Ian Brown. The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning. 346 pp., 27 b/w illus., bibl., index. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Ian Brown’s The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning is a welcome addition to the literature on higher education in Britain, and particularly to the small but important body of work on SOAS (as it is now officially known). While SOAS has produced festschrifts for particular professors, and a few “corridor histories,” such as SOAS Since the Sixties and SOAS: A Celebration in Many Voices,[1] the school lacks the kind of intensive memorialization that one finds in say, Oxford and Cambridge. This is particularly true in anthropology where journals such as Cambridge Anthropology and the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford feature extensive obituaries and testimonies of staff. Brown’s new volume is, therefore, a valuable contribution to the history of SOAS, especially because the other SOAS histories are out of print.

Brown’s volume is clearly written and deeply researched and draws primarily from the school’s own administrative records. In addition, Brown writes out of deep familiarity with SOAS, since he has been both student and staff at the university and has served as a dean of arts and humanities faculty. The book is, as Brown says, a history written from “the Director’s office rather than […] the classroom and the common room” (4), and this shows. The volume’s themes of “imperial training” and “expansion of learning” focus on the political context in which the school was established. Founded during World War I to train British experts in the languages of the colonized, SOAS’s mission of facilitating imperialism was complicated by decolonization and the expansion in higher education that occurred during the Cold War. What would “applied” or “practical” training mean when Britain was a country and not an empire? And how did the social sciences fit into an institution with a focus on language and philology? These questions were complicated by the ironic fact that SOAS’s areal focus made it a home for an increasingly leftist student body that was focused more on criticizing empire than facilitating it. To his credit, Brown discusses the impact of Edward Said’s Orientalism on SOAS as well as leftist dissatisfaction more generally, including the highly critical and cunningly-named report “Oriental Despotism” published in 1973 by Ralph Russell.[2]

SOAS’s Anthropology Department was created after World War II at a moment when higher education was expanding across Britain. It was originally founded by Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf in 1950. Von Fürer-Haimendorf had earned a DPhil from the University of Vienna before using a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to come to the UK to study with Bronislaw Malinowski. In 1965 the department expanded its remit and became the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, and Abner Cohen, a Manchester PhD, became a prominent intellectual force. J. D. Y Peel became chair of the department in 1989 and was prominent in the department’s life until his death in 2015. Today the department is large and full of prominent scholars who do excellent work.

Very little of this, however, is discussed in Brown’s book. The history of anthropology is, like anthropology itself, a discipline which constantly worries over meta-issues such as its standing as a discipline and its organizing questions. It is useful to note here, then, that whatever history of anthropology is, Brown’s history of SOAS is not it. Not only is anthropology barely mentioned in this text, but there is little intellectual history in it either. Of course, Brown did not aim to produce history of anthropology. But it is important to note that one can always delineate the field by negative examples as well as positive ones.

One of George Stocking’s great strengths as a historian was his willingness to focus on the institutional context of anthropology. While much of his work consisted of reading and distilling massive amounts of published research in order to produce an intellectual history of the discipline, Stocking also lived through the politicization of anthropology in the 1970s and was keenly attuned to the discipline’s political economy. For him, a central question was: who paid for what, and how was it used once funders received it? Brown’s “Director’s office” view of history shares Stocking’s institutional focus, but it lacks his attention to intellectual history and is focused above the level of the department. As a result, it is too broadly-focused to serve as a role model for history of anthropology—but, to be fair, this was never the author’s goal. In addition, Brown’s careful account of budget, enrollment, and staff numbers provides a helpful reminder that the history of anthropology should be more than intellectual history or a sort of genealogical oral history.

Perhaps Brown’s book is most useful to historians of anthropology as an example of “adjacent literature,” which we should consult when writing our own works. It feels very much in the same vein as other institutional histories such as Ralf Dahrendorf’s history of the London School of Economics, called simply LSE, or F. M. L. Thompson’s edited volume, The University of London and the World of Learning.[3] These are important sources for contextualizing the history of anthropology as we study it.

Overall, then, Brown should be congratulated for having written a careful and well-researched study of SOAS, one which will appeal to specialists who study the history of higher education in the twentieth century. Although not highly relevant to the history of anthropology, it provides a valuable chronicle of the school’s governance, which future historians of anthropology should draw on. Future attempts to chronicle social anthropology in British educational institutions will find this volume very useful indeed.

[1] David Arnold and Christopher Shackle, SOAS Since the Sixties (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2003); Hugh Baker and Charles Tripp, eds., SOAS: A Celebration in Many Voices (London: Third Millennium Publications, 2007).

[2] Ralph Russell, Oriental Despotism: A Report on the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (London: Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy, 1973).

[3] Ralf Dahrendorf, LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1895-1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). F. M. L. Thompson, The University of London and the World of Learning, 1836-1986 (London: Hambledon, 1990).

Alex Golub: contributions / golub@hawaii.edu / Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa