In 2015, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) celebrated its 120th anniversary. As part of this, the LSE’s Department of Anthropology held a day-long event to explore its history, covering the transformative leadership of Malinowski and its development in the years after his departure. The workshop included LSE alumni from several decades, current and past faculty members, and current and former students, who gathered on the final day of term in December to recollect the life of the department through a mixture of personal reminiscence, entertaining anecdote, and reflective intellectual history.

The day opened with a reading from the not-yet-published second volume of Michael Young’s biography of Malinowski. We heard how in 1924, Malinowski joined the School’s tiny department of ethnology, his arrival occasioning a ‘veritable blossoming of fresh courses’ in the nascent discipline. The extract described the famous seminars, which took place in a ‘small room’, with Malinowski ensconced in an armchair and ‘a fire blazing in the grate’, as the assembled scholars—among them Edward Evans-Pritchard and Raymond Firth—talked of kinship, of magic and mana, and of the Trobriands.

Bronisław Malinowski among Trobriand tribe

These opening remarks set the stage for papers and comments from several scholars with ties to the department, including:

Adam Kuper (LSE), who gave some historical reflections on this period and situated the LSE department within the context of British social anthropology, at the time a world of evolutionists and diffusionists. He noted the role of money in the consolidation of Malinowski’s leadership at the LSE, especially with the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial fund’s disbursement of large sums for the study of the colonial world in the 1920s and 30s.

Michael Cox, from the LSE’s International Relations department, contextualized the LSE’s position at the time, noting the School’s location in central London, close to government and the Colonial Office. He mentioned the School’s cosmopolitanism, and its foundation by nineteenth-century Fabians as a ‘utilitarian enterprise’. He noted the influence that the anthropology seminar had on people from all over the world, often those of a ‘very radical political disposition’, among them Jomo Kenyatta.

Sherry Ortner (UCLA) and Jean La Fontaine (LSE, retired) offered entertaining portraits of two of Malinowski’s students, Hortense Powdermaker and Audrey Richards. Ortner praised Powdermaker for her ‘daring’ choices of ethnographic subject, among them 1940s Hollywood and race relations in a Mississippi town in the 1930s. Theses talks were enriched further by the display of original copies of Powdermaker’s letters to ‘Bronio’ (Malinowski), courtesy of the LSE archive.

In the afternoon, Chris Fuller (LSE, retired) gave a sketch of the Department’s preoccupations in the interwar period. In spite of the School’s close links with India in particular, British functionalist social anthropology at that time still took ‘primitive’, small-scale societies as its primary object of study, and so large class and peasant societies such as India and China were not yet of great interest to the discipline. Following Fuller’s sketch, we were introduced to the Department’s first two PhD students from those countries, A. Aiyappan and Fei Hsiao-t’ung, who arrived in London in the 1930s. Filippo Osella (Sussex) spoke on Aiyappan, who studied the effects of the colonial presence on caste relationships in a Keralan village. Stephan Feuchtwang (LSE, retired) spoke on Fei, who studied under Firth, and wrote on the beginnings of rural industrialisation in China.

The final session began with a talk from David Mills (Oxford), who evoked the world of LSE anthropology after Malinowski left the department in 1938. He focused on the ‘bridge-building’ work of three women at the LSE—Margery Perham, Lucy Mair, and Audrey Richards—to tell a story of social anthropology as it was imbricated in the postwar British empire, particularly in Africa. Mills painted a picture of a period of intense rivalries over funding, and a relationship between anthropologists and reformist colonial administrators characterised by mutual suspicion and interdependence.

Adrian Mayer (SOAS, retired), who studied in the department in the 1940s and 50s, offered vivid memories of his time at the LSE almost 70 years ago. In a period when ‘every student came with a necktie on’, Mayer remembers his postgraduate diploma in anthropology; ‘a fearsome beast’, which covered ‘all the aspects of the science of man’, taking a functionalist and empirical approach.

The session’s focus then turned to the present and future of LSE anthropology. Maurice Bloch (LSE, retired) spoke sharply of anthropology as a discipline that lacked a center. He said that the original impetus of anthropology had been ‘the understanding of the nature of our species and its evolution’. He argued that fundamental issues of human life that had interested scholars including Edward Westermarck, such as kinship, and the universality or otherwise of moral emotions, remained anthropology’s proper province. At the LSE in the period under discussion, anthropology had ‘reinvented’ itself as, in effect, the social science of non-Western peoples. But what anthropology ought to offer, Bloch argued, was rather a challenge to the accepted ideas of other disciplines.

Hans Steinmüller (LSE) responded in part by noting that anthropologists did use ethnographic material to challenge some of the assumptions of ‘modernist’ social sciences, for example the idea that kinship is separate from politics and economics.

The day concluded with words from Laura Bear (LSE) about anthropology in the future. She had asked colleagues to imagine what LSE anthropologists might be doing in a hundred years’ time. Their answers, she said, had shown that whatever anthropologists were now, they weren’t developmentalists, not apt to be drawn into ‘naive projects of intervention’, as had happened in the past.

Her colleagues’ ‘divinations’ about a future world of environmental catastrophe and new projects of democratic experiment was, much like the divination of the Trobrianders described by Malinowski, a ‘search for an ethical order in a time of uncertainty’. It is, she said, just as Bloch might hope – anthropology at the LSE is ‘already very much about what it means to be human’.

Full audio recordings from the event may be listened to online. (With special thanks to Rita Astuti, LSE.)

Katharine Fletcher: contributions /