Lecture 7: Evans-Pritchard’s Legacy
Fifty years after E-P completed his ethnographic study of the Nuer, the American
anthropologist Sharon Hutchinson went to Nuerland, in the Southern Sudan, to conduct
ethnographic research. In the opening passage of her ethnography, Nuer Dilemmas:
Coping with Money, War, and the State (1996), she writes:
It is good that you are leaving before the rains begin,” remarked
Gatnyinijar, my long-standing host and “head chief” of the western Leek
Nuer, as we walked together with his policemen to auction off several
head of cattle confiscated in lieu of uncollected taxes.
What has changed?
1. The previously egalitarian society now has a CHIEF.
2. Taxes are paid: A form of centralized state is recognized.
3. Cattle are auctioned: Cattle viewed as a commodity, sold in trade. The
relationship b/w cattle and the Nuer has altered. There were still family herd but
also there were herds that were purchased in the marketplace which gave young
people a lot more freedom form their elders which began to deteriorate the entire
tribal and family structure
All of these things were inconceivable when E-P worked and walked among the
Nuer in the early 1930s. The Sudan declared independence from Egypt and
England in 1956, but civil war began a year earlier between North and South
Sudan. During colonial rule, the north and south had been governed differently,
and after Independence, racialized and religious categories were used to separate
the two. The North was Arabic and Muslim; The South was Christian or Animist
and Black. Civil War in one form or other would continue until the Southern
Sudan was granted Independence just this past year.
Sharon Hutchinson’s work builds directly on the path–breaking work of Evans-
Pritchard. But anthropological theories and styles of ethnographic writing
changed over the 50 years between the two studies. The reasons for both changes
are interconnected. Theory and styles of representation are connected. This lecture
is going to explore that relationship.
In the Nuer, E-P put forth a theory about political life among the Nuer that
became known as Structural-Functionalism. In Structural Functionalism, the
ethnographer illustrates the interconnectedness between various cultural and
social institutions that work together like a finely oiled machine, holding the
society together and allowing for the reproduction of that society. The focus in
structural functionalism is on maintaining equilibrium, and on reproducing shared
cultural patterns. The problem with structural functionalism is that it is not very good at explaining
social change. There is no room for critique. For all that E-P was influenced by
the discipline of history, so that he understood historical understanding to be
culturally relative (a very important observation), his structural-functionalist
analyses tended to treat societies as static, self-enclosed, holistic, cultural units.
The irony is that the very colonial regimes he served were instigating radical
social change. But there were other historical forces as well, as social and cultural
movements have swept across North Africa for m