LSE’s History series for LSE Women: making history celebrates some of the notable women at LSE through the years. Adam Kuper looks back at Audrey Richards: LSE alumna and anthropologist.
Unprejudiced, unshockable, in many ways unconventional, Audrey Richards nevertheless operated unselfconsciously by the standards of her parents and their class.
Born in London in 1899, Audrey was the second daughter of Henry Erle and Isabel Richards. HE Richards served as legal member of the Indian vice-regal council 1904-1909 before the family returned to England in 1911. Audrey once told me that it was her mother who insisted that the girls should not be sent alone to England, to boarding school, as was customary. Audrey attended Downe House School near Newbury. Her parents were against her going up to university, and insisted that if she did so, she should study science. She read for the Natural Sciences tripos at Newnham College, Cambridge 1918-21. Influenced by Graham Wallas, father of a Newnham friend, she decided to begin postgraduate study at LSE.
Wallas wrote to Bronislaw Malinowski asking him to supervise Audrey’s doctorate and 1928-30 she worked under his supervision. Malinowski dominated social anthropology at LSE 1924-39. LSE was associated with new ideas of social improvement, and was committed to the application of the social sciences. Still somewhat marginal, not yet entirely respectable, it offered an ideal environment for an ambitious and creative outsider, and was more hospitable than the ancient universities to the aspirations of women. Audrey was to remain an orthodox Malinowskian. She was convinced that the type of information and analysis that functionalist ethnography provided would be of great value to policy-makers in the colonies, and that it could illuminate the problems of social change.
Before going into the field students were required to write theses based on ethnographic literature. Audrey chose a topic in which both biology and culture were implicated: nutrition. In the 1920s nutrition had become a subject of rapidly growing interest in academic and government circles. Malinowski’s functionalist approach promised a fresh perspective. Drawing on ethnographic literature on the Southern Bantu people, Audrey argued that social institutions are organised essentially to meet this fundamental physiological need, and that a “whole series of institutions and relationships” constitute “the nutritional system.”
Audrey Richards and Lucy Mair (fellow student and step daughter of William Beveridge) were among the first anthropologists to carry out applied research in Africa. Audrey’s fieldwork proposal, dated July 1929, begins with a conventional Malinowskian statement of intent. “To make an intensive study of the social institutions, customs and beliefs of the Awemba tribe… with special reference to the part played by women in tribal and economic life, the nature and importance of the family system and the marriage contract, and problems connected with the rearing and education of children.” “As long ago as 1930,” she recalled in 1974, “I was sent to study a matrilineal society because it was thought particularly appropriate for a woman anthropologist to study women. When I got there you will not be surprised to hear I found as many men as women!”
From May 1930 to July 1931, and again January 1933 to July 1934, Audrey did fieldwork in what was then Northern Rhodesia, among the Bemba. Malinowski’s students were expected to learn the vernacular and live in close association with the people they were studying. Audrey made long forays into the villages, was accorded the status of Chieftainess, and learnt to use the appropriate Bemba royal speech conventions. “This position of prestige prevented my attaining any real position of equality with the people but was an advantage in carrying out village censuses, when it was helpful to be able to exert a certain amount of authority.” It was only on her return to London that Audrey decided that the focus of her first Bemba monograph should be, once again, nutrition. Her works were characteristic Malinowskan ethnographies and she taught at LSE while writing.
Meanwhile, Malinowski moved from LSE to Yale in 1939 and died suddenly in 1942. Audrey moved to South Africa, teaching 1937-40 at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. There she began fieldwork and became friends with the Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Owing to the war she returned to London to become a temporary principal at the Colonial Office, became a special lecturer in Colonial Studies at LSE 1944-45, and continued as a Reader 1946-50 while serving as a member of the Colonial Social Science Research Council.
Various career paths were now open to her, but Audrey felt that at long last British African policy-makers had come to appreciate that they could benefit from expert social science advice, and this presented a great opportunity. “It is said that youth is the time of enthusiasm,” she wrote reflecting on this time, “but I believe there is no sense of commitment so great as that of middle-aged men and women who suddenly find themselves in a position to do the good they have been trying to do for many years.” In 1950 she went out to Makerere University in Uganda, as Director of the newly-established East African Institute of Social Research. There she completed Chisungu (1956), an account of female initiation among the Bemba. The account is painstaking and often praised, but the functionalist analytic framework was dated. In 1956 she returned to a fellowship at Newnham College, Cambridge, and later served as Vice-Principal. She held the Smuts Readership in Commonwealth Studies 1961-66, and built-up the African Studies Centre. She was, however, a marginal figure in the Social Anthropology department, perhaps because she and the Professor, Meyer Fortes, did not get on.
Audrey was a greatly respected figure, and much loved by most of those who worked with her. Her honours included a CBE for her work in Uganda, election to the British Academy, and the Presidency of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Ironic, self-mocking, a hilarious companion, famous in Uganda for her party trick of lighting matches with her toes, Audrey was nevertheless a most serious and moral person. She lived until 1984.
Abridged from Adam Kuper’s Audrey Richards: a career in Anthropology in Among the Anthropologists. See the original article for an unabridged version including references. Adam Kuper is LSE Centennial Professor in the Department of Anthropology.
Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE
Jean La Fontaine on Audrey Richards, recorded at the Department of Anthropology’s LSE 120th anniversary event in December 2015.