Edwin Ardener: the life-force of ideas

Malcolm Chapman
20 September 2017

The work of the social anthropologist Edwin Ardener (1927-87) remains a fertile source of insight and influence, says his former student and editor of a collection of his essays, Malcolm Chapman.

(This article was first published on 21 September 2007)

Edwin Ardener was born eighty years ago today, on 21 September 1927. He studied social anthropology at the London School of Economics immediately after the second world war, coming into contact with a number of major figures in the subject - Edmund Leach, Raymond Firth, Darryl Forde, and Audrey Richards (as well as encountering the strong posthumous presence of Bronisław Malinowski). Ardener began a long fieldwork involvement with west Africa in 1949, which involved numerous long visits over the next twenty years. Ardener's published ethnographic and analytical work from this period is lengthy and extensive. This is a point worth stressing for those who (if they are aware of him at all) have been exposed only to his later work, a collection of which was published in 1989, under the title The Voice of Prophecy, and other essays,

I had the privilege of editing and introducing this book. It had been in preparation before Ardener's sudden and unexpected death in 1987. He had always tried to retain "urgent provisionality" in his writings, and joked that the only way such urgent provisionality could properly be turned into a bound volume was as a posthumous work. We referred to the collection as "posthumous' even as we were working on it together, not realising how soon the joke would be delivered. This assemblage of writings has been republished in 2007 by Berghahn Books, with an insightful foreword by Harvard University's Michael Herzfeld. [Editor's note: a second and expanded edition is published in October 2017]. It is a modest but real sign both of the lasting interest in and the intellectual fertility and contemporaneity of Ardener's anthropology.

Worlds and meanings

Edwin Ardener's ethnographic writings covered many subjects. He developed his interests through intense attention to social and linguistic detail, in closely observed fieldwork contexts. He studied and published on life in village and plantation in Cameroon. He published on the relationship between divorce and fertility. He came to know the value, and the limitations too, of the positivist approach to numbers, counting and meaning. He had a deep appreciation of the virtues of empirical engagement with society.

He also, however, was coming to a refined appreciation of the limitations of positivism within social anthropology, at a time when something like positivism was very prevalent within social anthropology (and at a time when positivism was, as Ardener once remarked to me, "the religion of the compulsorily educated masses"; I do not know whether he would mind me repeating that or not). His writings, from the late 1960s onwards, were less concerned with empirical and fieldwork matters, and more with the twin meetings that he understood and expressed so well: the meeting of social anthropology with linguistics, and the meeting of society with language. It is this work that is represented in The Voice of Prophecy, and it is this work for which he is best known.

It is difficult to convey any of the ideas simply, not because they were expressed in a complex manner, but because they were all wonderfully interrelated. When Ardener became a lecturer in social anthropology at the Institute of Social Anthropology (as it then was) in Oxford, he was invited to take up this post by the then professor of social anthropology, EE Evans-Pritchard. The latter had published a number of influential ethnographic accounts, where the interaction of people, meaning and things was discussed in intricate detail (for example, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande [1937], The Nuer [1942], Nuer Religion [1956]). Ardener stepped into this tradition, along with a number of other young anthropologists. He also, however, brought to the mix a developing understanding of the emerging ideas of Claude Levi-Strauss, and through him, of the seminal work of Ferdinand de Saussure. It was this meeting of detailed ethnographic knowledge, allied to a concern for meaning and interpretation, with the ideas coming through from Saussurean linguistics, that might be said to be the most important feature of Ardener's thought, and of its development from the 1960s through to the late 1980s.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge the importance of Edwin's wife and fellow anthropologist, Shirley Ardener. They worked together in Cameroon, and were lifelong colleagues in the pursuit of the social life of the intellect, in all the forms that this took in their lives in Oxford and Africa. One of Edwin's most influential short essays was a piece entitled "Belief and the Problem of Women", which popularised the idea of "muted groups". The idea was first applied to women, but came to have a life in many other areas. "Muted groups" were defined by what Ardener called "world structures": they were groups that for one reason or another were unable to express themselves through the dominant existing structures (of language, symbolism or action) in a society. The idea led, through the subsequent work of Shirley Ardener and her many collaborators, to a rich and sustained vein of analysis (beginning with the collection called Perceiving Women [1975]) that continues to illuminate the role and position of women in many societies.

Ardener expressed much of his thinking in terms of "world structures". This was an attempt to express the idea that a society experienced the world through its own structures which it was the task of the analyst to grasp in their full complexity. The idea bore some resemblance to the notion of "the social construction of reality", which was becoming popular at about the same time. Ardener's approach, however, never allowed ideas and materialities to drift apart, in the way that many "social constructionists" seemed to do.

A world structure was, in part, about how materialities could be experienced, and about how events from the material environment could be incorporated into social understanding. A world structure was a form through which everything relevant could be "englobed" (another key Ardener concept); a world structure was totalising. This meant that even impoverished and ill-informed views nevertheless seemed "total" in their own terms - gave, that is, an account of the world where everything was accommodated.

These ideas have found many forms, but some of the most fruitful, at least for me, have been in accounts of ethnicities, of self-classification and classification of others. To take the simplest example, a world structure which contains the idea of "self" (ourselves, us) and the idea of "other" (strangers, not us) is totalising - it contains everybody, according to locally relevant parameters.

Thought and influence

Edwin Ardener's work contained many refined discussions of social classification, deriving ideas from Mary Douglas as well as from Saussure and Evans-Pritchard. It subtly interwove ideas of classification, totalising structures, and anomaly, and in many different contexts - in the analysis of kin groups, of ethnicities, of academics and academic subjects, of genders.

My own work has been particularly influenced by three quite short essays (all of them in The Voice of Prophecy) - "Behaviour, a social anthropological criticism", "Language, ethnicity and population", and "Social anthropology and population". These essays led me, and others, to consideration of world structures wherein ethnic groups constructed and defined their present and their past, My own book The Celts: the construction of a myth is developed out of these influences, as too are the works of Kirsten Hastrup, Maryon McDonald, Sharon Macdonald, and Edward Condry, among others. The collection History and Ethnicity, from a conference of the same name, is another manifestation of this range of interests.

The Ardeners invested a great deal of time and effort in the doctoral students who later became, in many cases, their colleagues, co-authors and friends. I was lucky to have a great deal of time invested in me. I did not realise until much later how unusual this was, and how lucky I had been.

Ardener was probably at his best in oral delivery - in tutorial, seminar and lecture. His lectures in the 1970s were a kind of ongoing comedy adventure, of the deepest seriousness. The writings are what we now have to access this, and they are available once again. I now work in the general field of business studies, and find that ideas drawn from Ardener's writings and ideas are a constant source of challenge and novelty to the entire domain of business studies. They are my enduring intellectual capital, and I know that many people who passed close to Edwin Ardener feel the same. For those that have not experienced the invigorating life-force of his ideas, I humbly and seriously recommend an engagement with the essays in The Voice of Prophecy.


Malcolm Chapman is senior lecturer at Leeds University Business School. He is a social anthropologist by training, and the author of many studies of business management and culture in the perspective of anthropology

Among his books are The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture (Croom Helm, 1978) and The Celts: the construction of a myth (Macmillan, 1992). He is the editor of a collection of Edwin Ardener's work, The Voice of Prophecy, and other essays (Berghahn, 2007; 2nd, expanded edition, October 2017)

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