Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Horizons of Modernity: British Anthropology and the End of Empire


This dissertation charts the ways in which the non-West came to be thought of as part of the modern world in the late British Empire, how that project became politically unfeasible during decolonization, and how colonial social anthropology was brought to bear on Britain itself in the 1950s. I show how in late colonial era social anthropologists began to combine participant-observer fieldwork, and totalistic analysis of a locality, with the understanding of the world's cultures in interaction with each other, rather than in terms of their comparative difference. This colonial anthropology of modernity emerged within a complex matrix of institutional geographies. The branch of that project instigated by Max Gluckman involved circulations not only between metropole and colony, but crucially within the specific regional situation found in South Africa. Through these circulations Gluckman was led to develop new tools for the understanding of the social as globally modern, which were further developed by his colleagues at Manchester, and which became highly influential on new understandings of a global modernity. These tools were imported from the colonial situation to bring a vibrant and productive anthropological dimension to the study of British society in the 1950s: a project which was instigated, funded, and shaped by the demands of social democracy and the construction of a welfare state. However the participant-observation of late colonial modernity, and in particular the processes of decolonization, became impossible under the demands of an emergent security apparatus. Social anthropology's methods were not intrinsically primitivist, but they were dependent on the circulation of anthropologists and their ability to live in fieldsites for extended periods of time, forging intimate links with their subjects. This made the anthropology of modernity both unacceptable and highly vulnerable in the era of impending decolonization, and allowed the discipline's subject matter to be conditioned by political coercion, in particular through restriction of movement. Thus we can see the complex ways in which political circumstances shaped, constrained and channeled the understanding of global modernities at the end of the British Empire.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View