Elizabeth Colson
Home town anthropologist, systems sceptic
in Anthropology after Gluckman
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This chapter reviews the work and life of Elizabeth Colson, Gluckman’s successor as head of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, through an intellectual history focused on her social biography. The account explains how and why her legacy, so rich in Central African ethnography, matters for coming generations of anthropologists. A main contention is that coming from a Midwestern town in Minnesota, distinguished by the uneasy coexistence of displaced Ojibwa Indians and white settler farmers, predisposed Colson towards concerns with discrimination, emplacement and displacement, egalitarianism and participatory democracy, and towards being a systems sceptic, who cast doubt on the utility of any model of a system as if it were something consistently well integrated as a totality. Her scepticism stands out against the approaches of other pioneering social anthropologists; so too does the creative legacy of travelling theory in her transatlantic role. Early in her long career, she introduced to British social anthropology approaches from American sociology. Her breakthrough regarding cross-cutting ties in conflict resolution called into question the utility of the mainstream structuralist model of segmentary opposition and lineage theory. This account documents the intense networking, the broad critical reviewing, and the sustained international collaboration that she accomplished.

Anthropology after Gluckman

The Manchester School, colonial and postcolonial transformations

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