Anthropology E.E. Evans-Pritchard
Roger Just
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0006


Sir Edward Evans Evans-Pritchard (b. 1902–d. 1973), known to his friends, colleagues, and students as “E-P,” was arguably the preeminent British social anthropologist of the 20th century. As an ethnographer he conducted substantial periods of fieldwork between 1926 and 1939 in eastern Africa with the Azande, Nuer, Anuak, Shilluk, and Nilotic Luo peoples, producing five major ethnographic monographs and numerous articles and shorter notes. He also produced a sixth ethnographic monograph based on data collected during his wartime service in North Africa. Although a consummate ethnographer and fieldworker, Evans-Pritchard’s reputation rests equally on his theoretical contributions to social anthropology. However, whereas he produced a number of explicitly theoretical articles and chapters, his major theoretical contributions tend to be embedded in his ethnography and in the interpretations and analyses he offers of the empirical material with which he is dealing. Perhaps better than any other British social anthropologist of the period, his work exemplifies the idea of “cultural translation,” and, despite his early association with “structural-functionalism,” he led Oxford anthropology down a distinctively humanist path. By all accounts a strong and charismatic personality, he left his imprint on generations of scholars who worked in, or passed through, Oxford, and he became the defining figure, if not of British social anthropology, then at least of Oxford anthropology. Evans-Pritchard was educated at Winchester College, and then Exeter College, Oxford, where he read history. He went on to the London School of Economics (LSE), where he completed his PhD in 1927. He was appointed lecturer at the LSE from 1923 to 1931, and then, in 1932, was made professor of social anthropology at the Fuad I University in Cairo (now Egyptian University of Cairo). In 1935, he was appointed research lecturer in African sociology, University of Oxford, but undertook military service in Sudan and North Africa from 1940 to 1945. In 1945, he briefly became reader in anthropology at Cambridge University, and then in 1946 succeeded Radcliffe-Brown as professor of social anthropology (and fellow of All Souls) at the University of Oxford. He held this position until his retirement in 1970. He was also a visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1950, and, in 1957, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in California. He was knighted in 1971.

General Overviews

It is not easy to reduce Evans-Pritchard’s ideas to a single theoretical stance or to some named “theory.” In Douglas 1980, the one work dedicated to an account of Evans-Pritchard’s anthropological contributions, Douglas argues that Evans-Pritchard’s work reveals a continuous intellectual program relating to the construction of a sociological theory of knowledge, and she also introduces the notion of “a theory of social accountability” to describe Evans-Pritchard’s attempts to relate moral philosophy and religion systematically with social behavior. Douglas admits, however, that the phrase “a theory of social accountability” is her own invention and a heuristic device for discussing Evans-Pritchard’s work, and, although Evans-Pritchard’s works are interconnected, they range over a variety of issues and topics, including religion, witchcraft and magic, human rationality, social structure, political organization, and kinship and family. Kuper 1983 and Kuper 1988 discuss Evans-Pritchard’s work in the context of the development of British social anthropology, and Geertz 1988 examines his influential ethnographic style. James 2007 and Lienhardt 1974 provide some insight into Evans-Pritchard’s influence on Oxford anthropology. A simplified but firsthand account of Evans-Pritchard’s own view of anthropology can be gained from a series of broadcast lectures delivered in 1950 and published as Evans-Pritchard 1951.

  • Douglas, Mary. 1980. Evans-Pritchard. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

    The volume was simultaneously published by Fontana Books in Great Britain as part of its Modern Masters series. Written by one of Evans-Pritchard’s former students, herself one of Britain’s best-known anthropologists, it provides an insightful, though slightly idiosyncratic, account of Evans-Pritchard’s intellectual contributions, and is invaluable for gaining an understanding of the overall direction of Evans-Pritchard’s work.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1951. Social anthropology. London: Cohen and West.

    The entire work is also included in Evans-Pritchard 1962. It has been translated into five languages and is as close to an introduction to the discipline as Evans-Pritchard wrote, although the lectures it reproduces were designed for a nonacademic audience. US edition by Free Press, Glencoe, UL.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1962. Essays in social anthropology. London: Faber and Faber.

    The volume contains ten previously published lectures and essays, including two important works, “Social Anthropology: Past and Present” and “Anthropology and History” (see History). This is a useful collection for students, providing access to major themes in Evans-Pritchard’s work.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965. The position of women in primitive societies and other essays in social anthropology. London: Faber and Faber.

    The volume contains fourteen previously published lectures and essays. The title essay is not Evans-Pritchard’s best work, but the first essay, “The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology,” is useful for the history of the discipline, whereas other essays provide important material that complements Evans-Pritchard’s African monographs.

  • Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and lives: The anthropologist as author. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Written by one of America’s preeminent cultural anthropologists, the volume deals with anthropologists’ creation of “ethnographic authority” through their writing. A chapter is devoted to Evans-Pritchard’s “literary realism” and the persuasiveness of his ethnographic style.

  • James, Wendy. 2007. “A feeling for form and pattern, and a touch of genius”: E-P’s vision of the Institute 1946–70. In A history of Oxford anthropology. Edited by Peter Rivière, 98–118. Oxford: Berghahn.

    The chapter, written by one of Evans-Pritchard’s later students and colleagues, discusses the rejuvenation of Oxford anthropology stemming from Evans-Pritchard’s appointment in 1946, and his intellectual and administrative molding of the (then) Institute of Social Anthropology.

  • Kuper, Adam. 1983. Anthropology and anthropologists: The modern British school. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    This is a revised and expanded edition of the volume first published in 1973. It provides a historical account of the development of British social anthropology from the 1920s to the 1980s. Chapter 3 provides a useful review of Evans-Pritchard’s work, particularly on witchcraft and social structure.

  • Kuper, Adam. 1988. The invention of primitive society: Transformations of an illusion. London: Routledge.

    Chapter 10 of the book contains a critical account of the work of Evans-Pritchard and other British structural-functionalists on social structure and lineage theory that should be read to gain a historical perspective on those topics.

  • Lienhardt, Godfrey. 1974. E.P.: A personal view. Man 9:299–304.

    DOI: 10.2307/2800079

    As the title suggests, this is a personal view of Evans-Pritchard the man rather than an assessment of his academic achievements, and it does much to explain the hold that Evans-Pritchard had over generations of scholars at Oxford.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.