Ruth Finnegan

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane
Filmed by Alan Macfarlane
Edited by Sarah Harrison
Interview Length: 1 hour, 31 minutes, and 26 seconds

Interviewed in January 2008

Description of Interview

“Whenever I wrote a chapter, he would always read it within two days and [provide] comments,” says Ruth Finnegan of her DPhil supervisor, Evans-Pritchard. Yet Finnegan also notes that despite their continued visits to the pubs with Godfrey Leinhardt and David Pocock, as a “puritanical Ulster girl” she liked neither pubs nor beer. Ruth Finnegan was born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1933. Her parents—both from Ulster—were liberals who “tried to fight the distinctions between Catholics and Protestants.” Finnegan attributes her father to inspiring her interests in classics, while her mother was a “wonderful storyteller.” During World War II, her father was a pacifist and she recalls the impact such a decision had, not only on a child who could not donate to the war effort, but also on an anthropologist who sees “good in everybody.”

Finnegan studied classics in Oxford and went on to study social anthropology. In this interview she speaks of her experiences as a student at Oxford, recalling how she had to learn to write a thesis for a B.Litt on ancient Irish kinship. She was, however, somewhat ashamed of her first thesis because she could not read old Irish and thus accepted the assumption that society in Ireland had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. After matriculating into social anthropology, she conducted fieldwork in Sierra Leone with the Limba, and eventually worked in Southern Rhodesia and Nigeria. She recalls of her funding application, “Meyer Fortes asked what kind of theoretical framework would I use which stymied me; Lucy Mair chipped in suggesting I would use a structural-functional framework; I got my grant”. Currently an Emeritus Professor in Sociology Department at the Open University where she continues to “smuggle” anthropology into the courses offered.

Video Index and Transcript

0:09:07 Born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1933; parents both from Ulster; both liberal people who tried to fight the distinctions between Catholics and Protestants but I still grew up thinking that the world was divided into two; parents both Protestants but mother particularly regarded herself as a Nationalist Protestant; did a great deal in the 1930's to form a Labour Party that was non-sectarian; after the War father became President of Magee College and helped to turn it into a university college which was non-sectarian; he was Professor of Classics; mother's family were missionaries and she had a degree in English from Queen's, Belfast; once married devoted herself to five children but later wrote plays for the BBC and taught; I was the first child and two brothers born before the war; during the war we were in Eire and a sister was born towards the end of the war and a brother after; still a very close family; three of them having travelled all over the world went back to Northern Ireland.

5:54:20 Father an Ulster man in attitudes and rather withdrawn but softened later in life; during the war he cycled to school with me and we had many wonderful conversations; he inspired me about classics describing with a dry Ulster wit which affected my later interest in language and the artistry of language later on; mother was a character, always the one who had to tell polite lies and entertain people where father always told the exact truth; she was a wonderful story teller; very outgoing and loved people; during the war my father was a pacifist which was difficult when rest of the children would bring contributions for the war effort and we were not allowed to; this left-wing background, seeing the good in everybody, later fed into my anthropology. 

10:20:12 First went to the Londonderry High School kindergarten; we then moved to Donegal and I went to the little church school where there were twelve children above the kindergarten; we were all taught together; look back at that school as where I started to learn; had to walk two miles across a bog to get there; one of the first things I read was a translation of Homer's 'Odyssey'; after the war came back to Derry and I went back to the Londonderry High School until I was thirteen; learned a great deal there; parents felt they wanted us to have some education outside Northern Ireland so I was sent to a Quaker boarding school in York called 'The Mount'; parents made huge sacrifices financially and emotionally; wonder if it was worth it as academically I think I would have got a better education staying where I was; however the music and drama there were important; once I got there I was very happy and made friends but was always miserable when I left home. 

16:11:13 For the first years at that school thought the teaching was rotten compared to Northern Ireland; coming up to School Certificate decided to do Greek in one year which was a real challenge; hard to give up subject I enjoyed later although I wanted to do classics; did elocution as an extra which encouraged me to learn poetry and to concentrate on delivery which later on underlay my interest in performance. 

18:55:10 One teacher [‘Percy’ – Mr Percival] at Bootham, the boys’ school, used to run a joint choir on Sunday mornings for both The Mount and Bootham; he was an inspiring teacher who affected all who took part with an abiding love of music; another teacher who inspired me was Miss Shepherd who taught us Greek; in the sixth form she taught us ancient history; we realized that often her notes were wrong so we got into the habit of checking them ourselves; think we learned more from that than anything else. 

21:41:00 At that time The Mount was really quite narrow and the Headmistress did not encourage girls to go to university; at that time you could apply for both Oxford and Cambridge by staying on for an extra term to take the examinations; I and two others who were studying classics did so; I was lucky enough to get interviews at both Somerville and Newnham; was attracted to Oxford to do four years and Greats with philosophy and ancient history as well; Somerville also more attractive as Dame Janet Vaughan so interesting and challenging; difficult at that time as so few places for women and no scholarships; father was worried about how it could be financed as State Scholarships were not open to people from Northern Ireland but I did get a State Exhibition from Northern Ireland which was topped up by the local authority; also got a loan from my school. 

27:02:06 Oxford was wonderful; delight to read the huge amounts of Greek and Latin literature; I worked very hard; remember one particularly inspiring lecturer, Eduard Fraenkel, and E.R. Dodds the professor of Greek who taught us about mythology; my tutor in ancient history was Isabel Henderson who encouraged us to think for ourselves; still singing but didn't manage to get into the Bach choir; felt a little bit of an outsider coming from Northern Ireland but thought I did as well as the rest; became involved in the Labour Club where every week there would be a speaker such as Bevan, Attlee; members like Tony Howard, Jeremy Isaacs, very interesting; in time became the Chairman; within the club a number of us became supporters of the Movement for Colonial Freedom; I did not go on into politics but some of the left-wing values have continued. 

37:40:03 [extraneous noises in the background] I got a first in Mods and a first in Greats; I knew I did not want to stay at Oxford but wanted to contribute to the real world and wanted to teach; at that time to teach in a state school you had to do another year so I went to teach in an independent school, Malvern Girls College, for two years; I loved the teaching though I was shocked by some of the values there; having taught for two years thought I would like to do some research; toyed with the idea of Sanskrit at SOAS but then thought I would like to study something to do with Africa. 

Second Part

0:09:07 Went back to Oxford and did the graduate diploma in anthropology under Evans-Pritchard; this was in 1958-1960; Evans-Pritchard was inspiring if not orthodox and his lectures on the history of anthropology were dry but he was the "sacred king" above the warring factions in the institute; later when I came back from fieldwork I got to know him as a human being when he was going through the difficult experience of the death of his wife and having to look after a young family; got to know him also through Godfrey Lienhardt who was my main tutor; realized he was a very shy person; both he and Lienhardt did not teach in any formal way, going to the pub, 'The Lamb and Flag' to talk; both were Catholic converts but neither tried to convert me. 

4:39:22 Took a B.Litt. writing on ancient Irish kingship; did not read old Irish so accepted the conventional idea that Irish society was unchanged for six centuries so rather ashamed of it; nevertheless did learn how to write a long thesis and also learned about the role of poets in early Irish society which fitted with a lot of my later interests; I wanted to do fieldwork in West Africa which ran counter to the East Africa expertise of most people at that time in the Institute; West Africa seemed to be more developed with towns, kings and bronze; E-P thought that his pupils should do whatever they were good at so no objection from anyone; one of the aspects of a graduate diploma was that students came from all sorts of areas and he wanted them to build on the disciplines that they came from; there was the practical problem of where I could get a grant; at that time the Colonial Social Research Council was one of the main sources but they would only give grants for places which were still colonies; ruled out Ghana and Nigeria so wanted to go to Sierra Leone; best bit of advice came from Godfrey Lienhardt who suggested going somewhere unstudied with a tribe whose name I could pronounce; I chose the Limba and had to go to an interview; Meyer Fortes asked what kind of theoretical framework would I use which stymied me; Lucy Mair chipped in suggesting I would use a structural-functional framework; I got my grant. 

9:44:17 The Colonial Office then took away half my grant as Sierra Leone became independent half way through; fortunately the Horniman Trust also gave me some so I had enough; remember arriving in Sierra Leone by boat and stayed with a contact at Fourah Bay College, Harold Turner; I had to make contact with the Colonial Office people for clearances; arrival in the field was gradual; I met some Limba people in Freetown, the capital, including a minister whom I heard preach; the first place I was in, Kamabai, was a village with an American Wesleyan missionary station; then went to a much more isolated village and I remember my arrival there more than anything else; we were not trained for fieldwork before going; only advice I got was to make two copies of field notes and ship one out for when you lose the other which was soon after Edmund Leach lost all his notes; made many mistakes but the first fieldwork was seminal; there just over a year with a return for a couple of months; learned so much that in a sense everything I have done since comes out of that. 

13:16:04 My study for the Colonial Office was the problem of people moving from the country to the town and why they do it; to do that they accepted you had to do some kind of holistic study first as nobody knew about the Limba; was able to do what I wanted, the more so after Independence when half my Colonial Office grant withdrawn; then concentrated on stories and story telling; that was the subject of my doctorate; used a tape recorder which was not so common at the time; made all the difference as a supplement to note taking; had begun as a good classical scholar thinking that literature and language lay in written texts; thought I had to capture stories, transcribe and translate them, then I would have the text to comment on; of course that wasn't why I had been so moved by some of the stories; became more aware that the important thing was the telling of the story and the performance was multi-sensory and often multi-vocal. 

18:15:22 This realization developed from my fieldwork in reflections afterwards; I had taken notes on the performance and the audience reactions at the time; when I was writing up realized that some American anthropologists were writing about performance though not much was going on in Britain; Dundes had written on story telling; Dell Hymes was very important and increasingly Richard Bauman at Indiana; reflected on them and back onto my classical studies where I had been encouraged to read all my set texts aloud; had already got the idea that literature had a sonic, acoustic aspect to it which fed into my interest in performance. 

20:46:00 Evans-Pritchard was my supervisor and he left me alone to get on with it; not what supervisors are told they should do now; whenever I wrote a chapter he would always read it within two days and comment; always encouraging; still continued the visits to the pub with Godfrey Lienhardt, and David Pocock to some extent; possibly they relaxed with the beer although as a puritanical Ulster girl I did not like pubs and I did not like beer; Rodney Needham was there but didn't go to the pub so not a member of that gang; was a time of great loyalties; had little contact with anthropologists in Cambridge or London; before I went to do fieldwork I did go to Edinburgh as that was where Kenneth Little and Michael Banton who had worked in Sierra Leone were. 

24:28:03 My examiners were Godfrey Lienhardt and Jack Berry from SOAS who was a linguist who had done a Limba grammar; he had also written on West African stories; they were complimentary and Godfrey particularly gave me good advice later on with regard to publishing it; got my doctorate in 1963; most of the people I did the diploma with didn't go on to do anthropology in Britain; Carmelo Lison-Tolosana went back to Spain and I have to some extent kept in touch with him. 

28:52:17 I did my doctorate at Nuffield College where I met David Murray to whom I am still married; he was then going out to Southern Rhodesia having spent a bit of time in Makerere; he had assumed that Southern Rhodesia would gradually move to majority rule; he went there in February 1963 while I stayed to finish my doctorate; we married when he returned in September and then both went to Southern Rhodesia; I had hoped to get a job there but was without one for the first term; then I got a job and the beginning is always very intensive; depressed by the political situation; both David and I wanted to encourage African students but at that time Ian Smith had unexpectedly got in and the Government was no longer interested in widening participation; also students were being taken off into detention; decided to leave and went to Ibadan in Nigeria which was a breath of fresh air intellectually, socially and politically; because they were not happy with the word anthropology I was a lecturer in sociology; a really interesting time as a first rate university, gradually getting more Africanised; it was at the time of the Biafran War so many of the Ibo were leaving but still intellectually exciting; time when Wole Soyinka was writing plays that were performed on the campus; our three daughters were born while we were there; also while in Southern Rhodesia I had revised my thesis as a book which was published as 'Limba Stories and Storytelling'; I had also begun the book that became 'Oral Literature in Africa'; got to know Robin Horton there and we cooperated on a kind of feschrift for E-P called 'Modes of Thought'; did not meet G. I. Jones at that time. 

35:42:00 The reason I wrote 'Oral Literature in Africa' was that when doing my doctorate came across a reference that Wilfred Whiteley was going to produce a book called 'African Prose'; thought it would be very useful to be able to put my Limba work into a wider context but then discovered it was actually to be an anthology of prose extracts; decided I would do an overview on oral literature in Africa, encouraged by E-P; I thought of it as an empirical book without any theory though it was implicit; message was that there are literary forms in Africa but also need to realize the element of performance, and that the difference between written and oral is on a sliding scale; also reacting against narrow functionalist analyses in which you were looking to see how stories supported the status quo or passed on the morals or socialized children, or how it was all part of oral tradition and upholding the tribe; I'd wanted to put it within the framework of creativity, individuality, change, interaction, livingness. 

39:22:04 On coming back to England both had to decide where to go; we had been teaching mature students and didn't want to go back to an established elite place; very fortunate that it was just the time the Open University was founded in 1969; we both applied and David was quickly appointed to the Chair of Government; they were not sure about me as they were not going to have anthropology; offered me a year in sociology and I stayed until I retired; we were really glad we had come as it was challenging to teach students at a distance when all our experience was through lectures and tutorials; made us think a lot about what is scholarship, what is learning, what do students get out of it rather than us; although in a way I didn't do anthropology as such I managed to smuggle it in under lots of different guises and interdisciplinary courses; did some more fieldwork in England, partly because of the children, but also as I was more aware how small the Limba were even in the context of Sierra Leone and how unsatisfactory the idea of tribe was; realized that if I went back I would have to learn about five different languages to look at the wider context; also Britain was interesting; joined the Open University in 1969 and from 1975-1978 we were in Fiji where I got very interested in the urban music - Fijian, Indian and European - and did a study of that; this led into my work on urban music in Britain; we travelled back by land as far as we could by the Trans-Siberian Express wondering how people lived in the areas through which we passed; for the first time went on looking and thinking when we got back to England; had already become a member of a local amateur choir in Milton Keynes and realized how much even a bad singer could get out of it and how important the weekly ritual was; led into my study on 'The Hidden Musicians' which was on amateur music making from jazz and pop to classical; very difficult study using many sources including documentary and newspaper advertisements; that is one of my favourite books as I learned so much about real people as in the Limba stories and storytelling. 

46:15:18 When I went to Salisbury I met Clyde Mitchell who was working on networking; a real eye-opener to me on putting together different viewpoints; John Blacking's work on music was a great inspiration; Howard Becker's interactionist work; linguistic anthropologists like Dick Bauman, Joel Sherzer, Dell Hymes, Charles Briggs in America, Peter Burke in Britain with whom I worked on the Cambridge series 'Oral and Literate Cultures'. 

48:52:17 I enjoy writing in an agonised way; my advice is to keep at it even when its rotten; one thing that I think is important is interdisciplinary work at the margins; I have always been interested in the hidden, the invisible, whether the amateur musician, the oral story tellers, the scholars outside the universities that I have just written on, or the informal economy.