Elizabeth Colson

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane at the ASA Diamond Jubilee
Filmed by Alan Macfarlane
Edited by Sarah Harrison

Interview Length: 2 hours, 7 minutes, and 37 seconds (includes Colson's talk at Cambridge)
Interview date: April 11, 2006

Description of Interview

Elizabeth Colson explains that she did well in all her school subjects because she had a “good memory.” Yet despite her academic successes at school, her strong dislike of mathematics prevented her from pursuing a career as an astronomer. She decided on archaeology and went to the department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota only to find that women were unable to join in on the excavation digs. Through the help of Wilson Wallis, who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and interested in anthropology, as well as assistance from his wife Ruth, a physical anthropologist, Colson managed to obtain a Bachelors degree in Anthropology from the University of Minnesota in 1938 and then eventually a Masters degree in 1941. During her time as a Masters student, Colson worked as a part-time secretary at the department. During some of her summer breaks, she worked with the Pomo Indians. Her MA thesis was on Pomo women and acculturation, and this was the basis for her publication entitled “Life histories of three Pomo women.” She wrote her PhD thesis at Radcliffe College on the Macah with Clyde Kluckhohn as her doctoral supervisor. She describes Kluckhohn as “the only one who I found interesting to work with.” 

Colson is also known for her extensive work with the Tong people of the Gwembe Valley in Zambia and of the, at times, devastating effects of development and colonialism upon the communities. In this interview, she speaks of her decision to work “somewhere where people had not been so assimilated as Natives Americans, where people could be themselves.” So she applied for a post at the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in 1944, and received news a year later from Max Gluckman that her application was successful. It took approximately six months before she departed to Northern Rhodesia on a cargo ship by way of Cape Town. Colson’s fieldwork spans over a period of nearly 73 years. She observes that very little ethnographic fieldwork is conducted by anthropologists over the age of forty. She points out that when anthropologists go back to their fieldwork notes, they are to some extent “reliving their youth. You can’t quite do that in a long term thing . . . it catches up with you!” The diverse experiences she recounts during this interview document the broader political, economic, and social transitions during such a long period, and also the intellectual shifts within the anthropological discipline itself. Towards the end of the interview Colson says, “When you get so many people in a profession there cannot be a paradigm again that unites them.” 

Video Index and Transcript

0:05:07 Born 1917 in central Minnesota; father's father came from Sweden and fought for the northern side in the Civil War; he arrived as Carlson but because there were so many with that name in the Minnesota regiment was given the name Colson and adopted it; father's mother came from southern Germany; after father's birth they moved to central Minnesota taking up land of Civil War veterans; mother's family were old Americans from New England and New York Dutch; had moved from Ohio to southern Minnesota; father went to university in Minnesota and then became a superintendent of schools; mother went to Carleton College and then began to teach and became the principal of a school where father was superintendent; father felt he could not support a family as a school superintendent so went to work in a bank; they had four children and I am the second.

3:28:00 Both parents interested in things and mother read a great deal; both encouraged us to do what we wanted to do; for a number of years father was president of the school board and library committee; mother was head of the book committee of the library so were very helpful.

4:42:23 In high school had an English teacher who got me to write two essays a week instead of one; had some very good teachers; liked history, English and biology, but not maths; did well in all as I had a good memory; started out wanting to be an astronomer but realized this involved maths, then a naturalist, then archaeology; only place one could do this was a university so went to University of Minnesota to department of anthropology which did some archaeology but found women were not taken on digs, only men; senior honours paper was on the stone ages of Africa.

7:16:03 Wilson Wallis who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and had been attracted to anthropology by Tylor taught there, also his wife, Ruth, a physical anthropologist; both helped me; did both a B.A. and M.A. there during the latter was a part-time secretary in the department which meant I could afford to do it; after graduation Wallace sent me to the Peabody Museum to do research for him on primitive science; following two summers from 1939, Wallis got me a fellowship to go to a field school in California, run by New York University, where we worked with the Pomo Indians on a community study; my M.A. thesis was on Pomo women and acculturation; then went to Radcliffe College to start Ph.D.; after one year spent third summer at the field school with the Pomo then went to do dissertation research among the Makah; during the three summers collected materials on what was to become 'Life Histories of Three Pomo Women'. 

11.57.00 Clyde Kluckhohn was my advisor at Radcliffe; he was also a Rhodes Scholar; he started at Princeton but because of bad health was sent to kin in New Mexico in Navaho country; he then went to Wisconsin and did a Ph.D. at Harvard; not sure he liked and while in Europe had gone to Vienna and studied with Schmidt; he had respect for some of the German work in diffusionism and read probably more widely about what was being done in Britain than the others at Harvard; he was the only one at Harvard that I found stimulating at that time; [Alfred] Tozzer prided himself on giving the same lecture in the same way every year; decided never to use lecture notes as a result; he was a Mayanist; he did not encourage women; at that time women could not take any course open to both undergraduate and graduate students; some of the courses were useful as background and Kluckhohn allowed me to come in off the record; a friend wanted to take one of Tozzer's courses and he told her to sit outside in the corridor to take notes; Kluckhohn was not a very good lecturer but sometimes sparked your mind; got me to send back field notes and sent back detailed feedback. 

18:21:22 My thesis was later the book 'Makah, study of assimilation'; initially I was interested in culture and personality on the basis of courses I'd taken with David Mandelbaum at Minnesota; at the Pomo field school started to do life histories; proposal for the dissertation was to go to the Makah Reservation to work with women in different generations trying to see what was transmitted; realized that I wasn't adequately trained in culture and personality and got much more interested in what people were doing and trying to get information on the past; arrived two months before Pearl Harbour and construction workers began pouring in to build camps for soldiers; peculiar time in the life of the Reservation; found I couldn't believe in acculturation but could believe in assimilation, being a people on a Reservation with special social status. 

21:14:10 Arrived at the Reservation in October by bus; the bus driver found me a place for the night with a customs officer; next day found a place to stay with a Makah woman; can't remember any particular culture shock but can remember it was cold, was surprised seeing cows on the beach looking at the waves; the Pomo had been repressed unlike the Makah who were proud of who they were. 

23:22:07 Thesis examiners were Kluckhohn and the head of the Peabody Museum and another; had also done Specials in sociology and psychology and examiners included Talcott Parsons and a psychologist; got to know Parsons and when I was at Manchester he came for a term; took his course on the American social system and he was good. 

25:32:13 After getting Ph.D. was working as Kluckhohn's research assistant; saw an advertisement for a job with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in 1944; applied but heard nothing for about a year when I got a cable from Max Gluckman giving me the job; returned home a little before Christmas thinking I'd be leaving for Northern Rhodesia shortly; nothing happened but finally left on 1st April. 

26:49:20 Wanted to go somewhere where people had not been as assimilated as Native Americans, where people could be themselves; had thought of going to Borneo but this job came up and I had studied Africa as part of my training and had taken courses with Walter Klein at Minnesota and had done some work for him. 

28:26:00 Sailed from San Francisco on a cargo ship to Cape Town via Cape Horn; Max Gluckman met me at the boat together with John Barnes and Clyde Mitchell; they had just finished the Lamba report and all three of us were to take a special course arranged by Max; neither Barnes nor Mitchell had more than a B.A. as they had been involved in the war; stayed with Gluckman and family for a month and then moved into an hotel when they left; went to stay with Monica Wilson at Fort Hare; then went to the Transkei and Johannesburg where Clyde and John joined me to look at industrialization; met first person from Barotseland in a gold mine. 

31:01:06 Spent 3-4 days with Monica Wilson then and next saw her at North-Western 1963-4 and later at Stanford; stayed with her again for a month in Cape Town in 1978; very thoughtful, widely read person; was developing a garden which she wanted to give to all Africans not just Europeans. 

32:21:00 Back to the time in Minnesota, it was possible then to read quite widely which is not now possible with so much available; encouraged to read in sociology, especially rural sociology which later became part of anthropology; also after finishing the Makah fieldwork I didn't go back to Radcliffe immediately as Kluckhohn got me a job under Alex Leighton with the War Relocation Authority which was responsible for the Japanese who had been moved from the west coast; we were in a camp in Arizona called Poston; Layton was a psychiatrist, head of the Bureau of Sociological research; other person under him was Edward Spicer who had been a student of Radcliffe-Brown at Chicago; Spicer encouraged me to read materials that linked to the Radcliffe-Brown school including Lloyd Warner and Hortense Powdermaker; this seemed to give a better framework for doing fieldwork and starting to understand what was going on around you than from the ideas of culture and personality; thus already familiar when I came to Northern Rhodesia and explains why Max and I got along so well; also at Harvard introduced to ideas of social dynamics and social drama and sociograms which interested me so combined that with thinking about the anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski; at the time I preferred Radcliffe-Brown as he talked about societies and Malinowski was talking about cultures which I had found to be a mish-mash; when I arrived in Cape Town one of the first things Max asked me were my views on Malinowski which were similar. 

37:37:04 Max Gluckman tall and energetic, could be incredibly generous with ideas, but also overwhelming; John Barnes had just come out from England; he had trained in anthropology before the war and had expected to go to Harvard; interested in mathematics and analytical models; had read relevant literature while in the Navy and was aware of the work from America on social dynamics; Clyde Mitchell had been in the South African air force and was also mathematically minded; he and John bonded because they thought in a similar way though I thought John was more imaginative but others thought that Clyde could see a theoretical point and develop it.

40:36:01 When Max was appointed to Oxford in 1947 he had me appointed as acting director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute as I had the Ph.D. and a lot of fieldwork experience and they didn't; this did not endear me to John or Clyde or Hans Holleman who was then working in Southern Rhodesia or Max Marwick who was also there; at the end of our first year of fieldwork supposed to write up results but no housing in Northern Rhodesia so Max persuaded the board to let us go to Oxford with him; Holleman didn't want to go to England and went to Cape Town to work with Schapera; Barnes, Mitchell and I went to Oxford and on the boat going over they barely spoke to me; however we worked well together.

43:09:05 Met Audrey Richards in Britain in 1947-8; stayed with her for a week in 1950 when she was building the East African Institute and she took me round Uganda; spent a further week in Bemba country with her in 1957; good friends; she was a wonderful mimic and the Bemba remembered her with affection; she had the seeing eye and was a good fieldworker. 

45:45:01 At Oxford although not formally attached was allowed to take part in everything at the Institute; Evans-Pritchard had the Chair, Meyer Fortes was the Reader, and Max was the senior lecturer; E-P would bring in lecturers from elsewhere; remember E-P as rather quiet, very witty, rarely spoke in seminars but always to the point; very highly respected by Fortes and Gluckman; he was working on Nuer Religion; by that time he had become a Catholic but it didn't seem to dominate things that much; a number of students had followed him over from Cambridge, including Emrys Peters, Ian Cunnison; didn't meet Kathleen Gough as in India or Godfrey Lienhardt, but Julian Pitt-Rivers there, also Paul Stirling, Mary Douglas, and Laura and Paul Bohannan; Barnes, Mitchell and I went to London each week to sit in on the joint seminar of Firth and Forde; there met Nadel, Leach, Richards and Lucy Mair with whom I became good friends; she could be very witty and was a wonderful person to walk around London with; her opinion of her fellows could be interesting but acerbic; Beatrice Blackwood was also in Oxford at the Pitt-Rivers Museum. 

50:11:17 At that time the Institute shared space with the Geography building; after the Friday seminar everyone went to the 'King's Arms' pub; didn't teach there but gave papers on fieldwork, one on African political systems, and the work that was later published as 'Seven Tribes in British Central Africa'. 

51:58:12 Went back as Director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute and also doing work among the Plateau-Tonga; there was no housing for me at the institute so directed it from my tent; fortunately where I was working was not far from a railway line so I'd work in my tent, mail would be delivered which I would answer if I could and periodically I would go to Livingstone and make sure the accounts were in order; would go up to Lusaka for the trustees meeting; much preferred this way of working than living as a single American woman in Livingstone. 

53:38:12 We were looking at the impact of modernization - labour migration, cash cropping or other involvement in the market economy; had thought originally that I would work among the Luapula but considered too dangerous (actually the District Officer couldn't cope with a woman) so went to the Plateau Tonga. 

55:02:15 It did help to be a woman in fieldwork as not thought of as part of the administration; also could talk with the women and children and the senior men and talked to younger men as a group; started work September 1946 and returned after a year in Oxford in June 1948 and left to go on leave August 1950 so was in the field a little over three years; did return in 1956 but to the Gwembe Tonga where worked on a project with Thayer Scudder and have been back many times since. 

59:18:19 Tried to computerise the demographic and quantifiable material since 1968 at CALTEC; change in the system made it unusable and started recoding data in 1992; after three years found that the software system we were using was obsolete; have given field notes etc. to the Bancroft Library at Berkeley with proviso that no one shall have access to it without permission before 2030 because field notes contain so much unexpurgated gossip.

1:01:42:00 Expected to go back to Rhodes-Livingstone Institute after year's leave in 1950; went to Manchester on a Simon's Fellowship and at the end of the year felt too unwell to take up the challenge of moving the Institute to Lusaka; became senior lecturer at Manchester; Ronnie Frankenberg was there as was Freddy Bailey and Bill Newell; new appointments had been made to the Institute before I resigned namely Victor Turner, William Watson and Jaap Van Velsen and the understanding was that they should come and do a term or two at Manchester for fieldwork training; Scarlett Epstein was a student and Bill Epstein came back to start a Ph.D.; Max brought in people for a term or two including George Homans, John Barnes and Clyde Mitchell, Talcott Parsons; Ian Cunnison came as a lecturer; still in touch with F.G. Bailey whose work I find very interesting, also John Barnes; never went to the football matches with Max but did go to some of the work parties. 

1:05:54:00 Max had been properly trained in ethnography while most people were only aware of their own area so I taught on Plains Indians; had very few students so sat in on other lectures such as on economics, government, sociology and philosophy; went back to U.S. at the end of 1953; felt I ought to go back although encouraged to apply for jobs at Oxford and L.S.E.; got job at a women's college, Goucher College, for a short time then at Boston University in the new African Studies Center; have taught in U.S. ever since following this with Brandeis, North Western, and then Berkeley where I spent twenty years, with some years away on fieldwork. 

1:10:08:00 Shared courses with a number of people - law with Laura Nader, cults with George Hammel, religion with David Mandelbaum; people I taught with most consistently were Burton Benedict and William Shack who had both been students at L.S.E., and we did a course on British social anthropology followed by one on American cultural anthropology. 

1:12:19:03 American anthropology was grounded, through Boas, in the German tradition with emphasis on culture whereas the British school was much more influenced by the French school of Durkheim, Mauss, Van Gennep; also many Americans were immigrants or children of immigrants and saw life as being a change in culture, whereas the British had an ordered society based on who you were; surprised to find when I went to Britain that they did not read Weber or Simmel or Pareto. 

1:14:31:03 Cross-sectional fieldwork studies, anthropology and history; found that most ethnography was collected by young people and few anthropologists over forty did much fieldwork; for many going back to the ethnography is going back to your youth; can't do that with long-term fieldwork; may not be as escapist as it once was; now students expected to work in factories etc.; perhaps people would not have gone into anthropology in the past if they had not been dissatisfied with life around them. 

1:17:25:22 When you get so many people in a profession there cannot be a paradigm again that unites them; many different methods and approaches; now Kant and Hegel are in; on my own work it has been a bit of this then a bit of that; like learning; started out in life histories, then work on assimilation, then structural-functionalist line with Plateau Tonga, then migration studies for Berkeley students, then on impact of large-scale technologies such as dams, on refugee studies, most recent articles on Aids and moral order in Gwembe and on refugees; advice to young, never agree to write for volume of essays until you are established given the length of time these usually take to appear; used to write on a typewriter, now use computer; have to force myself to sit down and write but generally enjoy it once I start.