The Long Walk IV-Hunter-Gatherers and Anthropology: An Interview with James Woodburn

By Widlok, Thomas | Nomadic Peoples, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Long Walk IV-Hunter-Gatherers and Anthropology: An Interview with James Woodburn


Widlok, Thomas, Nomadic Peoples


This interview took place at James Woodburn's home in Cambridge, England, on 30 March 2001, where James has now retired from teaching at the London School of Economics and Political Science. However, on the same day as the interview James drove down to Brighton to attend the ASA conference on `Rights, Claims and Entitlements' held at the University of Sussex. In June 2001 a symposium on `Property and Equality' was held in his honour at the new Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Germany), and James is also a member of the organising committee for the 19th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 9) held in Edinburgh in September 2002. It is clear that he has no intention of resigning from anthropology or more specifically from hunter-gatherer studies, which he has influenced since conducting field research with the Hadza of Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in the late 1950s and since his appearance at the `Man the Hunter' conference in 1966 and many more hunter-gatherer conferences since then. At the LSE, where he spent most of his professional career, he supervised numerous research projects on hunter-gatherers all over the world but also other projects, including work on pastoral and agricultural peoples in East Africa, the region that he knows best.

JW--How many questions do you have, Thomas?

TW--I have not counted them. They form a conglomerate, a set of shared questions by some of your colleagues and students whom I have contacted, plus some of my own. I start with your personal ancestry, then your academic ancestry, then move on to the Hadza, then on to questions of methods and theories, to the current and future situation of hunter-gatherers and the study of hunter-gatherers.

JW--Goodness me!

TW--Shall we start with some genealogical questions, first on personal ancestors and then on to academic ancestors? You studied here in Cambridge, you taught at the LSE and everybody thinks of you as being English, but you told me once that you thought of yourself as being Irish, Northern Irish. Now, to what extent do you think that this Irish ancestry does make a difference, given that you yourself have spent very little time living there?

JW--Yes, I think it does make a difference. I value my mixed identity as both English and Irish. And, rather curiously, it has a bearing on how I became an anthropologist. In September 1954 I arrived in Cambridge to take a degree in history. I had spent the previous two years in the army doing my compulsory military service, during which I was trained as a military interpreter in Russian. I greatly disliked the army but liked the language work and wondered whether to give up the idea of taking history and instead to take a degree in Russian language and literature. But all this changed when by chance I wandered into the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology and happened to meet Professor Meyer Fortes. He invited me into his room and I explained my uncertainty about which degree to take--whether I should do history, or Russian or even archaeology which had greatly interested my Irish grandfather who, in my childhood, had shown me wonderful Irish archaeological sites and treasured neolithic arrowheads. At that stage I had almost no idea of what anthropology was.

Fortes encouraged me to take archaeology and anthropology. He latched onto two themes, both of which were, as I later came to understand, very important to him. He talked about the significance of grandparent/grandchild relations. He also seized on the fact that I saw myself as being a kind of outsider and assured me that a sense of being an outsider was an important qualification for the study of anthropology. I was entranced by all of this and most of all by the fact that a Cambridge professor was willing to spend an hour of his time talking to me with such enthusiasm about his subject. Although all this happened more than forty years ago, I can remember it with great clarity.

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