Anthropology Rodney Needham
Colin Kidd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0223


Rodney Needham (b. 1923–d. 2006) was a brilliant and daring anthropologist, possessed of considerable imagination and theoretical sophistication; a facility for languages, both European and Asian; and a broad-ranging comparativist outlook that transcended his immediate specialisms in Borneo and Indonesia. He enjoyed a keen sense of the historical depth of anthropology as a way of looking at the world, and a sharp awareness of the discipline’s wrong-turnings and recently acquired blind spots, though also a generous desire to recover the insights of those unsung but ingenious pioneers who were overlooked in the conventional canon of the discipline, for which Needham had scant regard. Needham was utterly original, as all who encountered him on the page or in person were soon aware, and did not foster a school. Indeed, he seemed to repel rather than woo potential allies. Needham was involved in several biting academic feuds with fellow anthropologists, and there is a significant roll call of anthropologists with whom he broke a lance. There was a major falling-out with Claude Lévi-Strauss, for whom Needham was for a time an acolyte and—as translator and practitioner of structuralism—the Frenchman’s most zealous missionary in the anglophone world. But things went spectacularly awry, and the reason is to be found in the temperaments of both men. For Needham was not the only English anthropologist of his generation—Leach was another—who, while finding structuralism persuasive, was to experience exasperation and disillusionment with the French master’s evasiveness in the face of uncomfortable ethnographic fact and error. Needham’s own positive contributions to the discipline were rich and multifarious, sometimes arresting. He remained unconvinced about aspects of the human condition that other anthropologists cavalierly took for granted, such as the notion that “belief” was a universal ingredient of mental life. Rather, Needham was persuaded by an accumulating mass of ethnographic evidence that certain modes of classification were intrinsic to the human mind. This was the point of departure for his anthropological project. The structuring capacity of the human mind came close to the elusive hard rock on which a robust discipline might be built.


Rodney Needham lacks a full-scale biography, though there are several shorter obituaries and biographical entries that capture aspects of his career (Fox 2008, Fox 2013, Lyons 2011, MacClancy 2007, MacClancy 2010, Pickering 2007). Moreover a filmed interview, Fox 1979, encapsulates something of Needham’s idiosyncratic character. He was born with the name Rodney Green, and changed his name by deed poll in 1947 to his mother’s maiden surname, renouncing the surname of a father who had not, as Needham saw it, maintained a sufficiently solicitous paternal correspondence during the son’s dangerous wartime service in Southeast Asia. Needham was born in Kent, and had been educated for a time at Haileybury, an English public school in Hertfordshire conscious of its connections to the former East India Company. He served as a volunteer infantryman, mainly in the British Indian Army, between 1941 and 1947. He rose to the rank of captain in the 4th Battalion of the 1st Gurkha Rifles. He was twice wounded in Burma, most notably at the Battle of Kohima in 1944 when, in an attack on a Japanese bunker, Needham’s flamethrower would not light (Colvin 1994, Edwards 2009). Needham was injured in the leg, and was saved by one of his men, Subedar Narain Ghale (later awarded the Military Cross for his action), who bound the wound and carried him for a hundred yards under Japanese fire, until he was able to get Needham into the relative safety of a bomb crater. Needham walked thereafter with a slight limp, but bore no hard feelings toward his former adversaries. He established contact with Japanese veterans of Kohima, some of whom visited him in Oxford. Needham also maintained a lifelong affection for the Gurkhas, and was a generous financial supporter of various Gurkha families under the auspices of the Gurkha Welfare Association. Needham studied Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London during 1947–1948. He was a student at Merton College, Oxford, from 1948 to 1953, with a term at the University of Leiden in the spring of 1950. Needham undertook fieldwork among the Penan of Borneo in 1951–1952, with further expeditions to the Indonesian island of Sumba in 1954–1955, to Malaya and Borneo in 1955, and again among the Penan in 1958. Needham became a university lecturer in social anthropology at Oxford in 1956, and its professor of social anthropology in 1976.

  • Colvin, John. 1994. Not ordinary men: The story of the Battle of Kohima. London: Leo Cooper.

    Account of the Battle of Kohima, including the episode of Green’s (Needham’s) wounding.

  • Edwards, Leslie. 2009. Kohima, the furthest battle: The story of the Japanese invasion of India in 1944. Stroud, UK: History Press.

    A history of the major campaign in which Green (Needham) served and was wounded.

  • Fox, James J. 1979. Interview with Rodney Needham. Cambridge, UK: Univ. of Cambridge.

    A filmed interview between James J. Fox and Needham in 1979 that captures something of the latter’s precision and prickliness.

  • Fox, James J. 2008. Rodney Needham 1923–2006. American Anthropologist 110:401–403.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00065_2.x

    A very full obituary of Needham, outlining his intellectual development, which includes discussion of his introduction to Lévi-Strauss’s work at de Josselin de Jong’s seminar at Leiden in 1950.

  • Fox, James J. 2013. Rodney Needham. In Theory in social and cultural anthropology: An encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, 585–587. Los Angeles and London: SAGE.

    A rich account of Needham’s career that emphasizes in particular his divergence from Lévi-Strauss on kinship: whereas Lévi-Strauss wished to consider directed marriage in a wide range of cultures, Needham insisted on a very sharp distinction between mere preference and outright prescription, and that it was only in the latter, a more circumscribed set of societies (which left Lévi-Strauss’s grand ambitions much diminished), where certain elementary structures were entailed.

  • Lyons, Harriet D. 2011. Rodney Needham (1923–2006). In Fifty key anthropologists. Edited by Robert Gordon, Andrew P. Lyons, and Harriet D. Lyons, 167–173. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge.

    Astute overview of Needham’s anthropological career, which brings out the importance for Needham of anthropological categories, both the categories that anthropologists themselves employ in their investigations and those by which the discipline’s subjects order their lives.

  • MacClancy, Jeremy. 2007. Rodney Needham: Obituary. Anthropology Today 23.2: 22–23.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8322.2007.00502.x

    An obituary that includes material on Needham’s devoted following among his students and his fond attachment to some institutions. Moreover, MacClancy draws attention to the fitting parallel that Needham, like two of his heroes, Wittgenstein and Lévy-Bruhl, spent much of the second part of his career questioning the assumptions of his earlier work: most notably, his turn toward polythetic classification meant revising the strict formalism of his earlier structuralism.

  • MacClancy, Jeremy. 2010. Rodney Needham. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A full account of Needham’s life and ideas that draws attention to his precise and fastidious domestication of Lévi-Straussian structuralism and its more grandiose claims, as well as to a delight in form, which took precedence, in his career as well as in his scholarship, over the messy realities of politics. Available online by subscription.

  • Pickering, William S. F. 2007. In memoriam: Rodney Needham (1923–2006). Durkheimian Studies 13:147.

    Pickering’s obituary draws attention to Needham’s interest in Durkheim and his role in translating Durkheim and Mauss, Hertz and van Gennep.

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