[From Indian Anthropologist (June, 1991) vol.21, no.1]
An Interview with Alan Macfarlane
VINAY KUMAR SRIVASTAVA
Alan Macfarlane of Cambridge University is well known for his work on population and resources. He discussed certain aspects of anthropology with Vinay Kumar Srivastava, Department of Anthropology. University of Delhi (presently a Commonwealth Fellow at Cambridge) on Thursday, 1 Dec. 1988, and following is the text of this interview
- Managing Editor
VKS : Dr. Macfarlane, you came to anthropology from history. What was the reason of this shift?
AM: I think I have always been looking for anthropology since my late teens. I have been looking for a discipline which could integrate all the different aspects of human society and provide a general explanation for the meaning of lives we live. So I had been secretly looking for it without really knowing about it.
Perhaps another reason was that I had been brought up in North- East India on the frontiers between Assam and Burma. My parents were tea-planters, and so I had always been interested in other cultures and civilizations, and always wanted to go back to where I had been brought up as a child and look at the tribal people of North-East India. So I had been secretly looking for anthropology without knowing what it was I was looking for.
I did a history degree at Oxford, and towards the end I became dissatisfied with the rather dry constitutional and political history that I was reading. I still did not really know what I was looking for. So when I decided to do research I chose three topics: study of myth in 17th Century England which is my great interest; the study of sex and women which was another interest that I had; and the third alternative I wanted to study was witchcraft beliefs, b,-cause I had read one or two history books and had not been very satisfied by them. I remember the day my examinations finished. Every one else was going to celebrates with bottles of champagne on the lawns of Oxford, and I went and
· Dr. Alan Donald James Macfarlane, F.R.A I., F.R. Hist. S., F.B.A.: Reader in Historical Anthropology, University of Cambridge, since 198 1; born 20 December 1941; education Sedbergh School; Worcester College, Oxford "M.A., D. Phil.) London School of Economics (M. Phil.) School of Oriental and African Studies., (Ph. D.); Publications : Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, 1970; The Family life of Ralph Josselin, 1970; Resources and Population, 1976; (ed.) I he Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1976; Reconstructing Historical Communities, 1977; Origins of English Individualism, 1978; The Justice and the Mare's Ale, 1981; A Guide to English Historical Records, 1983; Marriage and Love in England, 1986; The Culture of Capitalism, 1987.
sat into the Bodleian Library, and picked up a book by Preserved Smith called History of Witchcraft and read it, and thought that this was what I would like to do my research on. So, I went to see a possible supervisor, Christopher Hill He was a leading Marxist historian, and asked him whether he would supervise me on one of these topics. He said that he thought that Keith Thomas, who was one of his former pupils, would be better. So, I went to see Keith Thomas, who had at that time published an article in 1963. 'Anthropology and History ' in Past and Present (vol. 24). In this he argued that basicallyhistorians have an enormous amount to learn from anthropologists, and vice-versa. He was the foremost person in the field of bringing these two disciplines together, and he was appointed my supervisor. He immediately set me reading. He said that witchcraft was a very good subject, little did I know but he himself was just about to write one of the books bringing anthropology and history together namely Religion and the Decline of Magic. He had just embarked on that. Anyway, he said I should go and read some anthropology if I was going to understand witchcraft. I had never heard the word before. So, he said go along to the Institute of Social Anthropology, and look at their library. So I went along, and suddenly this new world opened up to me of a new discipline which I had always been waiting to find, but did not know about it. And I met many of the distinguished anthropologists there. That's how it started.
VKS Your first book was on witchcraft, and when you formally started to work in anthropology in London, you chose to work on population and resources. With the background of thorough study of witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, I would have expected you to have chosen to work on witchcraft, magic, and religion in primitive and tribal societies, or the society you selected for carrying out your field study. Why did you chose to work on population and resources, instead of topics related to witchcraft ?
AM: Well, in fact there was an intervening stage. When I had done my D.Phil. on English witchcraft in the seventeenth century, I knew that I was an amateur anthropologist had read some anthropology, and put it in my book, but I thought that I should get a formal training in anthropology as well. With growing professionalization, people tend to dismiss you as an amateur. So I decided towards the end of my doctorate to go to particular taught degree in anthropology. I went to the London School of Economics(LSE). At Oxford, I had met all the great people, Evan s-Pritchard, John Beattie, the Lienhardts, and the rest of them. In the LSE, I was fortunate again to meet the great generation as they were about to leave, Lucy Mair, Raymond Firth, Isaac Schapera, and so many of the other distinguished people. So I did a two-year taught Master’s M Phil. in anthropology, and my supervisor was Schapera. I was his last pupil, I think. And he knew that I was interested in history as he was. He said, "Well, I'll chose you a subject”. And the topic he actually chose for me was incest He said, ',There are two universal taboos in human society. two universal horrors one is witchcraft which you have already studied, and the other is incest, And it will be very interesting to have an historical study
[very blurred photo of Vinay Srivastava and Alan Macfarlane in King's in taped interview]
of the incest taboo in England using historical sources": I wrote an M.Phil. Dissertation I
about incest which very many years later came out in the form of a book on marriage and love in England through a long subterranean passage.
At the end of the two years taught Master's, I decided that I wanted to a Ph. D. And by that time several things were happening in the world. One was that the late 1960s was the time, like the present, of acute ecological concern. It was the time when not only the Vietnam War was going on, but also many people were worried about what they called the 'population bomb'. Paul Ehrlich and many others were writing books with that title. And so there was a general concern, suddenly beginning to be realized, that the world’s population, instead of decreasing as they thought would happen, was rising. There were tireless warnings about the ecological effects and of the economic and social effects. Every one was worried about population at that time. So that was the general back-ground.
More particularly within history, the most exciting work was being done in population
history. New techniques and methods were being developed in France and England, and
elsewhere , to subject list of inhabitants in parish registers to detailed demographic analysis, and paint a new picture of the past based around rise and fall of population. So, both intellectually and in terms of what we were talking about, it was an exciting topic. So, I already had the idea b,-,fore I went to Nepal that I would do something on the relationship between population and resources.
VKS: Why did you chose Nepal as your field area?
AM: Well, as with most anthropologists, it was a complete accident. I don't think
that I knew where Nepal was before I went there. I was born in Shillong, and was
brought up in Assam on the edge of the Naga Hills. And I wanted to go back to study
one of the tribal groups in Assam. My mother very vaguely knew Verrier Elwin, and so
I'd always wanted to go back to study the Garos or the Khasis My family had been in
the 1890s in Burma, and I would have liked to have worked amongst one of the Burmese
hill tribes, but of course, Burma was inaccessible and still is, So, I wanted to go and
work in NEFA, or in the Garo and Khasi hills. When I applied to do research in the
School of Oriental and African Studies, I tried to set out some research in the Garo and
Khasi hills, and I had some good contacts. And Professor Furer-Haimendorf %%,as
appointed my supervisor, who was then the head of the department at School of Oriental
and African Studies. We wrote to the people and tried for a few months to get a visa to
go and study, but of course, in the late 1960s there was a great deal of trouble
on the North-East frontiers, and it soon became clear that I would not get to Assam to do
field work. There was absolutely no way out to go get a visa, and so Professor Furer-
Haimendorf, who himself had originally worked in this area, and then worked down in
Hyderabad and Orissa, and then went up to Nepal, said, "Well, there has been very little
research done, in Nepal. There are very many groups who have not been studied. Why
don't you go to Nepal ?" I looked at a map, found where Nepal was, and said that
since I can't go to Assam, 1,11 go to Nepal.
VKS: What were your first experiences of doing field work in Nepal
AM: I think, in one world, chaos. There is a nice article by Marriott called 'Holi,
the feast of love', which describes his feelings when he was caught up at the beginning of
his field work in an Indian village in the feast of Holi when everything was being overtur-
ned, and when people were doing the most extraordinary things or throwing things at
each other, painting each other, and throwing water around, and so on. And he describes
his feeling of confusion: he could not see whey they were doing, what they were doing,
and he could not understand their language.
My experience was rather similar, or even more so. I went with my wife, and I did
not have much money, and not much self-confidence. We walked. We set off from
Pokhara. Fortunately, Professor Furer-Haimendorf had been to that area, and there was
a very good book by a Frenchman who worked on he Gurungs a few years before me.
So we roughly knew where we were going. We had a letter saying go to the village and
ask the headman if you could stay and do anthropological field work. We set off with
eight porters carrying all our possessions, and they took us the wrong route. And I jog
was not prepared anyway -psychologically, physically, mentally-for the shock of climbing
up and down over those enormous steep hill sides. After about a day and a half, or
days l was absolutely exhausted physically, and so was my wife. We never got to the village
we had intended to reach. We stopped short of it. What we thought was a long way
away from civilization after a day and a half ; we did not know that that there was a
shorter route we could have gone which could have made a difference of few
hours. But we had gone far enough. We collapsed. Then we found ourselves in the
village in a situation where we did not understand a word of the language, because it is a
Tibeto-Burman language which had not till that time had any vocabulary or grammar
published, or printed, or available. So it was really a matter of poking around, and
pointing at things, and writing down the sounds that came back to us.
We were physically exhausted. The people gave us a house. But the first great
shock was the absence of any privacy. We sat in the middle of our house. There were
very low ceilings. Every time we got up, we banged our head against the ceiling. The
house had no chimneys, and it was constantly filled with smoke. I did not know how to
cook on a wood-fire. I almost suffer with amnesia about that time. My memory is of
a short of dark room with smoke b.-]lowing around me. Unable to understand anything
that was being said, my memory is of hundreds of people constantly in the room, all
sitting around, watching me, jabbering away, laughing and pointing at me, and me
struggling to make a few simple meals. The first three or four days were absolute night-
mares of confusion and exhaustion.
VKS: Dr. Macfarlane, you are one of the few anthropologists who have command
over two disciplines, history and anthropology . Having done work in both of them, what
do you think is the relationships between them ? And also, what is the underlying and
unifying theme of your works, from witchcraft, to incest, to demography, to capitalism ?
AM: These are two different questions. In relation to history and anthropology,
putting it very simply, the ends of both disciplines are the same. In other words, in the
words of the great French social historian, Marc Bloch, a historian is like the giant in the
fairy tale. Whenever he smells human blood, he knows where his prey is. And really
the anthropologist is the same. Or, as C. Wright Mills, the sociologist, puts it: we are
interested in all past and present social worlds, possible and actual. Basically both
history and anthropology are trying to understand man in time. Their aim is the same
Two main differences obviously are that the framework of history tends to be longitudi-
nal, moves through time, and therefore, the kind of framework on which you hang your
information is a time series Whereas in modern anthropology, since evolutionism and
evolutionary anthropology declined, the studies tend to be a cross-section in space, rather
than in time. It tends to be a comparison of different societies at a point in time.
The second technical difference obviously is in the methodology. On the whole,
historical knowledge comes from what you may call 'objects' or 'texts'. One uses the
word 'text', in a rather general sense- it does not just come from written texts, though
that's what most historians study, 'bits of writing'. It tends to come from 'texts', which
might be writing, the name might also include building, painting, or other 'texts' from the
past. Anthropologists are also geared to study 'texts', but they tend to be 'oral texts'.
And there tend to be two kinds of information in anthropology: one is the information
which you gather with your eyes, by watching what people do, and the other is the
information you gather from asking them, what they are doing, what they think they are
doing. So, anthropology tends to be an oral discipline, rather than the literary discipline.
When I use the word 'tend', it is really that this is what one tells one's students that
one believes, but one also knows that there is a good deal of overlap between them.
The second part of your question was what is the unifying theme between series of
books which in order of writing are: the first was about witchcraft, the second was about
the family life of a seventeenth century clergyman, the third was a technical book on how
to construct historical records, the fourth was the edition of tile seventeenth century
English clergyman's diary, the fifth %\as the origin of English individualism which %%-as
really about property and peasants, the sixth was a book on violence, bandits, and high-
waymen in the seventeenth century Westmorland, the seventh was another technical guide
to English historical records, and Of course , I missed out one of the first which \\as on
population and resources in a part of the Himalayas. The next was oil marriage and love
in England 1300 to 1840. And finally, one on the culture of capitalism. What possibly
could unite all these different topics ? I think that a lot of them are historical and deal
with seventeenth century England, and look at different facets of this period. I think
ultimately it is rather pretentious for me to say so, but it is a bit like Evans-Pritchard. If
you look at his major works on the Nuer, he turns the Nuer round; he looks at their kin
ship system; he looks at their ecology and economy; he looks at their political system: he
looks at their religion. And in a way an anthropologist studying English historical society
wants to do the same thing. He is not content to look at economics, or religion, or one
aspect. He wants to look at the whole different parts of the society in the past just as he
would see them in the present. So, gradually, as my interest shifted from population to
violence to love and marriage, I looked at all these different topics.
The other thing is what unites them. The answer is rather eccentric, in the sense
that I think that when I have studied a topic quite fully and understood it, and mastered
it, I shifted to some other interesting problem. It is unlike some people who just go on
and on Studying the same thing in greater and greater depth. I find that it is rather like
cultivating a field where if you plant an entirely different crop on it, you get a better
return than if you on planting the same crop; the law of diminishing marginal returns
operates in academic life, and it Is a good idea to shift entirely and study something quite
different because you have the excitement of learning while you are studying. Many
people by the time they get to write a book, or whatever, are bored with the topic. You
have to catch it at the right moment when you are still intellectually excited by it.
One way of helping to do this to take on a challenge, or something that originally you
know very little about, so you have to learn fast and hard, and then to write a book about
it really clarifies in your mind. So, I like to choose topics as widely dispersed as possible
from each other
VKS: Dr. Macfarlane, as you just said, you have covered a wide range of topics
your writings. In the light of your work, what do you think should be the scope of
AM: Well, this is another huge question. In the light of my work, I think that, again
reverting to C. Wright Mills, anthropology should be concerned with, what it means in
Greek, in other words, the study of man. I think it should not be limited to the study of
primitive man, or peasant man, or modern man. If it swings too far in any direction, it
merely becomes the study of micro communities in advanced industrial societies. I think
it has lost its way if it remains, and is only concerned with, documenting and describing
tribal or hunter-gather societies If it does this, I don't think it can speak to us as
effectively as it should, So, I think that its scope in terms of the kind of subjects it
studies is vast. But above all, I think it needs to be very wide and comparative because
one of its main aims is to make us understand ourselves, and to understand how much of
ourselves is cultural, and how much of it is natural. And you can do this only when you go
outside, well outside your civilization and society. A great contribution of anthropology
to Western cultures has been that it has turned much of what people thought to be the
natural way that human beings behave into a cultural phenomenon; in other words, how
West Europeans have behaved for the last thousand or two thousand years has been put
back into question. It does not undermine it as a way of doing things, but it shows its
relative fragility, so speak, that it is just a way of doing things, and many other cultures
do it in other ways. So we have a choice about the worlds we want to live in.
VKS: May I ask you a personal question ? Who is your favourite anthropologist ?
AM: I think it would have to be Evans-Pritchard, partly because of personal reasons
and since it is a personal question. He was my D. Phil. examiner, for my witchcraft
thesis, and wrote a preface to my book. He was the first person whose books really
excited me in anthropology. And even now, I keep coming back, to his works when I
talk and lecture to my students, and find new and exciting ideas. I also like his work
because he was such a superb writer. His work are very clear. There is no muddle
in them; they are very carefully worked out. I also had a personal association with him.
I have the key to the desk on which he wrote all his works at home,. I used to have
the table on which he used to write his books. I have a number of his books with
inscription-, fro-Ti him to various leading anthropologists. So, l have a kind of personal
link with him. But I think that above all he managed through elegant prose to do the
VKS: What has been the influence of Elwin and Furer-Haimendorf on you
AM: Well, Elwin emotionally had an influence in the sense that I greatly admired
his involvement. I read his autobiography when I was quite young. He influenced me a
lot. His reaction against puritan Christianity, his desire to actually live, and, as he
called it philanthropology, to do something, as well as to try to understand people he was
staying with. I admired his practical involvement, his taking of Indian nationality, his
settling down in India. There has been much criticism of his ethnography, and in
future generations people may rind defects in his field work and his anthropology, but
they will actually have to recognize that it is all that we have and without him we
wouldn't have anything. So, it's a question of whether it is better to have these accounts.
He has done a lot of documentation which will be very valuable as ethnography. He
influenced me in choosing India, so to speak and I don't think that there were many
particular ideas of his that have influenced me very much, except a little bit on sexual
behaviour. I think his studies of sexual behaviour In India are very interesting because
again they show very strongly one of the things about Western society which is our
obsession with linking marriage and sex and in his work on Ghotul and elsewhere, he
shows the beauty and relaxedness of sexual life in the same way that Margaret Mead did.
I mean in some ways his work like Mead's. He shows how tribal cultures have a
vitality and beauty, and innocence, and aesthetic joy, which is lacking in a rather tiff form
of the cultures of the West. So, I learnt that from him.
Professor Furer-Haimendorf ... I think I am going to appreciate his work more and
more over time. When I studied with him, he was a very good supervisor in the sense
that he had very many contacts. He supervised me carefully with my work, but at that
time, he was not one of the sort of young, exciting anthropologist. He was already
distinguished, and getting elderly. I did find quite a lot in his works, like Morals and
Merit, which is theoretically interesting. He was generally a benign and good supervisor,
Who helped me a loc. But he did not enormously stimulate me, intellectually to begin
with. As I got to know him, and I know him much better now than I knew him when
I was an undergraduate or a graduate with him, I have come to admire his work more
and more. For the last for the last four years, I have been working very extensively on
his unpublished material, his photographs -many thousands of black and white photo-
graphs-and his diaries, unpublished and indeed the ones we have been working on, his
diaries in German of his times in the Naga Hills in 1936-37. They are very impressive
indeed. They were his private diaries; lie never expected them to be translated. Compare
them with the slightly earlier famous diaries of Malinowski which were translated and
caused a great outcry in anthropology, because of their arrogant, dismissive, paranoid,
and generally unpleasant tone. They didn't certainly do Malinowski a great credit. They
showed the depression, boredom, and so on of the field work. If you compare
those to Professor Furer-Haimendorf's diaries, which we have translated and he very
generously let us translate them, he never showed any concern or worry that there would
be anything in them that would be harmful either to him or the Nagas. And they have
been translated by a German speaker, Ruth Barnes. The diaries are very interesting,
very perceptive, and above all, very human and involved. It is clear from very early
on in his field work. You actually see an anthropologist's mind at work in the beginning
as an outsider, becoming half an insider, becoming intensely involved, always curious,
almost always good-humoured, and always trying to fit together little bits of pieces and
to understand, and I think that there are not many of us who would find that our field
work diaries if just unexplicated and printed would do us great credit. Most of us keep
a muddle and are unable to do that. But his diaries are very organized, very perceptive,
and at the end of each day, he would sit down, in his tent or bungalow, and would
write up what all happened in the day.
VKS: How did you become interested in visual anthropology and filming ?
AM: I think, well, every one who goes to another culture is always aware of how
difficult it is to translate that culture back into their own. One way obviously is through
words and writings, but that is not entirely satisfying, because you seem to miss so
much. So, when I went to do field work, and like most people I thought well I would
try to do something in a way of documentation using other media. I took a tape-
recorder and recorded some of their myths and songs. I took a still camera, and
took some still photographs, and in Kathmandu at that time, they were just beginning to
introduce small cameras, very tiny ones. So, I bought one of these, and took it up
to the hills, and took quite a few films, as much as I could at that time, not really
knowing what I would do with that, but feeling that it was too good an opportunity to
miss, and I should take the films. I might be able to use them later. So, I brought them
back-films and photographs. They were quite good because the air is very beautiful for
photography in the Himalayas, and the people are very photogenic, and so is the climate.
I brought all that back. I didn't actually do much with these photographs -just filed
them, showed them to friends and families., and used some of them in my book.
Then it was in the early 1980s, really at a dinner party-I was having dinner with
several department graduates who in the early 1980s had just finished their Ph.D., or were
finishing it. They were friends and there was not anything clear what they would be
actually doing after their Ph.D.s, they would be looking around for jobs, and so on. A
group of us decided that we would set up a little project in the Department after W.H.R.
Rivers, the anthropologist who worked on the Todas and other communities. And we
would call it the Rivers Video Project. We would try to raise a little bit of money and
make some films, because the technology had just got to the point in the early 1980s where
it was possible; before this making a film needed a great amount of organization and was
very expensive. We would have to have a big movie camera. The early 1980s was the
time when suddenly you got portable video cameras, just coming into the shops. So, we
latched on to this and thought that we could make little films ourselves as a group. We
raised a little bit of money from the Nuffield Foundation and elsewhere, and started
making films. We were going to make a series of films about the great figures, explorers,
travellers, and anthropologists. The best one probably we made in the beginning was
about a man who was an important documenter of Buddhism and Eastern kinship
systems, and his manuscripts are a marvellous source of the early history of Nepal and
Buddhism. We made a series of films on these sorts of people, distinguished early
The early 1980s was also the time when a lot of anthropologists of the great British
anthropological generation were getting elderly, and it seemed to me important to try and
film them, and record their lives in interviews so that when they were no more , we could
show them to our students and incorporate them in visual history of anthropology.
I started a series of films and recordings. I have in fact filmed and recorded about twenty
or twenty-five leading anthropologists. Some are very short twenty minute interview
which I did at a big conference held at Cambridge about five year ago, just asking people
why they became anthropologists, what they thought their main contribution was, and
on. So I did interviews with people like Raymond Firth, S. J. Tambiah, John Bea
and so on. If possible, I would like to spend the whole day about it, read about
persons' works, know what questions to ask, have a meal with them, and then spend
afternoon with a camera just pointing and talking to them. I have also done about half
a dozen of these extended two or three hour film interviews, and one of them was with
Professor Furer-Haimendorf, and that's in fact how I learnt about his photographs a
films, because it was after that interview that he said that why don't you put some of my
photographs and films into-cut them into-this interview. And from then all sorts of thin '
developed. I also did an interview with Lucy Mair shortly before she died. We have done
an interview with John Barnes. We have done an interview with Andre Beteille, a long
one and a short one. And we did one of M.N. Srinivas, a sort of middling one which was
done in a studio. Audrey Richards' and Meyer Fortes' done by Jack Goody. In the
beginning, Jack and I did these interviews. And when Jack went, I continued doing these
from time to time, and they are very interesting to look back on. So I got interested in
a sort of visual documentation of the anthropologists -the idea of making little films.
More recently I got more interested in visual anthropology for other reasons. The
main reason now for me, I think, is partly this idea that you should use this medium,
which is very powerful, for bringing back records of other cultures. And Cambridge has
been at the frontier. Jack Goody himself was very energetic in setting up a marvel-
lous video library, which is the best in Britain of anthropological films. But also, in
many other ways, he helped buy equipment and was interested in using videos in teaching
undergraduates. He used a lot of films in our undergraduate teaching, which help to
make the ethnographic setting much more real.
Recently I have become more and more aware as every one in Western culture is that
a number of centuries in which writing, or the literary mode, was the main form of
communication is rapidly coming to an end. And the main form communication within
academic life, to which the students are subjected as well as the general public, is now
visual. In other words, we are moving-if you look at human history there was an oral
stage, the pre-literary stage, and anthropologists have done a lot of work on the transition
from the oral stage to the literary, people like Jack Goody and others. But now we
moving from a literary stage to a visual stage, and therefore it is actually our duty
as well as our pleasure as anthropologists to understand the world as it is changing
and to teach our students how to analyze and understand the messages and communication
s which are coming out more and more in the form of visual messages rather
VKS: Continuing with visual anthropology and filming, I would like to know about
the Naga Video Disc you are preparing. And a question related with this is how did you
develop interest in the study of the Nagas ?
AM: Well, I take the second question first, how I got interested in the Nagas.
Again, there are different levels in the sense that I have always been interested in the
Nagas. I was brought up, as I mentioned earlier, on the edge of the Naga Hills, next to
the Konyak Nagas. ' as. And so, my very earliest recollections are of these strange people,
and indeed as a child, I was given Naga artefacts and used to play with them. I had a
sort of small Naga spear made for me, and I used to play all sorts of games with it. My
house had some Naga spears and daos, and a Naga funerary figure. So from all my life I
have been surrounded by some Naga artefacts. I have always been sort of curious what
sort of people they were, what more one could learn from them, That was one influence.
Then what happened was that, and this relates to the Video Disc, when we made an
interview with Professor Furer-Haimendorf, he said, "Why don't you come and see what
films and photographs I have got ?" I had known that he was a film maker, because I had
seen his film on the Sherpas, but I had not realized that what an important film-maker he
is and was. Probably he is and was the most important photographer and film-maker in
terms of ethnographic documentation, with the coverage, quality of material, and insight
that I know of. That doesn't mean to say that there are not others I don't know of ;
I don't know of and haven't heard of any other photographer or film-maker in
anthropology-the nearest contenders are people like Bateson and Mead who did some
very important photography in Melanesia, but the only intended to do one or two societ-
ies. Professor Furer-Haimendorf has documented in film form at least ten societies, because
he has worked in ten different-at least ten different- societies ]in depth, and therefore, he
has an amazing range of material covering three very different areas, North-East Frontiers
Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh, and Hyderabad. He has taken something like fifteen
thousand black and white photographs, something like ten thousand colour slides, and
something like a hundred reels of 16mm. film, much of it is in colour. So, there is a
superb archive. When he showed me this archive, he and his wife Betty said if you
can help to do anything with this, it would be a great thing. And I was allowed to bring
to Cambridge a lot of these films. I thought, well, it's marvellous, and at the same time
I was interested in visual anthropology, and I thought we must make use of this. It was
difficult to know what exactly you could do with this, and how could you make use of
fifteen or twenty thousand photographs and the moving films. I took two decisions. The
first was that I would start with his first field work, 1936-1937, which was amongst the
Nagas. So, I was led back to the Nagas accidentally by deciding to start with the
beginning, and see where we went from there.
Just in early 1980s, another technological revolution occurred. When I had organized
the Rivers Video Project-about two-third way through with the Project-someone
suddenly rushed in and said, "Have you heard about this new invention ?" We were
told that they had invented a new thing called optical disc which is basically like gramma-
phone record. It has been made possible because of the development of lasers. And
they can now with the laser inscribe on the surface of the thing, like gramophone
records, pictures, and then read them off with the laser. Thus instead of just having
gramophone records which have sounds, you have gramophone records which have
pictures. They can hold very large number of pictures, something like fifty-four thousand
on one side. The pictures can move b,-.cause you can play them through as if you are deal-
ing with the moving films. So, you can have still or moving pictures. You can have-there
are two sound tracks-sound to accompany the pictures, if you want. You can hold any
single picture on as long as you want. So, it has the immense advantage of a video tape.
It also has the great advantage that you can go to any particular frame in a couple of
seconds, say you can move from picture one to picture fifty-four thousand in two seconds.
You can address any frame, and the disc is very durable, So it will hold the pictures on
perhaps centuries, which will overcome the great problem of photography, the medium
which is always declining, and old films begin to crack up, and so on.
We got very excited when we were asked to put on, to help make the first video disc-
experimental video disc-in this country with the University of London, and we were
asked and we were given six weeks to provide ten thousand anthropological photographs
to be put on this video disc pilot project. It's the first video disc data bank of still images
to be produced. We did that; rushed around, and did that. And then for a year, I
didn't think much about it. The material of Professor Furer-Haimendorf and others
began to turn up for the Nagas, and I began to think that perhaps this would be the
medium on which to hold visual information. Just as l embarked on to try apply for money
to start doing that, I heard that the BBC were similarly very excited by this medium, and
were thinking of trying to celebrate the nine-hundredth anniversary of the Domesday
book of the great English survey of England. They were trying to make an electronic
Domesday book on optical discs, and they were looking for an historian to be on the
panel of the management committee of this project. They asked me to be on it. So, for
about a year and a half, or two years, I was involved in this multi-million pound
Domesday of Britain on video disc, and simultaneously working on the Naga project as a
small practical exercise. So, that's how the Naga and the Domesday video discs started.
VKS : Moving from the video discs, I want to ask you a question about the integra-
tion of various disciplines of anthropology like physical anthropology, archaeology,.
social/cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. The university from which I
come all these sub-disciplines, or what may be called branches, are taught under the
discipline of 'anthropology'. But here, there are separate departments of biological
anthropology, social anthropology, and archaeology, although under the same Faculty of
Archaeology and Anthropology. I would be interested in knowing your comments 04
the integration of anthropology.
AM : Anthropology was set up in this university over the period of time roughly
between Haddon's visit to the Torres Straits in the late, 1880s and 1890's, and he carried a
group of botanists, psychologists, and there were really no anthropologists at that time.
There were archaeologists, and they were beginning to set up a museum of archaeology.
So, it started off as a movement which encompassed, and was encompassed by, archaeology
and also physical anthropology. And, therefore, historically it grew up as a single depart-
ment faculty which had some physical anthropologists. some archaeologists and some
anthropologists who were only two or three. Interestingly, the first two professors of
anthropology here were both, again we always seem to come back to the Nagas, Naga
experts-William Wyse Professor of anthropology here was T.C. Hodson who worked
in Manipur and the Naga tribes of Manipur, and the second William Wyse Professor
was J.H. Hutton. So, it was a very rich Naga department in Cambridge until the War,
until well after the Second World War, when Meyer Fortes came. Till that time, Hodson
and Hutton and others were interested in material culture. So, there was a very strong
overlap between anthropology and archaeology, and also people like Haddon and others
were interested in physical anthropology and biology.
What has happened are really two things : one is that information has exploded in all
the disciplines, and that it is now very difficult to keep abreast of what is happening in
several different disciplines. So, you have to specialize, and particularly for students it
becomes more and more difficult to do a course which encompasses recent findings in all
these fields because the literature just expands and expands. So, for that reason, you have
Secondly, all these disciplines increased in size and wanted to have their autonomy
and separateness. In the late 1960s, I think, it was decided that the single department.
faculty should be sub-divided into departments. In the beginning, they were quite small,
three or four people, perhaps of that size. So you got department of physical
anthropology, social anthropology, and the department of archaeology, each one now with
its leader, perhaps a professor setting up a separate department, and the distance between
them also increased as a result of physical differentiation, because as things grew up,
there was not enough room in the same building, and so the departments moved into
separate buildings, Then you had an intellectual, physical, and organizational reason for
being slightly separate.
Also, over a period of time, your links-intellectual links-began to shift. Social
anthropology always had a close connection with sociology, and many British universities
you have departments of sociology and anthropology, rather than sociology and archaeo-
logy. The American tradition of having anthropology and archaeology as very closely
linked was different from the British tradition of having sociology and anthropology quite
closely linked. So, now it happened that the department of sociology or social and
political sciences, and the department of social anthropology are next door to each
other physically and historically have done a lot of mingling and teaching, and thus over-
lapped. This does not mean that we don't through our joint museum, our joint library
Haddon Library-and through joint seminars, and through a joint taught first year
undergraduate course, and through our joint faculty board, and soon, have close contacts
with biological and archaeological colleagues, but there is always a tension in which we
are pulled in different directions.
VKS What kinds of changes do you think have come in British Social Anthro-
AM I have to ask you what period of time you want me to consider ?
VKS Say 1930s onwards'
AM That's a very large question. I can select out of many few things, and probably
miss many others. One is that the underlying structure or paradigm, or. sorts questions
within the discipline have obviously shifted in the 1930s. The main paradigm was function-
alism, which was a reaction against evolutionism. Evolutionism was not so much in
Cambridge : Cambridge was really, In a way, diffusionist. Rivers had still been working
until recently. Hutton was quite interested in diffusionism. So it was still a centre of
diffusionism, but the new ideas of functionalism were spreading from Malinowski in the
LSE and Radcliffe-Brown with his structural -functional approach at Oxford. There was
also the influence of French sociology, and Evans-Pritchard was here for a year, and so on;
all this was beginning to shift the department towards functionalism and structural -func-
tionalism before the War. And when Meyer Fortes came here after the war as the new
William Wyse Professor, and people like Jack Goody and others came here you got a
phase where you got a dominant paradigm which was functionalism and structural-func-
tional approach. But also a battle the famous battle-between the new paradigm of
structuralism -the French structuralism-represented by Edmund Leach, and functionalism.
So, you had Audrey Richards, Jack Goody, Meyer Fortes who were sort of, one should
label, functionalists, and Leach, and to a limited extent, S. J. Tambiah, and others, who
were particularly excited by the new French structuralism. So, the present department
really is a reflection of these two main strands.
The other main tendency has been towards sub-specializations - Again, because the
discipline has become so much more complex and so many more sub-specializations now
have specialists in visual anthropology, medical anthropology, economic anthropology,
development anthropology, women's anthropology, and so on. So you have people
beginning to be specialized to their areas. But we still try and preserve the idea that any
anthropologist can test and examine and supervise in any field.
The other shift, I suppose, has been area-wise. At one time, the great-strength was, as
I mentioned, Naga and India. Then in 1950s, and 1960s it moved to Africa-West Africa
particularly -because of Fortes, Jack and Esther Goody, and others. You then got a
movement towards Asia with Tambiah and Leach. And now we really try and cover
every area. One had to pick up the sort of area which is, in some ways, most strongly
represented now, I suppose East Europe and Russia are more represented now. We
have Professor Gellner who is interested in Soviet anthropology. We have Caroline
Humphrey who has worked in Mongolia and Russia. We have Chris Hann who
has worked in many East European countries. There are people working in the Mediterr-
anean region. We also try and preserve an interest in the Pacific, in South America,
The other major shift or change in anthropology apart from the paradigmatic shift
and the area shift, is, I suppose, what you might prefer to call Malinowski's advise to
anthropologists in 1930s to bring anthropology home. I think he meant partly to bring
the lessons of anthropology back to Western Europe and America, but he also meant
that techniques and ways of looking at things which anthropologists have developed in
their studies of tribal and other cultures should be applied to the West, and this indeed
has happened, has partly happened for good intellectual reasons. That's to say that
people have felt that we shouldn't go out and study other cultures. We should study our
own culture using the same methods. It is also partly practical in that it becomes more
and more difficult for many anthropologists from the West to have permission to go and
study in other parts of the world. It has also become more expensive, and with cuts in
funds, and so on. Now half of our students are studying within Europe, whereas at one
time, I suppose, almost all of them were studying outside Europe. So that's quite a
shift. That doesn't mean that there are less students studying outside Europe, because
there has been quite a large expansion in the number of students. One of our students is
studying administrative offices in Cambridge. Some might go and study in Scotland or
Ireland or they might go and study Spain or Italy or Greece.
VKS : This brings me to a question on Indian anthropology and sociology. In India,
as you know, social anthropology and sociology are not really distinguished. Since you
worked in Nepal, and have an interest in Indian social anthropology and sociology, I
would like to know your view on it. With this, what do you think has been the influence
of British social anthropology on its Indian counterpart ?
AM: I think your readers will be better qualified to answer the second question, parti-
cularly how much Indian anthropology has been influenced by British social anthropology.
it is rather difficult for me to guess, because obviously I read the anthropologists like
Srinivas, Beteille, and others, who have been strongly influenced by the British anthro-
pologists. So, I see the strong influences there. But my narrowness is such that I do
not read all the people who have not been influenced. So, there may be strong influences
to begin with, and there my be areas which have not been influenced at all. But I would
have thought that the influence of British anthropology has been quite considerable.
What I think of Indian anthropology ? Well, the best of it is obviously equal to
anything that is being done in the world. It is very often very philosophically rich,
thoughtful. It has often got that sense of tension between different cultural systems
because people are working in India, and yet many of their models and ideas are drawn
from comparative works in other parts of the world. So, it is often extremely suggestive
and interesting. For me one of the areas where it is most interesting is in the analysis of
caste, problems of hierarchy, and inequality, because you have the situation of a discipline
working in a world where the premises are in some ways different from the premises
within the academic discipline. In England, I mean, this is something which never really
explains; basically this sort of world view and the commonsense premises of an anthro-
pologist working in England are not very different from any academic, or even the
general public Perhaps, anthropologists are a bit less racist than the general public. I
don't know but the general view of the world at deep level is not very different from
their view as an ordinary citizen of the society.
I think one of the tensions that must occur in Indian anthropology which makes it
more interesting and also more difficult is that some of the premises are held by the
anthropologists : the secular premise that Indian anthropologists are not entirely persua-
ded by religious fervour; or they have belief in the premise of equality rather than
inequality. So these things put them in some ways in a sort of not exactly tense but
contraposed relationship to very many of the population. So, they are working not in
the discipline. A discipline is more than merely an attempt to understand mankind;
it is also very much an attempt to understand their situation within India. I think that's
what, perhaps, one of the things missing about British anthropologists. When a British
anthropologist does a study of Britain, he just wants to understand. He hasn't got any
message, particularly. He is just trying to apply anthropological techniques and theories
to a sub-section of the British society, I think an Indian anthropologist studying India is
probably trying to solve much bigger and wider problems. The other thing is that India,
when you talk about India, as my friends in India always remind me, it is ridiculous to
talk about India because it is like talking about Europe, or more than Europe. I mean,
it is just not a matter of Europe; it is East Europe, West Europe, and North America.
You are talking about a situation ",here and anthropologists at Delhi or Bombay can
go a few hundred miles, and not just be, as it would be in Europe another romance
language-speaking society with a Christian heritage, or basically a cultural system which
overlaps quite a lot with your own even if they speak slightly different language or dialect
and their history is a bit different. When you move around in India as an anthropologist,
as you already know, you are faced with diff,-rent civilizations, entirely different languages,
entirely different cultures, and so on. Why are we a bit hesitant about sending our
students to study in Britain because there is not that culture shock. There is no problem
in India because you have plenty of culture shocks, even when you move quite a short
VKS : I am greatly interested in knowing your views on the recent movement in
anthropology according to which ethnography is a kind of fiction, a kind of autobio-
grapby, and the ethnographers must admit the reflexivity of their activities.
AM : Well, like most movements, I mean, I first ought to say that I don't know
a great deal about it. I am interested in certain other things. But it seems to me that
here you can become partly so absorbed by the mirror, looking at your self and wonder-
ing why you are saying that you end up by saying nothing at all. Too much reflection
just leads to inaction. You are completely caught because you realize everything you say
is subjective, perhaps a result of our psyche, or our own vision, So don't delve into it
Secondly, probably like all reactions it sometimes is likely to be an over-reaction.
Having said that I think that the core of the idea which is basically that anthropology is
very affected by the culture and mentality and the perceptual blinkers of the person who
is collecting the data; that's obviously true, and it is the basic knowledge in history. I
mean in history the first question is this- the first thing you are taught as an historian
when you are examining texts, again the best book on historical methods is written by
Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft. He says that you should treat documents as witnesses;
you should cross-question them; you should assume that they are trying to deceive you in
some way; and then when you have proven them innocent should you believe them.
And in the same way an anthropologist who is in the sense the scribe-Who is writing
the document-should be always questioning himself as to what is behind these questions
and what are his biases. So, that's clearly a methodological principle in history, and it
should be in anthropology. The danger, or it is very easy, and I have heard some debates
about it, and you used the word 'fiction', it is very easy to jump, it's rather like saying
that myths are untrue; it is very easy to jump from the realization that we create the
world, and great ethnographers have created the worlds they saw. But if you take it too
far and say "Well, it's just fiction", or "It's a just a novel.', or "It's half truth", it takes us
too far, because it then makes it impossible to discriminate between different kinds of
creation. At the moment, I am reading Dickens' novels. And Dickens is as an observer
probably a much better observer and better writer too than most anthropologists have
ever been. And most great novelists are as acute in their observations as any anthropolo-
gists are. I would put Evans-Pritchard alongside one or two other great novelists. But
there is something different about Dickens' novels, and Evans-Pritchard's ethnographies.
And if you just collapse them together and say. "Well, they are just works of fiction", and
that's how you should treat them and treat them as if they were novels and poems, or
something like that, I think it goes too far : somehow, it does not add to our under-
VKS : What sort of advice you would like to give to the neophytes entering
AM: In India ?
VKS: India as well as here.
AM: Do you want theoretical advice or practical advice ?
VKS: Particularly in terms of choosing the field area, research topic.
AM: Yes, when giving advice to historians, I would say that the important thing in
Ph.D. is that you choose a delimited subject, don't choose the whole world. keep the
tension between a big problem if you just enter a very small problem. Ask yourself,
well if I were able to solve this problem, would anyone be interested in it ? Does it matter
anyway '? if it doesn't matter, there is no point in spending three years proving of disprov-
ing or showing it. We have realized that with a finite period of time you can only go a
little way towards it, and therefore, delimit it, take one aspect of it which will throw much
wider light. As Blake put it, to see a world in a grain of &and. Choose your grain of
sand which will illuminate the whole world. But have an idea of the whole world you want
to illuminate, and then choose the grain of sand. So, have a big problem which you are
addressing to, and then have a sub-problem which is the specific topic to choose. And
when you choose the specific topic, try and make it something, which obviously is feasible
and doable within a said period. Try and think about what the relation between the
problem and the sort of material that you are going to collect is. Historians have told
us that there is no point in asking interesting questions if there is absolutely no way to
find the sources, or the sources that would answer them. There is no use saying well,
I want to study something exciting, like the perceptions of space and colour in seventeenth
century France because that sort of topic is hopeless for a Ph.D. The perception of
space and colour are written in everything. There is no direct way of getting at
that : people don't write books and texts on the perception of space and colour. That's
the sort of thing may be to do at the end of your life when you have been thinking about
it and gathering the material. That's not the sort of thing that is very easy to do
a Ph.D. on. Likewise, when you choose a Ph. D. topic, choose one which you know
that if it had a good informant or few good informants, you know that if you spend
some time with a group of people observing them, watching them, you know that it might
be feasible at the end of year or so to get some answers to the questions you posed.
Otherwise, you would be just frustrated.
VKS: What are your next Projects ?
AM: Well, I tend to be in the middle of things. Two I can isolate. One is that we
are right in the middle of producing this video disc, and also we are helping to set up a
museum exhibition about the Nagas in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
So, over the next year, I'll be fully engaged in documenting the Nagas, writing about them,
producing this video disc, producing the exhibition, so finishing off that project. Then I
might go in all sorts of ways. Something I hanker for getting back to is doing some
more writing. I enjoy writing very much, and I haven't done very much for a year or two.
Just the other article, I did was an article, recently I wrote this article, on Henry Maine's
contribution to anthropology for a conference, which is going to be published soon. That
has got me excited again in legal anthropology, and Maine, and contract and status. Then
I wrote an article recently on the culture of capitalism, and I got very excited but I could
not pursue it. It struck me that I ought to try and take my ideas on the origin of Western
capitalism and individualism a little bit. And in particular I want something that would
unite what I do in England on British culture and history with something that I do in
Nepal, India, and China.
I would like to have some sort of a theoretical scheme that would allow me to and
at the same time be considering Western society and history, and understanding my own
culture, and also linking that with what is happening in India, China, and Nepal. Well,
that as to be worked out, but what strikes me, and something that unites my concerns,
is trying to understand that the capitalist and the individualist civilization is fast spreading
one of the last great bastions against it which is Marxism and Communism is falling,
crumbling, very fast in China and Russia. And this means that we may have a world
culture of capitalism within next ten to fifteen years. Whether India would fall in it; will
it have sort of a poise between caste, Hinduism, and capitalism-individualism-
westernism-modernization, or caught into the death struggle between these, but certainly
China, I think, and Russia are geared to move in that direction. And this would result
throughout the world of a particular social formation and ideology and way of looking at
things which emerged in North-Western Europe from the Middle Ages. This came to
produce the first industrial revolution, the first democracies. They spread quite rapidly
through the period of imperial expansion, and then there was a kind of pause. While
technology spread, the social system, ideology and mentality didn't spread so fast. Now
it is spreading very fast through communications and so on. And you can see it
every w-here. It is carried by television, tourism technology, and so even in remotest
Himalayan villages and other parts of the world, you can see it. And it seems to me
interesting to study both how it originated, and what it is, and what are its central
characteristics, and then to see how these central characteristics manifest themselves in
different parts of the world, because what happens is that they take on a local colour.
They are clothed in different ways, but their heart and core are many of the same unre-
solved problems, because capitalism is ridden by unsolved problems, and what I would be
delighted to explain to myself and perhaps to the societies which are adopting it what
those unsolved problems are, and the kind of package that they are acquiring when they
acquire their next television set.
VKS Please tell me something about your film on the Gurungs.
AM Yes, I made a film called 'Return to the Gurungs', which was really my impres-
sion of going back. I mentioned the dramatic nature of my first field work. So, it was so
difficult that I didn't go back for sixteen years and then when I went back, and that's
another thing , which a lot of anthropologists are doing now, are going back and writing
about it, and so I inside this little film about my impressions, and this Christmas I want
to continue making up that film.
VKS : My last question. Besides anthropology and history, what are your other
AM : Well, you have to answer this question through Who's Who-1988. And I
think I put down : Walking, music, and looking around second-hand book shops.
Vinay Kumar Srivastava