A leading British social anthropologist who undertook ethnographic studies of a number of African societies. He viewed social anthropology as a humanistic rather than a scientific study of society—perhaps, it is thought, because his first degree was in history. Because of this belief he distanced himself from A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (whom he succeeded as Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford between 1945 and 1970) and other functionalists who sought to generate laws or theories about societies in general. By introducing a historical element to his work, Evans-Pritchard showed how societies change and manage change over time, which represented a major advance on the static analyses of functionalism. At the same time, however, he was concerned to describe societies holistically, and in this sense can be seen as a follower of Émile Durkheim.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Evans-Pritchard played a major role in shifting the focus of anthropology from the study of the function of rituals in society to an examination of the meaning ascribed to rituals by members of that society. He saw one of the main tasks of anthropology to be the translation of one culture into terms understandable to members of another culture. This he achieved most memorably in the two early monographs which made his reputation and are still popular today—Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer (1940).
If Evans-Pritchard was less concerned to be scientific than was Radcliffe-Brown, his work was nevertheless more theoretical than that of Bronislaw Malinowski, from whom he learned his enthusiasm for intensive fieldwork methods. The volume he edited with Meyer Fortes (African Political Systems, 1940) revolutionized political anthropology, and many of Evans-Pritchard's later writings (such as Essays in Social Anthropology, 1964) were about the relationship between anthropology and other social sciences, including sociology. They constitute important contributions to the sociology of knowledge, and offer provocative statements of the problems of subjectivity in social research, and of the need for comparative analysis. The sociological significance of his writings, especially for theories of language, rational action, and religion, is clearly explained in Mary Douglas 's commentary on his life and work (Evans-Pritchard, 1980). See also magic, witchcraft, and sorcery.
Subjects: Social Sciences.