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30Jun

In Search of Us by Lucy Moore review – the first anthropologists, warts and all

The eccentric adventures, academic insights and many prejudices of 12 pioneering scholars

When anthropology first became established at English universities, its practitioners kept a fastidious distance from their subjects. The Victorian grandfathers of the discipline, Sir Edward Tyler at Oxford and Sir James Frazer of Cambridge, based their studies on ethnographic materials sent back by missionaries and colonial administrators from faraway lands. To research his massively influential The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, which eventually ran to 12 volumes, Frazer never travelled beyond Italy. The pioneering Harvard psychologist William James once asked him if he’d ever actually met a “native”. “Good God, no!” was Frazer’s reply.

In 1910, when the dashing Polish polymath Bronisław Malinowski joined the brand new anthropology department at the LSE, its reading list contained just four books, two of which had the same title (The Races of Man). In 1913, he wrote his own first monograph, The Family Among the Australian Aborigines, entirely on the basis of library research in London.

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