E. E. Evans-Pritchard  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Sir Edward Evan (E. E.) Evans-Pritchard (21 September, 1902 – 11 September, 1973) was a British anthropologist instrumental in the development of social anthropology in that country. He was professor of social anthropology at Oxford from 1946 to 1970.

He is the author of The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and Other Essays in Social Anthropology (1965).


Life and field work

Born in Crowborough, East Sussex, England, he was educated at Winchester College and studied history at Exeter College, Oxford, where he was influenced by R. R. Marett, and then as a postgraduate at the London School of Economics (LSE). There he came under the influence of Bronisław Malinowski and especially Charles Gabriel Seligman, the founding ethnographer of the Sudan. His first fieldwork began in 1926 with the Azande, a people of the upper Nile, and resulted in both a doctorate (in 1927) and his classic Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (in 1937). Evans-Pritchard continued to lecture at the LSE and conduct research in Azande and Bongo land until 1930, when he began a new research project among the Nuer.

This work coincided with his appointment to the University of Cairo in 1932, where he gave a series of lectures on religion that bore Seligman's influence. After his return to Oxford, he continued his research on Nuer. It was during this period that he first met Meyer Fortes and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Evans-Pritchard began developing Radcliffe-Brown's program of structural-functionalism. As a result his trilogy of works on the Nuer (The Nuer, Nuer Religion, and Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer) and the volume he coedited entitled African Political Systems came to be seen as classics of British social anthropology. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande is the first major anthropological contribution to the sociology of knowledge through its neutral--some would say "relativist"--stance on the "correctness" of Zande beliefs about causation. Evans-Pritchard's empirical work in this vein became well-known through philosophy of science and "rationality" debates of the 1960s and 1970s involving Thomas Kuhn and especially Paul Feyerabend.

During WWII Evans-Pritchard served in Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. In Sudan he raised irregular troops among the Anuak to harass the Italians and engaged in guerilla warfare. In 1942 he was posted to the British Military Administration of Cyrenaica in North Africa, and it was on the basis of his experience there that he produced The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. In documenting local resistance to Italian conquest, he became one of a few English-language authors to write about the tariqa. Near the end of the war, in 1944, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

After a brief stint in Cambridge, Evans-Pritchard became professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls College. He remained at All Souls College for the rest of his career. One of his notable students is Talal Asad, who now teaches at the City University of New York. Mary Douglas' classic Purity and Danger on pollutions and uncertainty--what we often denote as 'risk'--was fundamentally influenced by Evans-Pritchard's views on how accusations, blame and responsibility are deployed though culturally-specific conceptions of misfortune and harm.

He was knighted in 1971, and died in Oxford on 11 September 1973.

Later theories

Evans-Pritchard's later work was more theoretical, drawing upon his experiences as anthropologist to philosophize on the nature of anthropology and how it should best be practiced. In 1950 he famously disavowed the commonly-held view that anthropology was a natural science, arguing instead that it should be grouped amongst the humanities, especially history. He argued that the main issue facing anthropologists was one of translation - finding a way to translate one's own thoughts into the world of another culture and thus manage to come to understand it, and then to translate this understanding back so as to explain it to people of one's own culture.

In 1965, he published the highly influential work Theories of Primitive Religion, arguing against the existing theories of what at the time were called "primitive" religious practices. Arguing along the lines of his theoretical work of the 1950s, he claimed that anthropologists rarely succeeded in entering the minds of the people they studied, and so ascribed to them motivations which more closely matched themselves and their own culture, not the one they are studying. He also argued that believers and non-believers approached the study of religion in vastly different ways, with non-believers being quicker to come up with biological, sociological, or psychological theories to explain religion as an illusion, and believers being more likely to come up with theories explaining religion as a method of conceptualizing and relating to reality.


Known to his friends and family as "E.P." Evans-Pritchard had five children with his wife Ioma. His youngest son, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, is an investigative reporter for the London Daily Telegraph and author of The Secret Life of Bill Clinton. His younger daughter, Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, PhD, is an expert on folklore and Middle Eastern studies. She is also a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. His eldest daughter, Shineen Evans-Pritchard, is a successful business woman. He also had twins - Nicky Evans-Pritchard, who works in computers, and John Evans-Pritchard, an economics teacher and author of several books.

See also

Partial bibliography

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.

  • 1937 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford University Press. 1976 abridged edition: ISBN 0-19-874029-8
  • 1940a The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1940b "The Nuer of the Southern Sudan". in African Political Systems. M. Fortes and E.E. Evans-Prtitchard, eds., London: Oxford University Press., p. 272-296.
  • 1949 The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. London: Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 1951a Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1951b "Kinship and Local Community among the Nuer". in African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and D.Forde, eds., London: Oxford University Press. p. 360-391.
  • 1956 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1962 Social Anthropology and Other Essays. New York: The Free Press. BBC Third Programme Lectures, 1950.
  • 1965 Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-823131-8
  • 1967 The Zande Trickster. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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