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Constructing the field: power, persona and paper tools

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How did inter-war social anthropologists go about trying to understand a ‘whole society’? This paper draws on archival sources to reveal the research methods, political contexts and inter-personal relations that contributed to the construction of ‘the field’ in East and Central Africa during the 1930s. By doing so, the paper contributes to a long-running discussion carried on by historians, philosophers and anthropologists about the nature of observation and understanding in the modern social sciences. The paper argues that knowledge produced ‘in the field’ led to the formation of a distinctive and authoritative scholarly persona in the British social sciences (the figure of the ‘social anthropologist’). This persona was constituted by extending the lessons learnt at Bronislaw Malinowski’s seminar at the LSE into the politically and socially uneven terrain of Britain’s African colonies.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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