Why did Marxist ideas only start being applied in Anthropology in the last half century, and what are some of the key ideas that influence Materialistic Anthropology?

In March 1909, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Herbert Asquith, met a delegation of anthropologists led by Prof. W. Ridgeway, the president of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Their mission was to lobby for the creation and funding of an Imperial Bureau of Anthropology.

“Professor Ridgeway pointed out that the science of anthropology could be of the highest possible service to the State in the training of Colonial and Indian administrators, and that it was also a necessity for commercial success.”

(Holmes et al. 1909)

Both the British and the French (and to a lesser extent the US) used anthropology to understand their colonies but given the dominance of the British Empire at the time, this essay will focus on British Anthropology.

The British Empire and Anthropology

At its peak, the British Empire controlled territories inhabited by over 413 million people, approximately 23% of the world’s population at the time. Thus it became important to deploy anthropologists to the colonies to collect information about their rules and customs and their traditional systems of authority. The information was critical to establish a semblance of “self-rule” that would give the colonial powers a veneer of legitimacy. In addition, it also helped identify how best to exploit these new territories.


Therefore, it was in industrialised nations that controlled colonies that anthropology initially emerged and flourished. Marxist / Leftist ideas were obviously abhorrent in these countries at the time, which explains why they did not take hold in their anthropological practices in the first half of the twentieth century. That said, it must be noted that in the Soviet Union of the time, Marx’s ideas were popular, and were used to develop a framework for ethnographies – further illustrating how anthropology was being impacted by politics and commercial interest (Golovnev 2018).

The British deployed anthropologists to the colonies to collect information about their rules and customs and their traditional systems of authority. This information was critical to establish a semblance of “self-rule” that would give the colonial powers a veneer of legitimacy. In addition, it also helped identify how best to exploit these new territories.

The “Golden Age” of British Anthropology


The “golden age” of British Anthropology lasted from roughly the 1930s to 1950s. Two of the leading anthropologists of the era were Bronisław Malinowski (London School of Economics) and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (University of Cambridge). Both were influenced by Durkheim and were at the vanguard of the British Functionalist movement. There was a strong competition between the two, with Radcliffe-Brown applying Durkheim’s ideas more stringently in what came to be known as Structural-Functionalism (Cheater 1989).

Ultimately, however, they had the same goal – to understand local customs and beliefs in terms of their present function at that specific point in time. Consequently, the societies were studied as isolated wholes (holism) with no consideration of their historical development (including their pre-colonial state) and the overarching geopolitical forces they were subject to, including the impact of colonialism (Cheater 1989). As a result the ethnographies were used by the colonial powers to understand the existing institutions of the society, enabling them to identify how best to restructure them to fit the colonial model and achieve the aims of the colonisers.

The resulting ethnographies were used by the colonial powers to understand the existing institutions of the society, to be able to identify how best to restructure them to fit the colonial model and achieve the aims of the colonisers.


After the second world war the winds of change hit the empire. Strong anti-colonial movements (including freedom fighters strongly influenced by Marxist theories) started to gain traction in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Marx and Materialistic Anthropology

The Manchester School was extremely critical of Structural-Functionalism’s emphasis on holism and framing of societies as isolated organisms. They pointed out that by not addressing the inequality and exploitation resulting from colonialism, and the resulting tension, conflict and even violence, one ended up with an unrealistic, whitewashed picture of these societies. Their position was that to understand a society, one had to take into consideration its history, as well as its power structures and resulting politics – concepts that were central to Marxist thinking and became central tenets of Materialistic Anthropology (Roseberry 1997).


By the 1960s leftist ideologies had spread like wildfire in campuses throughout Europe (Zorn 2018) and were now starting to propagate in the US, which had by then emerged from the McCarthy era (Layton 1997). Furthermore the decade was marked by the Paris student revolt in May 1968, which led to a massive worker strike in France (over 10 million workers) and similar demonstrations in other countries (Farrar et al. 2020).

The time was ripe for the rise of Materialistic Anthropology.

Materialistic Anthropology

The era of Materialistic Anthropology based on Marxist theory had begun, with its focus on human practices that result from the material conditions in which the society exists (Neveling, Steur 2018). This meant that there finally was a strong appreciation of the fact that historical transformations resulting from changes in material conditions are of critical importance to understand the underpinnings of a society (Gledhill 2011).

Unlike Structural-Functionalists, Materialistic Anthropologists assessed how the means of production of a society were crystallized in its superstructure, which includes politics, laws, culture and even religion. They asked questions such as:

  • What are the resources available to the society?
  • Who controls these resources?
  • What is the power structure of the society and how has it retained control?
  • How does the society fit in the world and what forces impact it?
  • What social tensions are there between those who control the resources and those who do not?
  • What forces of change are there and how are they expressed?

Anthropology as a Social Science

In conclusion, the first half of the twentieth century saw anthropology come into being as a social science. The political realities of the day and the rigidly functionalist view taken by anthropologists of colonised societies, led to great criticism in the second half of the century, with anthropology being described as “the child and handmaiden of colonialism” (Gough, as cited by Lewis 2004), a phrase that was first coined by Talal Asad in his influential book “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter” (1974).

It was only in the second half of the century, when the political situation had shifted, that Materialistic Anthropology started to be applied by western anthropologists, who started to assess the impact of inequality, exploitation, and class struggles, in some cases as part of an ongoing critique of colonialism. Marx’s ideas thus became very influential, as they are to this day.

Bibliography

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Decline of the British Empire”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Oct. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/summary/Decline-of-the-British-Empire. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “British Empire”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/place/British-Empire. Accessed 13 March 2021.

Cheater, A.P., 1989. Social anthropology. Routledge.

Colson, E., 2008. Defining “the Manchester School of Anthropology”The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology. Edited by T. M. S. Elvers and Don Handelman. New York: Berghahn, 2006. Current anthropology, 49(2), pp. 335-337.

Eller, J.D., 2016a. Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives. 3rd ed.. edn. Routledge.

Farrar, M., Høgsbjerg, C., Lavendar, L., Mcgrath, M., Perrigo, S. and Steele, T., 2020. ‘Paris Today, Leeds Tomorrow!’ Remembering 1968 in Leeds. Northern history, 57(2), pp. 291-317.

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Golovnev, A., 2018. Soviet Ethnography: A Failed Affair with Marxism. EtnoAntropologia, 6(1).

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Holmes William, Boas Franz and Mooney James, 1909. Imperial Bureau of Anthropology for the British Empire. American anthropologist, 11, pp. 131.

Layton, R., 1997. An introduction to theory in anthropology. Cambridge U.P.

Lewis, H.S., 2004. Imagining Anthropology’s History. Reviews in anthropology, 33(3), pp. 243-261.

Linstrom, E., 2012. The Politics of Psychology in the British Empire, 1898—1960. Past & present, 215(215), pp. 195-233.

Neveling, P. and Steur, L., 2018. Introduction: Marxian anthropology resurgent. Focaal, 2018(82), pp. 1-15.

Phillips, W.G., 1945. Anthropology in the British Empire during the War. American anthropologist, 47(3), pp. 474-479.

Roseberry, W., 1997. Marx and Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26(1), pp. 25-46.

Steinmetz, G., 2013. A Child of the Empire: British Sociology and Colonialism, 1940s–1960s. Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences; J Hist Behav Sci, 49(4), pp. 353-378.

Zorn, J., 2018. Cambridge, 1968. Academic questions, 31(1), pp. 40-47.

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