Max Gluckman

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Max Gluckman, who died on April 13 in Jerusalem where he was spending a term as visiting professor at Hebrew University, was one of the great anthropologists of the twentieth century. At the time of his death he was Research Professor at Manchester University in a department of social anthropology which he had founded in 1949 and chaired until 1965. Gluckman developed it into a major research school which benefited greatly from his collaboration with colleagues in other departments in the university. He drew them into his seminar wherethey shared the excitement of exploring field data brought back by students or by field-workers who came from other universities. Gluckman himself delighted in working out the systematic relationships that linked various phenomena. Students, whether they had worked in Africa, India, Israel, Australia or Britain, could count upon Gluckman’s willingness to involve himself in a close study of their material. His phenomenal memory meant that he often seemed to know the data as well as the field-workers. He drew upon their findings in his own writings, giving full credit to the original workers even though he himself had often done as much to draw out an idea or had been the first to see the theoretical implications of some fact. He was notably generous in the intellectual careers of younger anthropologists in this fashion.

Gluckman was born in South Africa in 1911. He took his B.A. at the University of Witwatersrand, where he had gone to study law and remained to be trained in anthropology by Winifred Hoernle. There-after, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he was officially the student of Robert Marett, but association with Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard was more influential in determining the direction of his future work. He returned to South Africa for 14 months field research among the Zulu of Natal. That was to be shortly followed, in 1939, by appointment as a research officer to the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (now the Institute for African Studies in the University of Zambia). He was sent to make a field study of Barotseland, to whose people, and especially the Lozi, he remained deeply attached. In 1941 he became the second director of the Institute, which he helped to make into a major centre for social research on Africa. It provided the model for several other institutes set up immediately after World War II under grants from the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund. Gluckman planned the expansion of the Institute’s research programme and supervised the first phase of the new scheme. Even though he left the Institute in 1947 to take a post as lecturer at Oxford, he continued to be closely linked to it for many years and helped to train most of those who were appointed as research officers. Many of them followed him to Oxford and then to Manchester.

Gluckman was never again to be involved personally in extensive field work after he left the Institute. His outspoken support of African opposition to the creation of the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland led to his being banned from returning to Barotseland until after the break-up of the Federation and the independence of Zambia. His opposition to South African policies of racial segregation and exploitation barred him from returning to Zululand. He carried out field research vicariously through students whom he encouraged to see themselves as students of contemporary life whether they worked in rural or urban areas. He set them to studying the complex strains associated with industrialization, migration, and an increasing diversification of population. Although he encouraged the establishment of a branch of the Manchester department which specialised in the study of British industrial institutions, he himself was never closely involved in that work. In the late 1950s, he found new interest when he obtained the grants which led to an extensive programme of research in Israel in association with Israeli universities. On his many visits to Israel where he visited students in their field sites and conferred with Israeli colleagues, he delighted in the sense that the work being carried out was of importance to Israel as well as to anthropology. This duplicated the hopes he had had as a young man when he became director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute.

During his lifetime, Gluckman gave service to his profession, to his university, and to many government and academic bodies. He received many academic honours and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1969. No doubt he will be best remembered for his contribution to comparative jurisprudence, more particularly through his study of the legal system of the Barotse. But his work on law was only one aspect of his concern with much wider issues of public and personal morality. The central theme of much of his work was summed up in the title of his Marett Lecture, given at Oxford in 1963, ‘Moral Crises: Magical and Secular Solutions’. He believed that men and women wished to be judged as behaving in an upright fashion but found themselves in ‘situations where a person is moved by different social rules and values to opposed courses of action, so that no clear solution is available’.1 For him, law and ritual were attempts to find solutions for such dilemmas: they were not mere strategic resources to be deployed by individuals pursuing their private interests. Such assumptions brought his work under attack in the 1960s and 1970s from younger anthropologists who were exploring the utility of game theory or economic models for explaining rapidly changing social systems. This involved him in a good deal of controversy, but Gluckman never hesitated to take and defend an unpopular position.

Before it was popular to do so, Gluckman regarded himself as at least a modified evolutionist ‘in that I consider that when we assess and try to understand the significance of institutions it is essential to examine them against the background of what has undoubtedly been a major trend in the history of human society as a whole — the increasing complexity of technology, and with it of economic organization. I believe that when we work out the forms of social organization and of social beliefs and ideas associated with different ranges of technology, we illuminate them all’. 2 This position he derived both from his student days under Robert Marett at Oxford and from his early interest in Marxist social theory. Like Radcliffe-Brown, another of his Oxford teachers and friends, Gluckman held that anthropology should be a comparative science. He looked for common elements and general principles rather than for systems of classification unique to a particular people. This again was an unpopular position with those younger colleagues who had turned to exploring the internal logic of cultures seen as symbolic systems, but it reflected his own deep concern with how people acted towards one another under conditions where those from many different backgrounds were meeting and having to work out their differences.

Elizabeth Colson

1.    Max Gluckman, ‘Moral Crises: Magical and Secular Solutions’, reprinted in M. Gluckman, ed., The Allocation of Responsibility, Manchester University Press, 1972, p.2.
2.    ibid., p.1.

This obituary first appeared as: Colson, Elizabeth. 1975. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 9, p. 8-9 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

COLSON, ELIZABETH. 1975. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 9, p. 8-9 (available on-line:


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