Meyer Fortes

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Meyer Fortes was born in the village of Britstown, Cape Province, South Africa in 1906. He died in Cambridge, England, on 27 January 1983. Though in his lifetime he moved from the hinterland of an empire to its centre, he was a pioneer. For this he was recognized and widely honoured. His outstanding field-work among the Tallensi people of Northern Ghana was done between 1934 and 1938, when he was accompanied by his first wife Sonia Donen who died in 1956. From 1938 to 1939 he was a lecturer at the L.S.E.; from 1939-1941, a lecturer at Oxford. During the war he returned to West Africa in the army intelligence service and he spent 1944-1946 as head of the Sociology Department of the West African Institute in Ghana where he carried out the Ashanti Social Survey. He was reader in Sociology at Oxford (1946-1950) and became William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge from 1950 till his retirement. With the second wife, Doris, he returned to field-work with the Tallensi in 1963. Until his death he continued teaching and was active in research. The last paper he delivered was given at a conference in Uppsala, Sweden, in September 1982. It dealt with the notion of ‘identity’.

The consistent focus of his research was kinship and family relations. His major work on political organization, compara-tive religion and concepts of personhood grew from this central concern. He saw religion and politics as fused with kinship in relatively homogeneous societies. And though he recognized that kinship was less significant in the total organization of complex, industrial societies he argued always the importance of the ‘irreducible facts’ of kinship, by which he meant that ‘kinship embraces facts of human social life that are … not consequential upon or merely indicative of the apparently more palpable facts of economics, politics, ritual etc. let alone linguistics’ (1978:22) The facts of kinship, derived as they are from the reproduction and succession of cultur-ally defined generations, he regarded as axiomatic.

In coming to England Meyer Fortes did not reject or lose touch with his own complex and difficult background. He used this experience as a tool in his power-ful drive to understand human diversity. He grew up in poverty, in multi-racial South Africa; the eldest son of seven children. His parents were among the Russian Jews who fled from Europe in the wake of the pogroms which ushered in the 20th century, and his close natal kin were scattered over three continents. He was aware through personal experience of racial discrimination, economic privilege, and the accidents of history which crucially affect individual development. As a child he spoke three languages; Yiddish, English and Afrikaans. His traditional Jewish education taught him to read Hebrew. Later he studied Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and German. He had a working knowledge of French and Twi (spoken by the Ashanti). But it was his knowledge of Talni (the language of the Tallensi) that was most extraordinary. When he returned to Ghana after a thirty year absence his fluency was unimpaired. Until his death he continued to perfect and enjoy his command of Talni. His profound under-standing of the language came both from his scholarly knowledge of Tallensi culture and his personal intimacy with Tallensi people. Meyer Fortes’ ability to become close to others, to see and feel things from their point of view, was combined with wisdom and generosity. His understanding of humanity was not only theoretical. He gave of it in the simplest and most direct ways.

He was a student of kinship who took the greatest pleasure in his own family. He and Sonia had a daughter, Nathalie, who married Trevor Marshall and has three grown children. He became guardian of S.F. Nadel’s daughter Barbara, after her parents’ death, and regarded her two children as his own ‘classificatory grand-children’. Doris Mayer has two children, Gail Peterson and Karl Fortes-Mayer, who were very close to him and they added another five grandchildren to his family. In addition, throughout his life he drew colleagues, students, friends and the children of friends, into this large and ever-growing circle.

Although he was a talented, erudite linguist, and he began his professional career as a psychologist with an important study of perception and intelligence, he thought of himself unequivocally as an anthropologist. One might say he was ‘an anthropologist’s anthropologist’. Evans- Pritchard wrote of The Dynamics of Clanship, the first of Fortes’ monographs about the Tallensi: ‘Its close knit arguments cannot be reduced to a few general statements. It is an all-or-nothing book; not one which can be dipped into here and there. Furthermore it is a book which can-not just be read. It requires study, hard study.’

The same could be said of Kinship and the Social Order and much else of his writing. The Web of Kinship, or Oedipus and Job, are more accessible, but all Meyer Fortes’ writing will repay study by those who work in one or another of the disciplines related to social anthropology.

In his inaugural lecture as William Wyse Professor at Cambridge (1953) he described anthropology as ‘indispensable for coming to decisions about our own political and ethical values., and for understanding the climate of our time.’ He also emphasized what he saw as the most significant responsibility of anthropologists and one we have inherited from our predecessors: ‘We would be unfaithful to our heritage if we thought of social anthropology only as a professional study … [and] we may not without disgrace … lay aside our place in the fight against obscurantism and the perversion of knowledge. Race discrimination … is a case in point. Anthropological knowledge bears directly on this dangerous and degrading threat to human dignity and well-being. There is not a shred of anthropological evidence to justify race discrimination. It is the duty of anthropology to proclaim this truth and to continue dispassionately to investigate the biological and social qualities of human groups without regard for race privilege.’

Nearly thirty years after Meyer Fortes had done fieldwork there, I went to Northern Ghana as his research student and chose to work with the Mamprusi people; southern neighbours of the Tallensi. In my first week I visited a village chief, guided by a young, Mamprusi school teacher. He translated my questions as he had patiently done on previous occasions. On this occasion however, he stopped in mid-interview and regarded me with exasperation: ‘The answers to all these questions you have been asking are in a book’ he informed me. ‘It is called The Web of Clanship and you can find it in the primary school at Tongo. There is a picture of the author in it. I don’t know his real name but he is called “Suliming-Talenga” [white-man Tallensi]’.

Susan Drucker-Brown

The Institute will shortly publish a posthumous Occasional Paper by Meyer Fortes, Rules and the Emergence of Society.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1946. Review of The Dynamics of Clanships Among the Tallensi, Bulletin of the School of Oriental & African Studies XI (1943-6: 906)
Fortes, Meyer
1945 The dynamics of clanship among the Tallensi: being the first part of an analysis of the social structure of a trans-Volta tribe. London: Oxford U.P.
1948 The Ashanti social survey: a preliminary report. Rhodes-Livingstone Journal 6: 1-36.
1949 The web of kinship among the Tallensi: the second part of an analysis of the social structure of a Trans-Volta tribe. London, Oxford U.P.
1959 Oedipus and Job in west African religion. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.
1953: Social anthropology at Cambridge since 1900: an inaugural lecture. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P.
1969 Kinship and the Social Order: the legacy of Lewis Henry Morgan, Chicago: Aldine.
1978: An Anthropologist’s apprenticeship, in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 7, pp. 1-30

A Memorial Service was held for Meyer Fortes on 30 April in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The lesson was taken from Martin Buber’s Jewish Mysticism and the Legends of Baalshem and it concluded: Tf anyone “abases himself too much and forgets that a man through his works and behaviour can call down an overflowing blessing on all the world”, this is not humility. It is called impure humility: “The greatest evil is if thou dost forget that thou art a son of the king”. He dwells in true humility who feels the others as he feels himself, and who feels himself in the others’.

This obituary first appeared as: Drucker-Brown, Susan. 1983. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 56, p. 15 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

DRUCKER-BROWN, SUSAN. 1983. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 56, p. 15 (available on-line:



RAI News. 1983. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 55, p. 13 (available on-line:


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