Obituary: Professor A. L. Epstein

Alan Rew
Friday 19 November 1999 00:02

WHEN THE social anthropologist A. L. Epstein carried out his pioneering research from 1950 to 1956 in the towns of what is now Zambia, the authorities treated him as a subversive. It was a volatile period before Central African Federation, and rolling strikes were used to air grievances at the copper mines, where many Africans worked, as part of a campaign of political opposition by the African National Congress.

"Bill" Epstein had returned to the Copperbelt in 1953 (after completing a study of its urban courts in the previous two years) to study the new organisations and social relationships forming among migrant African labourers. He needed co-operation from the trade-union movement and relied on good fortune and his invariably open, tactful approach to obtain it. Following meetings with trade-union leaders he was invited to address, in Bemba, a public meeting. This was an excellent opportunity to explain his research to a large gathering. Unfortunately his speech was reported in a garbled fashion. He was accused of siding with the trade union and told he could not continue his research as intended.

His branding as a subversive in these early years was at odds with his gentle manner and his careful scholarship and method. In his anthropology and his person Epstein emphasised continuities in social relationships rather than changes. In his accounts of subsequent fieldwork in New Guinea he stressed the resilience of the Tolai people's cultural institutions and their ability to signify external economic and political changes within a set of meanings distinctive to the Tolai. He did not ignore their changing role within the colonial and newly independent state but this was not his special interest.

He was no firebrand. He was approachable and known for his even-handedness in seminar debates and for stressing the importance of ethnographic context. Postgraduate students attending his "Manchester School", and then Sussex, seminars in the 1960s and 1970s greatly appreciated the detailed accounts of central African urban life and marvelled that his many insights were ever achieved given the restrictions placed on him. The research led to important theoretical contributions - in his Manchester University PhD thesis later published as Politics in an Urban African Community (1958) - in Urbanisation and Kinship (1981), and Scenes from African Urban Life (1992).

It was not Epstein as an individual who had challenged the system in colonial central Africa but his strong advocacy, by example, of the craft of anthropology. To talk to Africans, to share their festivals and join them in queues, and to value their interpretations of custom and social relations were essential to anthropological enquiry. But it also put Africans on a footing of equality and this, the authorities feared, would demolish the delicate political balance. The subversion was to have dared to act as an anthropologist within towns rather than in a rural location.

Arnold Leonard Epstein was born in 1924, took a law degree at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1944 and joined the Navy as a coder. After his discharge he was called to the Bar but never practised law. In 1948 he realised a long ambition to study anthropology and was awarded a Colonial Social Science Scholarship. He spent a year in preparation at the London School of Economics and his research on the urban courts established on the Copperbelt led to the publication of The Administration of Justice and the Urban African (1953).

He joined the new Anthropology Department at Manchester University as a PhD student and later became a lecturer. In 1957 he married T. Scarlett Grunwald, a fellow member of the "Manchester School", who had completed fieldwork for her pioneering account of Economic Development and Social Change in South India (1962). Together they went to the Australian National University, Bill to the anthropology department and Scarlett to a post in economics, and then to fieldwork among the Tolai of New Britain. Scarlett chose a rural site for her fieldwork. Bill chose a large village close to the town of Rabaul.

His first studies of the Tolai examined land rights, kinship and local social organisation. Matupit: land, politics and change among the Tolai of New Britain was published in 1969. Increasingly, however, his attention turned to the social and emotional bases of identity. His Zambian research had revealed the importance of ethnic and occupational identities in the new forms of social organisation in the towns. The Tolai were a distinctive and powerful people in the context of a new state and he would naturally follow his fieldworker's nose to consider their ethnic identity in wider contexts. For him to undertake comparative research on ethnicity after he had arrived at Sussex University in 1972 was not, therefore, unexpected.

Ethos and Identity (1978), perhaps his most widely read book, traces the ethnic roots of relations among the Tolai, urban Africans on the Copperbelt, and of three generation Jewish families in the United States. This third ethnographic illustration was anything but an ad hoc footnote to fill up a book as it has sometimes been regarded. His explorations of emotional behaviour in the nightmarish circumstances of central Africa at the time of his first fieldwork and among the Tolai when with Scarlett also led him to analyse his own identity as a Jewish grandson more explicitly than would normally have been possible given his anthropological past.

Again, Epstein's excellent instincts as an anthropologist had led him into exciting ethnographic discoveries about shame, oral aggression and other aspects of affect; but he was then challenged to explain the findings within the dominant theories of the "Manchester School" in which he been trained and to which he had himself contributed much. In two major monographs on the Tolai, both published after he retired from Sussex, he tackled these theoretical challenges head-on and developed a path-breaking composite analysis of Tolai society and identity. In the Midst of Life (1992) is a detailed account of emotion and Tolai concepts of affect. Gunantuna: aspects of the person, self and individual among the Tolai (1999) was published just weeks before his death and makes his final theoretical statements on identity and its social and emotional roots.

"Psychology" and the analysis of emotions had been taboo within the dominant theories of British social anthropology. In fighting against his own anthropological past, Bill Epstein became at last something of the subversive and revolutionary alleged at the time of his early fieldwork. His contributions to anthropological theory were honoured this year by a Festschrift volume of essays written by his ex-colleagues and former PhD students entitled Identity and Affect: explorations of identity in a globalising world (1999).

Arnold Leonard Epstein, social anthropologist: born Liverpool 13 September 1924; Professorial Fellow, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Institute of Advanced Studies, Australian National University, Canberra 1966-70, Professor and Head of Department 1970-72; Professor of Social Anthropology, School of African and Asian Studies, Sussex University 1972-82 (Emeritus); Vice-President, Royal Anthropological Institute 1982-84; married 1957 T. Scarlett Grunwald (two daughters); died Hove, East Sussex 9 November 1999.

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