Wendy James

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Wendy James CBE: a personal recollection

Those of us who were around at the time, will remember September 11th 2001. Wendy James was in the early months of her presidency of the RAI. One of her first moves had been to convene an exploration of ways to improve coordination of effort across the RAI and Association of Social Anthropologists, for the better support of ‘anthropology as a whole’ in the UK and further afield. To that end she was chairing a meeting of ASA Committee and RAI Council members in my office at 50 Fitzroy Street, and discussion was in full flow, when the garbled news burst in of the attack on the Twin Towers. We halted the meeting, to Wendy’s comment ‘If Armageddon is indeed upon us, we’d better find a way to get home’. I meanwhile anxiously counted duvets in my head, wondering how many colleagues I could put up in my central London flat if all national transport was disabled. Fortunately my duvets were not needed, and everyone reached their home. Wendy and I shared a taxi to Victoria, on whose radio we heard the first BBC reports that were at all reliable.

Less than a week earlier, on 5th September, Wendy and I had found ourselves on a train to Glasgow – in separate carriages because of advance bookings – for the 2001 RAI Curl lecture, given by Stephen Mithen at Glasgow University as part of that year’s British Association Festival of Science. Stephen’s title was ‘The impact of global warming on human society: evidence from prehistory’. To prepare myself, I was brushing up on his then recently published book The prehistory of the mind; and I suspect Wendy was doing the same. Somewhere around Lancaster, a thought occurred that sent me to find Wendy and try it out on her: What about kinship? It surely must have played a strong part in the prehistory of the human mind? She had the same idea, and by the time we reached Glasgow, the seed was sown of what became the ‘Gregynog workshop’ – of which more later.

These two moments, only days apart, mark twin facets of my enduring recollection of Wendy: as a scholar of rare vision and range, and as a highly effective institution builder. Uniting these was a word and metaphor she herself often used: that of ‘conversation’. She was a determined constructor of bridges and reacher-across of gaps between – and within – institutions, disciplines and academic domains. In, probably, most member-based associations, the relationship that develops between an elected presidency and appointed directorate is highly individual, varying with the contexts and personalities involved. The RAI is no exception. As president, Wendy’s style was best captured in one word: generosity. She was unfailingly generous with her time and attention; I knew I could always reach her to unload any concern or hard decision. In her writings too, she was scrupulously generous to other people’s work.

From the outset we agreed that the time was right for the Institute to look critically at its historical legacies, its internal governance, its external relations, and its purposes as a whole. She led and steered the resulting 2002-2003 strategic review, which generated new ‘conversations’ across the sub-disciplines represented within the RAI and between these and adjacent fields and organisations. Among its outcomes was a new or revitalised presence in areas – particularly publications, education and visual anthropology, but others as well  – with a strengthened staffing and committee structure in support. These innovations have expanded over the years that followed; and I like to think that our successors, in the RAI governance and membership, continue to benefit from them.

In a place such as the RAI, professional relationships are never far removed from intellectual ones. Wendy’s influence on my own anthropological understanding was profound, and remains so. Others will offer, and have offered, comprehensive tributes to Wendy’s academic legacy. My contribution is, inevitably, partial. Within UK social anthropology, Wendy’s was a powerful voice for conversations across the rifts that had divided the sociocultural and evolutionary arms of the discipline over much of the twentieth century. In this, according to reports, she drew inspiration from helping to develop the undergraduate Human Sciences degree at Oxford, and from teaching on it. Repeatedly, she told me of her fascination teaching students coming into the degree from areas such as zoology, and how much she had learned from them: more conversations again. Crucially, she made the case from a position that rejected reductive individualisms and insisted, in Durkheimian fashion, that human life is irreducibly shared. This stance, and many others, is worked through in The Ceremonial Animal (2003) throughout which runs another characteristic metaphor of Wendy’s: that of social life as a dance with its distinctive choreographies, rules and measures – an echo, I discovered, of her own early love of dance.

How then to bring together this conception of human life as intrinsically shared and ‘choreographed’, with all the new knowledge about human origins emerging from fields such as primatology, palaeontology and archaeology?

Wendy served on the British Academy’s Centenary project ‘From Lucy to Language’ (2003-2010) as an external member of its Management Committee, bringing a social-anthropological perspective into its explorations of the ‘Social Brain’. With the support of Robin Dunbar, funding from the project was found to convene a 3-day workshop, also sponsored by the RAI, from 20-22 March 2005 at the University of Wales conference centre, Gregynog, on ‘Early Human Kinship’ – the abovementioned ‘Gregynog workshop’. Our question ‘What about kinship?’ on the Glasgow train had found a landing-place. Together with Robin Dunbar and the late Nick Allen, Wendy brought together scholars from archaeology, social and biological anthropology, primatology and historical linguistics, around the place of kinship in the transition from biologically sexual to humanly social reproduction. The resulting conversations then saw light in the collection Early Human Kinship: from Sex to Social Reproduction (2008). In Wendy’s words in her Introduction:

‘The conversations …revolve around the possible ways in which we could re-engage discussion between those coming from the science side, and those from the humanities, on the very important question of how evolutionary theory could or should take account of the ordered character of human organization, specifically in respect of how we try to manage patterns of male-female and parent-child relations, and thus the purposeful outcomes of our own reproduction.’ [Italics in original]

In her later contribution (2017) to the collection Human origins: contributions from social anthropology, Wendy drew more broadly on the Lucy to Language project, as well as other research – for example on the rhythms and reciprocities of parent-infant interaction –  to develop a vision of developmental continuity, rather than before-after discontinuity, in the early human story. Her subtitle there is, significantly, ‘An open invitation for social anthropology to join the evolutionary debate’. What emerges is, in part, a further elaboration of her own metaphors: a vision of emerging human life as a process of ‘coming to agreement’ on – or challenge to – the rules of the game and the figures in the dance.

I have written here about Wendy’s and my time together at the RAI and later; but our relationship in fact goes back much further. It includes our participation in, and occasional contributions to, the originally titled Centre for Cross-cultural Research on Women (later the International Gender Studies Centre) at Oxford; as well as a memorable debate in (I think) the early 1990s, in which Wendy took on Richard Dawkins on the limitations of selfish-gene theory as applied to human life. The debate was student-organised, and I had the good fortune to be present.

During an early stage of Wendy’s illness, when her powers of communication were impaired, I visited her and was rewarded by an accurate joke, well-aimed at me. I was very pleased.

Hilary Callan, RAI director 2000-2010

May 2024


James, Wendy 2003 The Ceremonial Animal: A New Portrait of Anthropology. Oxford, OUP

James, Wendy 2008 ‘Why “kinship”? New questions on an old topic.’ Introduction to Allen,N.J., Callan, H., Dunbar, R. & James, W. eds Early Human Kinship: from sex to social reproduction. Oxford, Blackwell

James, Wendy 2017 ‘”From Lucy to language: the Archaeology of the Social Brain”. An Open Invitation for Social Anthropology to join the Evolutionary Debate.’ In Power, C., Finnegan, M. & Callan, H. eds Human Origins: Contributions from Social Anthropology. NY & Oxford, Berghahn

Mithen, Stephen 1999 The Prehistory of the Mind: a search for the origins of art, religion and science. London, Thames & Hudson

To cite this article:

CALLAN, Hilary. 2024 ‘Wendy James CBE: a personal recollection’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, May 2024. (available online: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/wendy-james)