Lecture 9: 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 of several head of cattle confiscated in lieu
of uncollected taxes.
What has changed?
1. The previously egalitarian society has a CHIEF.
2. Taxes are paid: A form of state is recognized.
3. Cattle are auctioned: Cattle viewed as a commodity, sold in trade.
All of these things absolutely 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 broke out and 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
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 reproduction. The focus
is on maintaining equilibrium, on shared cultural patterns.
The problem with structural functionalism is that it is not very good at explaining social
change. 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 millenniums.
By the time the anti-colonial and independence movements surfaced in the late 1950s
and the 1960s, structural-functionalism had lost most of its relevance for making sense of
the world. This is the point of Talal Asad‘s Introduction to Anthropology and the
Colonial Encounter (published in 1973).
Asad notes that ―[when] E-P publish