Indefatigable economic anthropologist
Thursday 25 August 2005
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.
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