Polly Hill

Indefatigable economic anthropologist

Polly Hill was the pre-eminent economic anthropologist in the classic British fieldwork tradition. She was born in 1914 into one of Cambridge's most distinguished academic families. Her father was A.V. Hill, a Nobel prize- winning physiologist, and her mother's brother was J.M. Keynes. She graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1936 with a degree in Economics, but her academic career did not begin until 1954 when she took up a post as a Research Fellow in the University of Ghana. This was the beginning of her distinguished career as a "field economist," as she liked to describe herself. Over the next 30 years she published nine books and over 50 articles, including the classic study that established her reputation, The Migrant Cocoa-Farmers of Southern Ghana (1963).

Hill's economics has little in common with that of her celebrated uncle: she was more of a "specific empiricist" than a "general theorist"; and more concerned with inequality and poverty in the developing countries than unemployment in the developed countries. What she did have in common with her uncle was a concern to question conventional wisdom.

Her questioning was grounded in the countryside of West Africa and southern India; her views were based on some 13 years' fieldwork and she had little time for those development economists who based their analyses and policy conclusions on, in her considered opinion, worthless official statistics and false assumptions about the economic motivations of farmers. Her approach to development is best summed up by a favourite saying of hers: "We are so ignorant of the conditions of poverty in the developing world that we do not know how ignorant we are." This belief informed her field research and her critiques of those whose theories were, in her opinion, founded on ignorance.

Her first job on leaving university was as an editorial assistant with The Economic Journal. She held this position for two years (1936-38) and then took a position with the Fabian Society where she wrote her first book, The Unemployment Services (1940). This book was concerned to expose the inefficiency and inhumanity of the system of unemployment relief and to advance policy conclusions to overcome these deficiencies.

With the outbreak of the Second World War she was obliged to become a civil servant and worked successively in the Treasury, the Board of Trade and the Colonial Office. In 1953 she married K.A.C. Humphreys, registrar of the West African Examinations Council, and went to live in Ghana. Susannah, her only child, was born in 1956. The marriage was short-lived but the experience of living in Africa was a turning point in her career.

From 1954 until 1965, Hill was employed as a Research Fellow at the University of Ghana when, as she put it, she became a pupil of the migrant cocoa farmers of Ghana. Thus began her work as "field economist", a term that best describes the unique fieldwork methods she pioneered. She began her research using the standard questionnaire method and wrote up the result of this research in her second book, The Gold Coast Cocoa Farmer: a preliminary survey (1956).

When she subsequently realised that this method had led her to accept uncritically some false, conventional assumptions about the backgrounds of these farmers, she abandoned the method in favour of one that would enable her to make empirical discoveries. Her new method combined the methods of an economic historian, human geographer and economic anthropologist. She made intensive studies of villages, conducted extensive archival work, and situated her findings in the relevant comparative and historical context. All her subsequent works were based on original data that she collected using her rigorous scholarly methods.

Her next book, The Migrant Cocoa-Farmers of Southern Ghana (1963), the product of many years of painstaking research, demonstrated the fruitfulness of her approach and established her reputation as a scholar of renown. Her carefully documented findings on the behavioural patterns of the cocoa-farmers turned conventional orthodoxy on its head. She charted the economic aspects of the migratory process over the years 1894-1930 and mapped the geographical dimensions of it. She also demonstrated that the matrilineal farmers adopted an entirely different mode of migration from patrilineal farmers.

The book caught the attention of geographers, historians and anthropologists and its informal status as a "classic" was officially recognised in 1997 when the International African Institute reissued the book in its Anthropological Classics series.

Her subsequent fieldwork in Ghana covered almost every domain of economic activity: she studied trade, traders and marketing, farmers, fisherpeople and pastoralists. In 1966 she began work in rural Hausaland, northern Nigeria, financed by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Lagos. The following year she returned to Hausaland and spent six months at Batagarawa, near Katsina City. In 1970-71 she did a further 15 months fieldwork in a very densely populated rural area near Kano City. She also consulted the Nigerian National Archives and did some original work on the history of rural farm slavery. Numerous articles and books followed.

In 1972 Hill was appointed Smuts Reader in Commonwealth Studies at Cambridge University, a position with a fixed term of six years. She was also appointed as a permanent Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. In 1975 she returned to rural Fanteland in southern Ghana for three months work. Indefatigable, she decided, at the age of 63, to undertake fieldwork in rural Karnataka in southern India when immigration restrictions prevented her from returning to Nigeria.

She was 67 when she went on her last overseas trip and she would have continued doing fieldwork in the tropics had her health allowed it. For her, the end of her ability to do fieldwork marked the end of her career as an economic anthropologist so she changed intellectual direction. In 1990 she privately published The History of the Isleham Fen in the 1930s. She also edited, with R. Keynes, Lydia and Maynard: letters between Lydia Lopokova and John Maynard Keynes (1989). In her eighties she worked on the history of early Cambridge women students but, to her great disappointment, was unable to find a publisher.

Another passion she developed late in life was poetry and she compiled collections of her work which she distributed privately to friends. She had a life-long love of the arts - sculpture, painting, and literature in particular - and had many artist friends. She lived for a period during the war in Henry Moore's studio in London; and later she moved to Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead. One of her oldest friends was the artist Elisabeth Vellacott; for many years they lived in neighbouring villages. Hill collected West African art and also bought a lot of work by local Cambridge artists.

In her final years, Polly Hill lived in the home of her daughter, Susannah, who cared for her with the help of her husband and children, William, Matilda and Florence.

Chris Gregory

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?