Elizabeth Colson

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Elizabeth Colson, 1917-2016

Elizabeth Colson, the social anthropologist and social activist, after a long and truly remarkable career, died last year, aged 99, ‘on the verandah of the house she had built watching the birds’, in Monze, Zambia. To which, returning to where in the 40’s she began her Plateau Tonga and Gwembe Valley studies, finally she retired.

Anthropology as we all know comes in various guises, sometimes disguises, anthropologists too. Personalities and lifestyles vary sometimes widely and in ways one might not expect or realize from just their professional writings (though there may be telling hints). Utterly and completely unracialistic, defiantly so when necessary, completely and creatively committed to anti-colonialism and the political and humanitarian cause of Independence in Central Africa where over many long years she worked, Elizabeth Colson was very different in almost every way from perhaps most of her senior colleagues and their successors in the forties and early fifties at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (long since absorbed into the University of Zambia) in Lusaka. That is where, when I worked there, she would drop by on her way to or back from ‘the Plateau Tonga’.

As ever on those visits in her light, long, oatmeal coloured Boston-type raincoat with a selection of the latest new ‘who dunnits’ under her arm, and with usually little conversation – the Institute had changed very much since her time there in ways almost certainly not to her liking – the figure she cut was modest, private, polite. An already famous leading anthropologist but who, from appearances, could have guessed that.

It was on one such visit she chanced to meet John Argyle then starting to gear up for his Soli field research, and as often as not, perhaps for inspiration, preoccupied with a whole set of Charles Dicken’s novels. Immediately she took the initiative, invited him to come with her for a few days to her ‘field’ first, thinking to offer some induction into what John said then, and repeated last week, ‘Oxford had made no effort whatsoever to prepare me for.’ Fieldwork. (Was E-P’s advice to his graduates students there ‘to wear tennis shoes whenever possible because they dry out quicker’ the sum total of ‘approaches and methods’ as taught then?). Among other things he recalls her taking him in a dugout canoe on a stretch of, or a tributary to, the Zambezi to see something of her scene and taking pains to attend to people’s health needs by distributing such medical supplies as she would bring with her for that purpose.  

In 1957 one of my first tasks as RLI’s first Research Secretary was to forage in what was left of a row of files on a high shelf on the Institute’s open balcony to save what the elements had kindly left to be rescued and preserved. One of the less damaged file box turned out to be stuffed with carbon copies of her 1940’s Plateau Tonga fieldnotes, all neatly typed out, in careful narrative prose not just jerky jottings, classified by topic, even if I remember correctly colour coded:  the raw data of her startling 1958 monograph Marriage and the family among the Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia. In its style of presentation and analysis, detail, nuance and the social knowledge and insight it displayed particularly of the interpersonal relations portrayed, that was a monograph vividly different in character (while similar in other regards) from the other major anthropologies on the region.

From a barely surviving file of correspondence it emerged that Max Gluckman when Director – Colson succeeded him in that role for a period –  had required all his ‘Manchester school’ as it became known after his move to Manchester University to deposit one copy of their field notes in the Institute. Whether they – and he – had or not unfortunately was impossible to discover from that and one or two other shelves. A great pity if they had left no trace (Confucius’ maxim ‘perfect activity leaves no trace’ is something else altogether’). It would have been a great collection to probe and ponder. At a recent RAI research committee meeting a start at least was made towards proposing a research project specifically about anthropologists’ fieldnotes – that is such of them as have survived the hazards of whatever it was (it is strange as it is buzzed how often they didn’t, yours were left on a train, mine drowned in a flood, and so forth). Again as we all know, but perhaps don’t much examine, simply as to how they are written – or drawn or photographed or otherwise recorded – such sources vary greatly in form and feature. How they are actually used – or not – is another mystery.

In writing (in 1989 Annual Review of Anthropology) on her work ‘overall’ Elizabeth held that ethnography to be anthropologically true (also anthropology that would be ethnographically true) should carefully recognise and credit ‘the transiency (…and the contingency …) of social forms and a higher degree of freedom of action than many anthropologists appear to grant to whoever it is they define as other’ because ‘whatever we  observe is not an integrated culture or … social system … behaviour is situational.’  She called therefore for ‘a more eclectic tool kit’ which, she thought, ‘may be a characteristic feminine attitude’.  A long, gentle, revealing essay in intro-(?extro-)section. 

When the other day an old typed letter tumbled out of a book from Mary Douglas’ library donated to the RAI I was reading just before starting to write this note, it turned out to be one to Mary, ‘yours ever’, from Lucy, that is Lucy Mair. Dated March 24, 1973. Why I must now absolutely cite from this possibly otherwise unrecorded bit of British anthropology’s history you will soon see – and approve, I hope. While it is about someone else ‘altogether’ as one says (it is though unlikely that there were no relations at all between any of the – three – parties and who wouldn’t take the first opportunity arising of announcing such an objet trouve – now archived at the RAI) it is because part of Mair’s burden of argument is about how in her view how comparative social anthropology should proceed, a stance which could not be in closer harmony with Colson’s contra – now back to Mair’s words – ‘taking a holistic view … that for structuralists consists in seeing how a certain limited set of elements – whose chooses them? – are related in different societies.  I don’t see that you could make much comparison out of that. Of course Malinowski said societies must be taken as wholes, though his was a very different kind of whole; but it was through finding that one couldn’t compare these wholes that we thought we must compare elements; and if instead of saying that we compare systems we said we compared the ways in which different societies tackle different universal problems, I should say that is the most important problem for [comparative] study of society. But of course it wouldn’t be structuralist.’ 

She goes on then specifically to mention migration. As is widely known including beyond anthropology (as at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre for example) forced migration was one Elizabeth Colson’s longest pursued interests. ‘It is indeed interesting that both EP and Monica Wilson who have argued most conspicuously against anthropology’s supposed disregard of history (misquoting Radcliffe-Brown for the purpose), have degrees in history. It leads one to wonder whether their attitude springs from ‘deformation professionnelle’ rather than from theoretical considerations such as those of the American Marxists …EP appears to mean by history the record of a unique configuration; in those terms every fieldwork monograph is a historical record. Monica’s history …sometimes offers an explanation in migration terms of the peculiar combination of institutions found among the Nyakusa (I wonder whether structuralists have envisaged that set of elements? Or do they stick to societies where there is nothing to see but kinship, marriage and residence?)’ .

Lucy’s tone typically may be tarter, Elizabeth’s characteristically cooler, but there it is, boiled down, two approaches that are practically identical. Mair’s epistolary ‘The ways in which different societies tackle different universal problems’ could perhaps be edited into ‘the ways in which in different and similar societies particular and universal problems of social and political organisation and public policy customarily are tackled’. It was to what over decades nobly by some but abusively by others was called the ‘applied anthropology’ that Mair and Colson each made one major contribution after another.

Of the hundreds of Colson’s publications and papers listed in surely definitive 2016 bibliography of her life’s work by Norman Buchignani building on the labours of others and finally compiled with her own help, there are very many to choose and prefer. One of her very earliest, area, her 1950 paper in the then Journal of African Administration on ‘Possible repercussions of the right to make wills in a matrilineal society’, remains in my view one of her best (and in The Hague and Bath served often to open my anthropology and development classes). It is a perfect illustration of what a scholar-consultant-advocate seeking very carefully and precisely to avoid playing the role of (would-be) ruler and can – and must – do: not come up with only a supposedly single best bottom line judgement offered as the solution, but stick to the task of advising, not stray into that of (would-be) ruling. Deliver rather a range, a menu, of possible scenarios spelled out as to what anthropologically at least ex ante would appear to be the most likely consequences of going down one road rather than another, not coming up with only one such road, ranking options perhaps but essentially always leaving it to the ruler to rule on what ‘is best’. Exactly as years later a London School of Economics interdisciplinary consultancy study on Somalia peace options (Ioan Lewis was the chief anthropologist member of the team) chose to set out a menu of action options, with the likely implications of each modelled ex ante. Thus can we recognise the ‘wickedness’ of public policy solutions as well as its problems.

Whether by accident or design, to muddle the roles and responsibilities of ruler and adviser, politician and scholar, priest and mentor, can soon prove to be disastrous as events move on, leaders change.. A sure recipe for consultant anthropology (or economics or whatever) and development and the like deservedly and by whichever party to be given a bad name however much committed such undertakings are to taking a public interest, a public intellectual, role in life.  

As to her personal social lifestyle, that was exceptional too, very far from for example the least grande dame register which so engages for example Andrew Bank in his ‘great woman anthropologists of Africa’ quest thus far, or that of perhaps most of her alpha male anthropologist contemporaries in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s in the region (whose social lives tended to be more shuttered shall we say perhaps also blinkered). Rather the comparison I would offer is with the life – and letters, his work also spanned a multifarious array of interests and accomplishments – of quite another brilliant dedicated figure (who also once, or twice, in his career was a RLI – acting – director): the scholar-administrator C.M.N White (soon nicknamed ‘off-white’ by his fellow administrators on account of the social company he preferred to keep and the friends he lived and worked with). 

Jean la Fontaine concludes the obituary of Elizabeth Colson she wrote for the October 2016 issue of Anthropology Today remarking that ‘all anthropologists could benefit from a careful reading of the work that is her rich legacy to us.’ A RAI contribution to such an undertaking could start say from where Jack Glazier and his fellow editors and contributors left the story in 1984 in their encomium volume Opportunity, constraint and change and proceed from there.

March 2017, Raymond Apthorpe, Hon. Sec.

My grateful thanks to John Argyle for help towards writing this note.


To cite this article:

APTHORPE, RAYMOND. 2017. ‘Elizabeth Colson, 1917-2016’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2017. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/elizabeth-colson).


SHARP, LESLEY A. 2017 ‘Elizabeth Colson (1917-2016) Anthropologist, Africanist’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2017. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/elizabeth-florence-colson)


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=Elizabeth%20Colson