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The Life and Works of Elizabeth Colson

October 12 2017 @ 12:00 am


Thursday 12 October, 10.00am to 5.00pm
Royal Anthropological Institute

The late Elizabeth Colson was for many years a Fellow of the RAI. This day will recall her great contribution in several fields, including the anthropology of Africa, the anthropology of migration and displaced peoples, applied anthropology and gender. We hope that the day will give us the opportunity to revisit and discuss current topics in the anthropology of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Tonga, as well as to reconsider the work of Professor Colson in some detail.

This event is free, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please go to https://elizabethcolson.eventbrite.co.uk

10.00-10.15am Opening

Dr Pamela Shurmer-Smith
A Lifetime of Elizabeth Colson

I would like to offer a very subjective presentation, musing on the attached image of the flyleaf of my copy of The Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia: Social and Religious Studies with its two dates: 1964 and 2015.

I bought this book at the start of my second undergrad year at the (then) University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It was the very first ethnographic monograph I read and its impact was profound. A rather naïve teenager in a conservative and racially segregated society, The Plateau Tonga made me understand there was far more than I had imagined; societies didn’t have to have rulers to be orderly, patriliny wasn’t inevitable, but more than anything, Colson showed how all the bits meshed in together: virilocal marriage, cattle lending, ancestors, a network of rain shrines, joking relations, spirit possession all wove a coherent whole.  In the long vacation at the end of my second year I went to live for a month in a Plateau Tonga village. Generations of my own students also found her work enlightening and accessible.

Elizabeth Colson revisited the Southern Province of Zambia regularly throughout her career and returned permanently in her 90s. Learning that she was living in the Southern Province, I wrote to ask if I might drop in to meet her in October 2015 – she generously invited me to stay a few days. I went full of trepidation, she was 98 after all. Those few days were inspirational – she talked about the role of the Tonga in modern Zambia, her life and career, the anthropologists she had known (“When I arrived at Cape Town, Max and Clyde were on the dockside to meet me”) but it was not all reminiscence, she was thoroughly up to date.

I’d asked people what I should bring as a gift “Famous Grouse Whiskey” “gin, as she likes to entertain”, “exotic cheese” were variously suggested. I took them all and rather shamefacedly packed my old copy of The Plateau Tonga to ask if she’s sign it. I also took my book on the white diaspora – she’d already read it!

When I told Axel Sommerfelt, my old tutor, that I had finally met Elizabeth, his comment was, “Her work will never be obsolete”.

Tea and coffee: 11.00-11.20am

Jamie Wintrup (University of Cambridge)
Reflections on conducting anthropological fieldwork in southern Zambia and the enduring value of Elizabeth Colson’s work

This paper is based on fieldwork carried out in the Southern Province of Zambia during 2015-2016, where I spent time at a rural mission hospital which was founded in the late-colonial period. My research has considered the relations between the rural Tonga patients who visited the hospital to seek treatment, the Zambian hospital staff who worked there, and the American Christian missionaries, who visited on long- and short-term medical mission trips. In this paper I reflect on the way in which Elizabeth Colson’s work offers anthropologists conducting research in the region today such a valuable resource for considering the long history of interactions between the Tonga speaking people of the region and outsiders of various kinds – from the missionary societies who were active at the 1940s (when Colson first arrived in the Southern Province), to the builders of the Kariba dam, to the more recent work of non-government organisations (NGOs) who have engaged in projects to do with child-maternal health and HIV/AIDS. I reflect on the importance of having such detailed longitudinal ethnographic material to draw from through Colson’s own insightful rendering of Tonga life.

I met Elizabeth Colson in Zambia (at her home outside Monze) in 2015 during my fieldwork and she was very generous with her time – advising me about researchers who have engaged in similar work in the Southern Province over the years, giving me countless references to look up, and firmly encouraging me to practice my Tonga grammar exercises. It would be gratifying to share these experiences with people who knew Colson, as she was very encouraging to me as a PhD student.

Dr Virginia Bond (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine & Zambart, University of Zambia), Dr Lisa Cliggett (University of Kentucky) and Prof Elizabeth Colson (posthumous, University of Berkeley)
The increasing vulnerability of children to sexual abuse in Zambia: from taboo and offense to tolerance and compensation.

We consider changes in and attitudes towards manifestations of sexual violence against children in Zambia. The paper will draw on a decade of conversations among the authors on this topic, an unpublished manuscript (approximately 2008) about the vulnerability of childhood in the Gwembe Valley by Elizabeth Colson, Cliggett’s research observations of rural Tonga children (early 1990s onwards) and Bond’s research on Zambian children as domestic workers (2010-11).  

As Colson describes in the unpublished manuscript, reports of physical attacks, including sexual assaults, on Gwembe children have become more common since the 1990s. Prior to this time, such attacks were sanctioned through both taboo (of adult physical contact and sexuality with young girls and children) and actionable offenses (requiring fines and compensation). With the range of change ushered in during the 1990s and increased heterogeneity of communities, according to Colson, concern for taboo seems to have disappeared, while demands for compensation have remained. Senior Tonga elders considered sexual assaults on children ‘just a small thing’ (Colson, email correspondence, May 16 2013). This downplaying of child defilement (rape of children is labelled ‘defilement’ in Zambia) resonates with Cliggett’s documented lack of concern in responses to the rape of 14-year-old girls in a Tonga village and Bond’s experience of the r complacency, and even complicity, towards the sexual abuse of child domestic workers.

Applying Colson’s data (based on fieldnotes and diaries from four Gwembe villages) to their field research, Bond and Cliggett explore contemporary instances of sexual assault on children and the social landscape in which these events unfold.  Cliggett’s work with Gwembe Tonga migrants to a rural setting, while not focused on the experience of children, offers insight into a few cases of child sexual assaults within the context of the position of children in a changing kinship system, characterized by multi-ethnic and highly mobile families, and fluid marriage arrangements.  Bond’s research on child domestic workers in Lusaka and Eastern Province captures the vulnerability of poor (and often rural and girl) children to sexual assault.  Sent to work in better-off households and far from home, the children are easily exploited.  Many girl domestic workers are sexually preyed on by men of the household, their presence in the domestic space of the house (and particularly the bedroom) seeming to incite men’s sexual outlet and entitlement, much to the anxiety of married women.  Sometimes boy domestic workers are also sexually preyed on by women.   Although some domestic workers will succumb to sexual relations hoping it will aid their schooling and finances, others are forced to have sex.  A 16-year old girl in the village (Eastern Province) who had returned from domestic work, described her experience with the man head of household; “He used to tell me to sweep the bedroom, then the man would enter and lock the door. He only opened the door when his wife returned”.  Driving the practice of child domestic work is the history of children’s role in domestic duties, under-education, the burden of orphanhood that accompanies the HIV epidemic, the challenges of child care amongst working women, economic hardship, and legislative changes in minimum wages for domestic workers (which has enhanced the pull and relative affordability of child domestic work).  

Influenced by globalization and human rights and by experiences of defilement and early pregnancy, there is a growing awareness of the distress and harm of defilement that counters the more complacent response described.  Community based organisations and parents, for example, are actively questioning social acceptance around domestic work.  Cracks in social protection, fragmented and differentiated society and other wider stresses make these shifts harder.  Further, Colson points out, the very individual rights promoted by globalization which preach against ‘the grain of local opinion and local taboos’ have ‘left communities less able to control their members by appeal to accepted standards and the menace of non-human forces’, leaving, ‘few people…concerned with the welfare of any individual child’ (Colson, pp32).  

Lunch 12.50-1.30pm

Prof John Argyle (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal)
HOSTAGES AND HITMEN: Agents of conflict resolution among the Soli and other Zambian peoples

In mid-1957, I had been newly appointed as a Research Fellow of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, to make an already projected study of the neighbouring Soli of the Central Province of Northern Rhodesia. I had Oxford qualifications in social anthropology, but no previous experience of Africa or actual fieldwork there or anywhere else. So it was a privilege to be invited by Elizabeth Colson to accompany her for a few days on the further work in which she was then engaged amongst the Plateau Tonga. I now have a few recollections only of practicalities that I was shown by her, such as ways of living in the field; providing medical assistance to residents; participating in village life and other local activities (eg including me in the crew of a canoe trip on the river); making and arranging field notes etc.

I do not recall her adducing any specific references to the Tonga ethnography, then in its earlier stages, but part of my own subsequent field work amongst the Soli did eventually draw my attention to her 1953 paper on Social Control And Vengeance in Plateau Tonga Society which was the only one of its kind for Central Africa at that time and it became deservedly well known for its wider contribution to the ongoing analyses of the feud. But, I maintain, it was not the whole story about the settlement of disputes in the area. It was not even the whole story for the Tonga. For in an earlier, minor paper (1950, p 39) she stated that the Tonga

“seem never to have been a warlike people or capable of organsing any large-scale force of their  own. Instead they turned to the traditional method which they used in their local feuds [sic] – the summoning of a more distant group not involved in the quarrel, who could be paid to come in and wipe out the offending party.”

Colson did not refer to this again in 1953, but I found independently the use of “third parties”, under the Soli terms nkole and kapondo which I heard repeatedly during discussions about conflicts and their consequences, particularly in pre-colonial times.
This paper discusses the meanings and contexts of these terms in several Soli cases and also traces their occurrence among neighbouring peoples, such as the Lamba, Ambo Luba, Nsenga, Bemba etc.

Prof Richard Werbner (University of Manchester)
Fiddling: Elizabeth Colson and the Moral Imagination

My topic, Fiddling, comes from Elizabeth Colson herself, in her 1975 Distinguished Lecture to the American Anthropological Association. I want to re-open this topic with stories that register extremes in the representation of her ethnography. The first, recognising her to be ‘one of the greatest anthropologists of the post-war generation’, in Max Gluckman’s Foreword to her collected essays in Social and Religious Studies, turns around an apparent paradox. It was as if her essays still fell short; there was no total integration between them, and they showed no unitary social system; and yet somehow the very strength of the analysis was in the parts as such. I am tempted to get ahead of this story and speculate. Perhaps if Marilyn Strathern had written the Foreword and ironically stood it on its head, the apparent shortage would have been a brilliant anticipation of Partial Connections.

As for the second story, the striking fact is that in it nothing of the first is told. Instead, for example, in the Biographical Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, all that is said by John Campbell, somewhat blandly, about her distinction is this, ‘Elizabeth Colson is associated with research on resettlement, migration, refugees and social change’. Campbell lets planned social change and how it goes wrong, especially when technology determines policy, take over at the heart of Elizabeth’s long-term intellectual project.

My aim is not to reconcile these two stories, which say as much about the times when they were first told as about the subject herself. To go further, Elizabeth’s notion of fiddling has to be unpacked and the question of its importance for the moral imagination has to be put for the ethnographer, for her own reflexive view explicitly positioned in anthropological and, indeed, world history – and for her deeply considered ethnography in accounts of the moral imaginations of the Makah Indians in modern America and the Tonga in Central Africa.

Tea and coffee 3.00-3.30pm

Prof Raymond Apthorpe (University of Cambridge & Royal Anthropological Institute)
Elizabeth Colson: Anthropologist Extraordinaire

4.15-5.00pm Closing Discussion


The Honorary Secretary has written a detailed note on Elizabeth Colson recalling in part her time at the Rhodes Livingston Institute, which we hope will serve to stimulate ideas and comments. It is pasted in below this call.

Location : Royal Anthropological Institute
50 Fitzroy Street
United Kingdom


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. All proposals, however, are welcome and we look forward to a lively day of discussion together. 

March 2017, Raymond Apthorpe, Hon. Sec.

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


This also appears in the Obituaries section of the RAI website https://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/elizabeth-colson


October 12 2017
12:00 am
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