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.

Malinowski himself acknowledged a debt to Rivers and the ‘Cambridge School,’ praising their ‘scientific’ methods of recording kinship data, verbatim statements and systems of “native classification” and their clearly drawn “distinction between observation and inference.”[2] Their innovative methodology anticipated many aspects of what is today considered good ethnographic practice. Edvard Hviding discusses the sophistication of Hocart’s “cautious fieldwork methodology” (73), particularly in naming and positioning informants. He also argues that Hocart’s notes on inter-island relations accounted for greater complexity than the self-contained explanations of subsequent functionalist and structuralist approaches (chapter two).

Despite praising their methods, the contributors to this book broadly agree that neither Hocart nor Rivers achieved the sophistication of reflection and analysis later provided by Malinowski. The excellent opening chapter by Christine Dureau considers the question of how to evaluate the contribution of one’s academic forebears when their theories have been shaped by colonial worldviews. Dureau takes inspiration from how Solomon Islanders have reconciled their changing values with respect for pre-Christian ancestors by evoking their forebears in ambivalent terms as “good sinners” (64). In this manner, Dureau characterises Hocart and Rivers as “good imperialists of the time before reflexivity” (64).

A number of chapters point out the great irony of the expedition: that despite Rivers’s development of sophisticated genealogical techniques for gathering kinship data, both Hocart and Rivers appear to have overlooked the guiding principles of kinship and group formation in the region. Cato Berg discusses how although the purpose of the expedition was to analyse the distribution of ‘mother-right’ and ‘father-right’ kinship systems, Rivers and Hocart appear to have missed the significance of matrilineal kinship in Vella Lavella (chapter three). It seems the researchers were confounded by the bilateral character and flexibility of kinship reckoning across Melanesian societies. Knut M. Rio and Annelin Eriksen describe how in a 1914 survey of northern New Hebrides (present-day Vanuatu), Rivers was also unable to comprehend the famed ‘six section’ kinship system of North Ambrym (chapter four). Nevertheless, the authors attempt to revitalise aspects of Rivers’s ideas of ‘mother-right’ and ‘father-right’ and seemingly Eurocentric categories such as consanguinity and affinity, suggesting they resonate with Ambrymese conceptual dichotomies pertaining to the constitution of the person, and dual orientations to maternal and paternal origins.

Rivers made a methodological distinction between his ‘intensive work’ and the ‘survey work’ that comprised much of these later comparative writings. Whilst the authors in this volume agree there is much of value in the 1908 intensive fieldwork, they tend to be more scathing of the latter. Thorgeir S. Kolshus gives us a critical reappraisal of Rivers’s generalisations in his survey of the Banks Islands and Tikopia, suggesting they were based on flawed and ethnographically thin data, and later misinterpreted due to a theoretically over-determined “hyper-diffusionism” (chapter five, 156). Kolshus sees this tendency as a warning against a contemporary shift in anthropology away from ethnographic empiricism toward an emphasis on theoretical elaborations.

Two chapters debating Rivers’s ideas about depopulation in Melanesia also praise his pioneering methods and data, but contest the strengths of his theoretical conjecture. Tim Bayliss-Smith applauds Rivers’s ‘vital statistics’ as useful measures for tracking fertility and mortality rates, but strongly criticizes his interpretations of this data as distorted by his burgeoning interest in psychological neuroses, instinct and the unconscious (chapter six). By contrast, Judith A. Bennett argues that Rivers recognized a range of factors beyond the ‘psychological,’ including disease and alcohol, and she sees value in Rivers’s holistic view of “bio-psychosocial connection” (241), suggesting psychosomatic ‘suggestibility’ may have played a bigger part than can be apprehended within a Cartesian mind-body dualism (chapter seven).

The reflections and reanalysis found in these chapters are only possible due to the quality and accuracy of Rivers’s and Hocart’s ethnographic fieldnotes and materials. A final chapter from Tim Thomas details the fine photographs and objects carefully collected by Hocart and Rivers, now housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (chapter eight). This is supplemented by three appendices containing transcriptions of reports and letters from the expedition archive.

This volume can be recommended to anyone interested in the Western Pacific, and more broadly the history of anthropology and ethnographic theory and methods. For the anthropologist, Dureau’s opening quote from Hocart that “A theorist is a child of his own times” remains relevant. Successive theoretical ‘turns’ make it difficult to anticipate how today’s theoretical interpretations will be read in future, but this book testifies to the enduring importance of rigorous methods and detailed fieldnotes for grounding ethnographic knowledge and anthropological reflection.

[1] Giovanni da Col, introduction to Marshall Sahlins, Inaugural Hocart Lecture: “The Original Political Society” (London: SOAS Centre for Ethnographic Theory, 2016).

[2] Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (London: Routledge, 1922), 18.

Rachel E. Smith: contributions / rachel.smith-4@manchester.ac.uk / Social Anthropology, University of Manchester