Edmund Leach talking to Frank Kermode 26th May 1982 (53mins.)
[Opens with Leach in his study in Barrington, Cambridge].
0:00:24 How he became an anthropologist; read engineering at Cambridge; influence of Cambridge theatre, seeing life as theatre; graduated during economic slump, joined British firm in China, Butterfield and Swire, and after a year in London went to Shanghai; in China for three and a half years until the end of 1936; in China posted in various places, eventually in Peking; travelled a great deal to obscure parts of China; impressions of China and comparisons with Europe; sacred mountains; ancient jades and their uses led to an interest in anthropological ideas
0:09:45 At end of China job, in Peking joined up with an American and went to Botel Tobago, an island off Formosa (Taiwan), then Japanese territory, population of c1500 primitive people; bowled over; first Europeans to have gone there since the turn of the century; drew picture of boats and houses and asked questions; there for about two and a half months; came back and saw Raymond Firth and showed him notes and photographs; Firth took him to meet Malinowski who decided he should be an anthropologist; most exciting time was the year working with Malinowski; 1938 Malinowski went to America, then worked with Firth as a research assistant for a year; very valuable experience; 1939 went to Burma, wanting to work on the edge of Burma and China; during war remained in Burma and India
0:13:44 War years; had intended to do anthropological fieldwork for fifteen months in Burma but joined the Burma Army; managed to fit in quite a bit of anthropology with military service; managed to get to obscure parts of Burma; officially part of the Third Burma Rifles, but seconded to X list, then Burma levees and Kachin levees; pushed out by Japanese but eventually got back into Burma as part of the Military Civilian Service
0:16:20 Post-War at the London School of Economics, etc.; demobilised 1946; still uncertain whether to be an anthropologist but had much material; discussed future with Firth, by now professor at L.S.E., who suggested he worked on material comparing it to published work; this led to PhD which was a book work thesis based on own experience of the Kachin; 1947 taken onto staff at L.S.E.; went to Borneo, to Sarawak to plan research projects; fieldwork in Ceylon; 1953 moved to Cambridge; considers he has been a serious professional anthropologist since 1946 aged 36
0:19:13 Still very much of British school of social anthropology at that time; had written a Firthian/Malinowskian thesis on the Kachin while in Burma which had been lost to the Japanese; main features of functionalist anthropology from Malinowski, through Firth, concerned with micro-sociology, but weakness is that it produces a static picture; Radcliffe-Brown also a functionalist, interested in ideal types; rivalry between Oxford and London; Evans-Pritchard later deviated from the Radcliffe-Brown mode and reinstated interest in history and ideology
0:25:10 Levi-Strauss’s influenced by American anthropologists, particularly Robert Lowie; at the end of the war in New York and was closely associated with linguist, Jacobson, and wanted to apply his ideas to the kind of cultural anthropology he had learnt in America; major application ‘Elementary Structures of Kinship’ published 1949, a comparative study of kinship terminologies; Morgan; very different from British functionalist anthropology; but there was a chapter on the Kachin which was central to the book and wrong but held insights into the underlying principles on which the society worked; fascinated Leach and spurred interest in structuralist approach; study of myths; purposely sent Stephen and Christine Hugh Jones to the Amazon where Levi-Straussian myth prevailed to find out how this worked on the ground; their studies are functionalist and local but that Levi-Strauss illuminates the detailed analysis
0:32:00 Power of Jacobson’s theory; Levi-Strauss trying to apply a theory of phonology, a pattern of sound, which humans can decode; Jacobson interested in distinctive features, Levi-Strauss in binary oppositions, and that customary behaviour is decoded in a similar way, in the mind; functionalist highly suspicious of this as they relied on hard facts; puzzle of objective facts and message bearing behaviours; symbolic coding; merging of functionalism and structuralism
0:40:15 Differences between himself and Levi-Strauss is that latter believes in universal coding systems within myths, he is sceptical; own background in mathematics informs his search for models; general perception that anthropologists study simple societies; engineers since the nineteenth have been encouraged to produce simpler, standardized, machines; analogies with industrial societies, whereas the so-called simple societies have not been pressurized into becoming the same and are therefore much more interesting; own work in Ceylon not a structuralist analysis
0:49:06 Now can no longer do fieldwork, working with literary and artistic materials; interested in patterns; feels that present-day field anthropologists are influenced by neo-Marxism, feminism, etc. and may be thought of as old fashioned in trying to straddle functionalism and structuralism; will find it more difficult to study exotic societies in the future as they are disappearing so will have to find ways of applying methods to more sophisticated social systems.