Tom Harrisson

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At the age of twenty-five Tom Harrisson (born in 1911) was working as a cotton beamer in Bolton. He had already travelled with successive Oxford University Expeditions to the Arctic, Borneo, and the New Hebrides; he had lived for a year by himself on Malekula. He had spent four terms at Cambridge reading Natural Sciences but broken off his studies. He had, while still at Harrow, published his Birds of the Harrow District, and shortly after his twenty-first birthday A Letter to Oxford which had been banned by the proctors.

The work in Bolton was Tom’s first conscious application of the kind of participant observation that he had dis-covered for himself in Malekula and lived to the full, and it was to become the method of Mass-Observation which he founded, with Charles Madge, a few years later. The participation was to be as near to identification as possible, and in principle no detail was to be ignored. From the outset we have a disregard for theory and hypothesis; throughout his life as an anthropologist, ornithologist, archaeologist, and in conservation, Tom’s one assumption was that accumulated details meticulously observed would tell their own story, and his equivalent of the hypothesis was intuition, or what he called ‘hunch’.

The idea for Mass-Observation was born out of Tom’s sense of the profound discrepancy between what ordinary people were saying about the Abdication crisis, and the way in which it was being represented in the newspapers and on the radio: he had returned to England after three years abroad, ready to look at his own society with new eyes and this revelation had all the force of an imprint. Out of the interest in attitudes to royalty in the 1930’s came the first Mass-Observation book, a study of the coronation of George VI. At the time of his death he was preparing a new study of royalty which he hoped to publish in the Jubilee year of Elizabeth II where once again official representations were to be set against observations made in streets and pubs, and of television audiences. His posthumous Living Through the Blitz demonstrates the same concern with the relation between the myth of ‘our finest hour’ and what was actually happening up and down the country.

There is no doubt that in all this Tom’s love of publicity and his iconoclasm played their part: he once acknowledged frankly that his publications were the petrol-pumps that refuelled his ego. There is no doubt also — and this he knew — that sometimes his intuition tempted him to make dangerous imaginative leaps. But against all this must be set his life-long passion for detail and from this he derived his authority as a scholar. At Harrow he had a card-index on every boy in the school; in his last years when he visited us at Sussex he studied hair-length among male students as a hobby to occupy his mind between leaving his hotel and arriving at his office.

More seriously The Pub and the People (1943), his massive Malays of South-West Sarawak before Malaysia (1968), the forthcoming work on the Blitz, together with a host of lesser publications, are testimonies to his patient and thorough eyes and ears. In what is now the Mass-Observation Archive at Sussex there are hundreds of bursting files containing still unpublished work done either by Tom himself or inspired and directed by him. Throughout the years he has irritated reviewers and colleagues by his lack of theoretical rigour and the criticism is a fair one. On the other hand, I can confidently say that no other social scientist has left behind him, in published and unpublished form, so vast a quarry of material — ready to be worked on by others precisely because theoretical preselection is at the minimum. When Tom went back to Sarawak in 1947 to reorganise the museum there his dictum was that the museum should be ‘thinking today the thoughts of tomorrow about yesterday’; he had the same confidence in the work done by Mass-Observation.

All those who have written of him have frankly witnessed to the extremes of his character: he had little room, it seemed, for lukewarm emotion and gave himself to love or hate; he enjoyed his battles and was conscious that he had made enemies, but never spoke of them with malice. He also inspired great affection and loyalty even though this sometimes meant being badgered and bullied to further whatever it was that Tom had decided at that particular moment had to be done; it must be recorded that ruthless as he could be, the ends which he set himself and others were not personal ones but those of a people, a species or a project. He was intensely loyal himself and risked his life to return alone to the Kelabit of Borneo, who had helped him in his first guerrilla campaign, when the Allied High Command seemed willing to leave them to the mercy of isolated Japanese troops. A more humorous instance of his practical affection occurred after the war when W.H.O. officials sprayed the Kelabit longhouses against malarial mosquitos. In the process they killed the cockroaches which the cats ate; the death of the cats resulted in a plague of rats. When Tom heard of this he rounded up every available cat on the coast and had them dropped by parachute in special containers on the Kelabit villages.

Tom Harrisson and his wife were killed in Thailand early this year when the bus in which they were passengers collided with a timber truck; they were cremated at Bangkok in the traditional Thai manner. It is still bewildering to contemplate this brutal halt to his energy, creativity and panache.

David Pocock

This obituary first appeared as: Pocock, David. 1976. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 13, p. 2-3 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

POCOCK, DAVID. 1976. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 13, p. 2-3 (available on-line: