Rodney Needham

Oxford social anthropologist and champion of structuralism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rodney Phillip Needham Green, social anthropologist: born 15 May 1923; surname changed by deed poll to Needham 1947; University Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Oxford University 1956-76, Professor of Social Anthropology 1976-90; Official Fellow, Merton College, Oxford 1971-75; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1976-90; married 1947 Ruth Brysz (died 1989; two sons); died Oxford 4 December 2006.

Rodney Needham was one of the leading British social anthropologists of his broad generation. Together with Sir Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas, he brought structuralism across the Channel and anglicised it in the process. A prolific scholar, he was also a particularly inspiring teacher and an indefatigable rediscoverer of neglected figures in the history of his discipline.

In the early 1950s, the structural-functionalist approach which had made British anthropology a world leader was beginning to languish from its rigorous but over-extended empiricism. By chance, Needham spotted a copy of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Les Structures élémentaires de la Parenté (1949) in Blackwell's the week before he went on fieldwork to Borneo. Primed by his knowledge of Dutch structural anthropology, he quickly realised its significance and its concern with conceptual structure over social organisation.

Structuralism thus provided him with a radically new interpretation of kinship systems, the bedrock of social structure in small-scale societies. Back in Oxford, he industriously put this approach into practice in a series of brilliant papers in which he emphasised the importance of alliance, through marriage, over that of descent, through lineages. Never scared of fomenting lively debate, his first great work, Structure and Sentiment (1962), demonstrated devastatingly the power of structuralist approaches over psychological ones.

But in 1969 Lévi-Strauss somewhat unfairly attacked Needham's interpretation of his work in the preface to the English edition of his kinship work, which Needham as his leading British disciple had so carefully had translated, as The Elementary Structures of Kinship. From then on, Needham ploughed his own structuralist path producing central work on systems of classification, cognitive universals, indigenous psychologies, and kinship theory. He would only refer to Lévi-Strauss in a critical vein, cutting through his rhetorical excesses and moulding structuralism into a more exact practice. At one point he even suggested that Lévi-Strauss, who in wartime New York had participated in André Breton's circle, be regarded not as the famed exponent of structuralism, but as "the greatest Surrealist of them all".

In the 1960s structuralist anthropology promised a new vision of the world. Its potential import lay far beyond the confines of its original discipline, and Needham was one of its key protagonists on a global stage. In this ambience of charged enthusiasm and impassioned debate about " fundamental structures of the human mind", Needham inspired generations of students who recognise him as the single greatest academic influence in their lives. By turns supportive, uncompromising, sympathetic, sceptical, he remains for them an exemplar of dedicated scholarship.

Needham also translated and edited the books of a series of anthropologist predecessors (Arnold van Gennep, Robert Hertz, A.M. Hocart, among others), whose work, though overlooked, was still highly relevant, when appropriately interpreted. But many of these re-editions did not sell. Needham's research students privately admitted that they only bought copies in order to read his lengthy introductions.

The essays of his last books, Against the Tranquillity of Axioms (1983), Exemplars (1985), Counterpoints (1987), are models of elegant scepticism and serve as powerful cautionary tales for anthropology undergraduates. In this methodical revision of his past position, he was mirroring two of his heroes, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, both of whom spent the second half of their lives critically examining the theories they had promoted in the first half.

Born in Kent in 1923, Needham spent his last year of schooling at Haileybury before being commissioned into the 1st Gurkha Rifles in 1942. A brave soldier and an excellent officer, he always took an enormous interest in the men under his command, with whom he learnt to converse in Gurkhali. At a meal in an Indian restaurant in 2001, he astonished us by spontaneously singing two Gurkha songs, and in good voice.

At the battle of Kohima in 1944 in the Burma campaign, he and his platoon, armed the day before with flame- throwers, moved up to attack a Japanese bunker. But Needham could not light his thrower. Badly exposed before the enemy guns, he was wounded, and only saved by the action of one of his men, at very great risk to himself. In later life he achieved reconciliation with Japanese veterans of Kohima, several of whom paid him visits in Oxford, some repeatedly.

After the war, he went up to Merton College, Oxford for postgraduate studies in Social Anthropology, following two years at Soas in London. While his Gurkha war-experience was central to his life, Needham was above all a self-made Oxford man who revelled in both its great traditions and its petty ceremonies. As he was quite prepared to admit, he lived a dream of Oxford, which he helped perpetuate and which many of his students, especially from overseas, were happy to participate in.

A lover of classical music and painting, Needham was enchanted by form and was more interested in elucidating the models underlying the nitty-gritty of daily life than their political manipulation. He wished to produce a logically grounded anthropology, and he frequently lamented how impoverished anthropology seemed compared to theoretical physics.

Uninterested in the analysis of power, he acknowledged he was not the most skilled at deploying it. In 1972 he was not chosen to succeed his mentor Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard in the Oxford chair. When he was finally awarded the position in 1976, some colleagues found him over-eager to revitalise the Oxford department. When senior members of the university questioned his judgement, Needham moved all his library to his college rooms. He never returned to the department.

Needham was enamoured of the United States, to which he was frequently invited as a visiting professor. In middle age, he would often speak of his desire to abandon academia to run a ranch in Montana. After his retirement in 1990, he enjoyed repeated visits to his beloved New Mexico and Arizona.

He cherished friendship and assiduously kept up a voluminous correspondence. In his last week, he refused to enter a hospice as he did not wish to lose contact with his friends.

Jeremy MacClancy