletter at the top, select Archive, and scroll down.
Part 1. Cambridge University undergraduate (1961-65)
Federico: You have your PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge, having studied Latin and Greek before. So how did you arrive at anthropology?
Keith: I love classical literature. I was ready to be a literary critic in the style of the discipline and at that time 80% of all exam marks were for translation. I loved translation in both directions; I won a Cambridge prize once for translating an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno into Homeric hexameters. Even now I would say that my highest intellectual interest is in translation. I don’t mean between national languages; but how what anyone says or writes can get into another’s mind. In general, we are ships passing in the night. We usually believe that what I have just said or wrote is now in your head. What I respect about our common humanity is the good will that we bring to communication, whereas we communicate little to an unfamiliar person that isn’t absorbed at all or is reshaped to fit into his or her working memory.
Returning to your question, the classics were very narrow then. I was interested in Greek tragedy and Latin lyric poetry, especially Aeschylus’ plays and Catullus’ poems. But there was no way I could do a PhD on them. The point of classical literary criticism at the time was to consolidate the manuscript tradition, and most of the major authors had already been done, so neophyte scholars like me were reduced to organizing marginal fragments like clerks. Moreover, ambitious bright boys did classics or math then. At Cambridge there were all these bright boys doing Latin and Greek. The competition was intense, yet the job market for classics was in decline. I was a realist and academic careerist. In the sixties, social sciences were expanding. I thought I had better switch from classics to one of them. I thought of sociology...
Federico: If we could go back, how did you arrive at Cambridge from Manchester?
Keith: My family home was in Manchester. I went to Manchester Grammar School (MGS), at the time the school with the highest entry to Oxford and Cambridge, and I specialized in classical languages. In the nineteenth century MGS owned the milling rights in the city center and had closed scholarships to Oxbridge colleges; the latter wanted to guarantee customers. They would agree to take a fixed number of students, maybe ten from MGS at one college. This had ended by now, but MGS had one closed scholarship left, the Patchett in classics at St John’s College, Cambridge. One day the head of the classics side said, “You’ll be in for the Patchett”. I did not know what it was, but soon discovered that it was the only one and they gave it to a deserving pupil as a prize. I had a guaranteed place at Cambridge if I reached the minimum level in the scholarship exams, regardless of how many passed. That’s how I went there.
Federico: When did you first think of getting into Cambridge University?
Keith: When I was eight years old, I visited an aunt in Bedford with my mother and sister and we took a day trip to Cambridge. I asked why they had so many churches there. I was told that they were not churches, but schools. I said, “When I grow up I want to go to a school that looks like a church”. This became a family myth: Keith wants to go to Cambridge. I was entirely focused in my teenage years on getting to Cambridge University to read classics. But, as I said, after two years of classics—despite learning a lot about Greek and Roman literature, history, and philosophy from inspiring teachers—I wanted to switch to sociology.
Federico: What happened next?
Keith: You could only do sociology as part of an economics degree. Funnily enough, given what I became later, economics put me off. I was a cox, steering a rowing eight, and my coach in the easter term was a geographer, a Jewish aristocrat from Turin called Claudio Vita-Finzi. He spent the winter in the Mediterranean studying desert erosion—how the goats do it in Sicily or Lebanon—and would come back to Cambridge in the spring. I thought that was not a bad way to live. And then I heard that social anthropology was sociology with travel thrown in, and I liked that idea.
Jack Goody was in my college, and we were both habitués of the bar. He told me once that he was organizing a seminar on clientship; this was 1962 when Maquet produced his book on Rwanda. It was quite a popular topic then. I told Jack that I’d give him a talk on Roman clientship and then forgot. One Monday he said, “You’re on for your seminar paper this Wednesday”. If I was to write an essay for my classics tutor, I had to read texts in the original and build the essay on quotations from them. He would not have accepted anything else. But I didn’t have the time. I went to the library and got hold of the Cambridge Ancient History and some secondary sources in English, then put together something that I found desperately second-rate. I was nervous when giving the talk. But the anthropologists fell over themselves—they said it was so sophisticated, so insightful. I thought these people have no intellectual standards. They do not know that I am bluffing on very weak grounds.
I was already a professional academic, but if I became an anthropologist, I could pose any question, go anywhere and study whatever I like, no limits. In classics seminars we would spend minutes discussing whether a letter in a twelfth-century Spanish manuscript was an alpha or an eta. It was that narrow; the focus was incredibly concrete and particular; but it took a lot of knowledge and skill. I realized that anthropology would allow me to follow any question I liked AND they had no intellectual standards. That was brilliant, but I felt like a footballer being transferred from AC Milan to Stockport County. [Laughter.]
Fernando: So, you turned to social anthropology in Jack Goody’s hands?
Keith: He was the only personal teacher I had because he was the head of social anthropology in my college and became my undergraduate supervisor, then my PhD supervisor. I worked with him all the time, but I also had a close relationship with Audrey Richards, the director of the African Studies Centre, who gave a seminar on urbanization and migration in Africa; this became my favorite topic. I just wanted to work on the movement of people—like my own movement in society, I suppose. My fieldwork was on migrants to the capital city, Accra, especially its economy. Meyer Fortes was head of the Cambridge department. Maybe I am still arrogant, but I was more arrogant then. I didn’t go to lectures. Fortes gave a seminar for the senior students. I went to one and quit because I thought it was rubbish. He never actually met me because I had come in late from classics. Then I got a first class in the final exams and he sent me a note of congratulation.
Federico: Who were your peers?
Keith: Johnny Parry, Carrie Humphrey, and Enid Schildkrout who later worked at the American Museum in New York. But Fortes didn’t know who the hell I was because I never turned up. What got him really upset was when I arrived in Ghana without any further graduate training and decided to study the Tallensi, his people. I wrote him a letter, told him this and it blew him away. I wrote five letters before he replied to me. He told me years later that he thought Jack Goody had set me up to undermine his work. I was a foreign spy, an agent of subversion.
Fortes had been made head of Cambridge social anthropology when it was mediocre, and then built it up to be the best department in the country. But, thanks to their expansion in the 60s, there was a new department of Social and Political Sciences, and Jack favored taking social anthropology into it after he succeeded Fortes (Edmund Leach was Provost of King’s). He published articles in national magazines saying, “What is social anthropology anyway if not comparative sociology?” Meyer was deeply suspicious of my role in this game. It took him a long time to overcome his doubts about me.
Fernando: What was your relationship with Audrey Richards?
Keith: I was always close to Audrey. She was a great gossip and once told me that Jack had asked her what I was writing my thesis on, because he never read what I gave him. I felt that I learnt nothing from him. But when he launched his series of books comparing Eurasia and Sub-Saharan Africa in 1976, the first one was Production and Reproduction. It has a little preface, a page and a half long, where he refers to his war-time experience and going to the Gold Coast in the 50s during the run-up to independence —he signed up for Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention Peoples Party. He lays out three principles of his anthropology. I agreed with the first, then the second AND the third! I thought, wait a minute, it can’t be accidental that I signed up for Jack Goody’s methodological principles. He must have taught me after all—by example, not instruction.
That was our sixties generation: we thought we were orphans who owed nothing to our parents and teachers—we were making the world from scratch by ourselves. We learned how big a mistake that was when we grew up. I now realized that Jack had shaped me. All the work I do comes from trying to be like him really. I made it up to him later by publishing four review articles boosting his writings.
Fernando: What about Meyer Fortes?
Keith: He was the internal examiner for my PhD thesis and very positive; he recommended me to Cambridge University Press. He offered me a postdoc at King’s to study the Tallensi with him. I would be the next lecturer appointed in Cambridge and could teach primitive and peasant economics like Raymond Firth. This frightened me. I was going to end up in a narrow circle of “Ghanaiologists”. Our discussions were so particular that people would use only proper names in our formal discussions—small groups, place names, individuals’ names, not concepts, facts with no analysis. Fortes once told me after I complained about the low level of departmental graduate seminars, “You are too rational, Keith. Anthropology is not a rational discipline”. That was my complaint then, now I celebrate it. There was no attempt to make analytical generalizations because everybody knew the same local facts. I did not want to be trapped in this parochialism. Instead of accepting his offer, I took a job in a development studies outfit at a new university, East Anglia in Norwich. Meyer never forgave me for that.
I learned later in the US that he once visited Chicago and was asked if anyone else had studied the Tallensi after him. He said, “There was someone, but he gave it up to advise on tourism in the West Indies”. He felt I was just doing it for the money—I was another Manchester utilitarian type only interested in making money. He once sent me a seven-page hand-written letter, opening with “I always thought you were a Benthamite with hedonistic qualities. I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand the notion of filial piety”. It went downhill from there. He was out to kill me. I realised that there was no way I could go on writing about Tallensi. I decided to move sideways into development so as not to be in direct competition with him. He thought I wanted to get rich by joining the World Bank and stuff like that. I only wanted to learn about the world.
There’s a surprising conclusion to this story. I was teaching in Chicago for a year in the 80s when I got a postcard from Meyer Fortes. I’d published an article in Research in Economic Anthropology, “The economic basis of Tallensi social history (1900-1945)”. I took his side in an argument with Leach and Worsley over the relationship between economic development and kinship institutions. It’s a good article, if I say so, the only one I ever published on the Tallensi, apart from my Accra material where they were part of a larger ethnic group. Somehow, he got hold of it and sent me a postcard in Chicago with a picture of King’s College chapel’s altar painting by Rubens, “The Adoration of the Magi”. “I was wrong about you, Keith; you are serious after all. You have made an original contribution here to the study of Northern Ghana’s economic history.” All is forgiven… By the time I got this card he was dead. He had written it from hospital and when I tried to contact him, they said, “Oh, Meyer Fortes died last week”. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Federico: In a way, it was a complicated inter-generational relationship…
Keith: Yes. I had a strong feeling that Fortes and Evans-Pritchard thought all of us, my generation, were a waste of time. There was no point in taking us seriously because we had our own agenda, we were not listening, we just wanted to turn everything upside-down. They cultivated the Old Fogey act. You would think they were simpletons from the way they talked to us, or they thought we were. Meyer stayed in this register with me for a decade. I couldn’t get a decent conversation going with him. I learnt later why—because he thought I was Jack Goody’s spy. Jack encouraged his students to study modern social phenomena: education, local government, commerce. Meyer felt that we were all modernizers; we didn’t care much about traditional social structures.
Then one day when I was visiting from Yale—I remember it vividly—he took me to lunch and we were having coffee afterwards. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I used the word “time” and he asked me, “What do you mean by time?” In under a minute, I was floundering; we were into deep philosophical, scientific waters. Meyer Fortes joined Karl Pearson after he formed the first psychological statistics lab in Britain at University College London. He knew Freud and Marx inside-out. Evans-Pritchard was a liberal politician, trained in English rationalist philosophy and history.
They decided to let us get a degree for graduate fieldwork but didn’t expect us to understand anything important. I was upset that they wouldn’t teach us the intellectual history they had mastered, didn’t want to share this with us. A lot of what I write now is intellectual history, probably because they denied us access to it or just because I am a classicist. I want to read the people who changed how we think. But I’ll never forget that moment when he pulled the trap door open, and I fell through the floor.
Of course, because Fortes was so rough with me, I ended up venerating him more than anyone. I respect tough treatment. He was cruel to me really. Even so, he was the greatest anthropologist I knew personally, and I would like to write a memoir about him some day. His most important work was on the development cycle of domestic groups: how can you build a social order when its material is living people with all their accidents of birth, copulation, sickness, injury, and death—it’s so chaotic. He realized that Tallensi social forms were imposed on this disorder through life-cycle rituals of initiation, marriage, and death, since they had no centralized political institutions.
He once told me that he got this idea from D’arcy Thompson, a polymath scientist of organic morphology who wrote an anti-Darwinian book, On Growth and Form (1942), considered to be the best book ever written by a scientist, all 1100 pages of it! His argument goes, Darwinian evolution is all about micro-variation, but why do the members of a species look alike? Why does an oak tree, down to each leaf, look like all the others? Physical pressures affecting growth account for this consistency of form, even between living and mechanical things. The speed of a fish or ship rises with the square root of its length, and there is a limit to the height of the tallest tree. It’s the physics, stupid. This was where Meyer got the development cycle idea from, but he never let on, maybe privately to a few like me, because he wanted to found a public trade union. He once wrote, “Social anthropology is what social anthropologists do”. He helped form the Association of Social Anthropologists of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth (ASAUK), so that he and his peers could choose who to let in.
He would tell us “all you students want is change, but what matters is continuity. That’s the difficult thing.” If evolution is based on random variations, how does the form emerge in the flux and chaos that is life? In his second Tallensi monograph, The Web of Kinship, and work on “Time and social structure in Ashanti” published in the late 40s, he combined statistical and network analysis with amazingly detailed qualitative ethnography. I would like to write about that. I’ve seen his field notes. He understood the language so much more subtly than I did because he knew the etymology—but I had to learn three of them. Many of his field notes are written in Talni. His understanding of the grammar and form of words was just incredible.