Edvard Hviding and Cato Berg (Editors). The Ethnographic Experiment: A.M. Hocart and W.H.R. Rivers in Island Melanesia, 1908. 320 pp., illus., bibl., index, apps. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2014. $120 (hardback), $34.95 (paperback)

British anthropology’s founding myth is that Malinowski was the first to pioneer intensive fieldwork methods. The eight chapters in this absorbing edited volume present the view that it was within the important—but largely forgotten—Percy Sladen Trust expedition to the Solomon Islands in 1908 that professional anthropologists first undertook such an “ethnographic experiment.” The authors focus on expedition members W.H.R. Rivers and A.M. Hocart, who carried out ethnographic research on Simbo and Vella Lavella, New Georgia province. It is perhaps Rivers who is the more famous of the pair, due to his pioneering work on ‘shellshock’ during World War I. However Rivers’s legacy within anthropology has been more ambivalent than that of Hocart who has lately been lauded for his theoretical contributions, which had particular influence on Louis Dumont and Marshall Sahlins. In an introduction to Sahlins’s recent lecture in his honour, Hocart was heralded as “the Foucault before Foucault, the Latour before Latour.”[1] Hocart’s later work may be deemed as pre-empting postmodern critique by suggesting that a cosmic-political imagination is prior to historically-particular categories, divisions, and techniques of organisation whilst rejecting a radical break between pre-modern and modern, magic and rationality. The third member of the expedition, G.C. Wheeler, left Hocart and Rivers after two months to carry out independent fieldwork in the Shortland Islands. Although Wheeler’s fieldwork is acknowledged by the editors to be “by far the most extensive” of the trio, he did not achieve similar fame. In focusing on Rivers and Hocart, this volume does little to address Wheeler’s obscurity.

Continue reading