10 More Famous Anthropologists


When this site was still young I published a post called ‘10 Famous Cultural Anthropologists‘ which listed (unranked) ten of the most famous anthropologists in history. At the time I was relatively new to the subject of anthropology and therefore ignorant of many aspects of anthropological theory and those who made prominent contributions. After learning more about the subject and reading much more around anthropology theory (as well as receiving feedback on the list) I have decided that I need to update the material. Now I believe that the original list is not erroneous, but nonetheless was far too short to do justice to all of the anthropologists who have contributed to the development of anthropology as we know it today. Therefore I am writing this article to build on that original list, so here are 10 more famous anthropologists:

*Read the first list here, or find out more about famous female anthropologists*

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)

Tylor was a British anthropologist who many consider the founder of cultural anthropology. Tylor argued that people in different locations were all equally capable of progressing through culture in stages from savagery through barbarism and then to civilisation, and that “primitive” groups had reached their position by learning, not unlearning. His most widely recognised works, Primitive Culture (1871) and Anthropology (1881), defined the context of the scientific study of anthropology based on evolutionary theories (you can read more about social evolutionism here) which are now outdated but laid the foundations for anthropology as a science today. He also brought the theory of animism forward into common anthropological thought; he believed that animism was the first phase of development for religions.

Mary Douglas (1921-2007)

Mary Douglas was a British anthropologist whose interest lay with comparative religion, and is known for her writings on symbolism and culture. Her reputation was established by her book ‘Purity and Danger‘ (1966) which analyses ideas of ritual purity and impurity within different societies, and is considered a key text in social anthropology. Her concept of group-grid was introduced in ‘Natural Symbols‘ (1970) and later refined into the foundations of cultural theory. Douglas also contributed to the creation of the Cultural Theory of risk and has also become known for her interpretation of the book of Leviticus.

Edmund Leach (1910-1989)

Another British anthropologist, Leach’s work inhabited a gap between structural-functionalism (see Radcliffe-Brown) and structuralism, although he always considered himself a functionalist. Despite this, Leach worked extensively with Lévi-Strauss’ writings, and his book ‘Lévi-Strauss’ has become used by many as a way of engaging with Lévi-Strauss’ work without having to navigate the often over-complicated language. Leach’s first book was ‘Political Systems of Highland Burma’ (1954) which challenged theories of social structure and cultural change, and criticised generalisations about political systems in different societies. Leach also engaged critically with contemporary ideas on kinship systems, disagreeing especially with several aspects of Lévi-Strauss’ kinship theory outlined in ‘Elementary Structures of Kinship’. Leach argued that kinship was in fact a flexible concept which shared commonalities with language structures, both in terms for kin and also the fluid nature of language and meaning.

Edward Evan (E.E.) Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973)

Evans-Pritchard was Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1946 to 1970. His most widely recognised work was based on fieldwork done among the Azande people of the upper Nile in 1926, and resulted in his classic text ‘Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande’ (1937). Later Evans-Pritchard began developing Radcliffe-Brown’s program of structural functionalism and as a result his work on the Nuer (‘The Nuer’, ‘Nuer Religion’, and ‘Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer’) and ‘African Political Systems’ have become classic texts in British social anthropology. In 1965, he published ‘Theories of Primitive Religion’ which argued against existing theories of what were then called “primitive” religious practices and also became a highly influential text. Some notable anthropologists who studied under Evans-Pritchard include Mary Douglas and Talal Asad.

Victor and Edith Turner (1920-1983)

Victor Turner was a Scottish anthropologist whose work is most often referred to as symbolic and interpretive anthropology. He spent much of his career studying the Ndembu tribe of Zambia, and his theoretical interest lay in the exploration of rituals. In his later career Turner shifted his attention and applied his studies of ritual practice to world religions and religious heroes. Turner is also known for expanding theories on the liminal phase, the transition state between states of being, by building on the work of Van Gennep which put forward that liminality consisted of a pre-liminal phase (separation), a liminal phase (transition), and a post-liminal phase (reincorporation). Victor Turner was also married to Edith Turner, who worked alongside her husband on many projects and became a successful anthropologist in her own right, continuing to develop their topics after her husband’s death. Some of the Turner’s most notable work includes: ‘The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual’ (1967); ‘Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture’ (1978), and ‘Liminality, Kabbalah, and the Media’ (1985).

Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955)

Radcliffe-Brown was a British anthropologist widely considered the founder of the theory of structural functionalism and coadaptation. Originally trained in psychology he was greatly influenced by the work of Émile Durkheim and his studies of social function examine how customs aid in maintaining the overall stability of a society. Radcliffe-Brown travelled to the Andaman Islands and Western Australia to conduct fieldwork, these experiences serving as the inspiration for his later books The Andaman Islanders (1922) and The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1930). In 1920 moved to Cape Town to become professor of social anthropology, founding the School of African Life, and later also founded the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford.

Marvin Harris (1927-2001)

Harris was an American anthropologist, and was highly influential in the development of the theory of cultural materialism. He often focused on Latin America, but also focused on the Islas de la Bahia, Ecuador, Mozambique, and India where his research spanned the topics of evolution, culture, and race. Published in 1968, Harris’ ‘The Rise of Anthropological Theory’ (affectionately known as “The RAT” among graduate students) critically examined classical and contemporary macro-social theory to construct new understanding of human culture that Harris came to call Cultural Materialism. Several of Harris’ other publications explore the cultural and material roots of dietary traditions in many cultures, his publications including: ‘Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture’ (1975); ‘Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture’ (1998) and his co-edited volume, ‘Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits’ (1987). Throughout his career, Harris helped to focus anthropological interest into cultural-ecological relationships.

Roy Rappaport (1926-1997)

Rappaport was an American anthropologist known for his contributions to the study of ritual and to ecological anthropology. His text, ‘Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People’ (1968), is an ecological account of ritual among the Tsembaga Maring of New Guinea, and is often considered the most influential and most cited work in ecological anthropology. In this text Rappaport coined the distinction between a people’s cognized environment (how a people understand the effects of their actions in the world) and their operational environment (how an anthropologist interprets the environment through measurement and observation). Throughout his work Rappaport was interested in how ecosystems maintained themselves through regulatory force, and he aimed to show that this was done through adaptive cultural forms that maintain pre-existing relationship with the environment.

Marshall Sahlins (1930-present)

Sahlins is an American anthropologist best known for his ethnographic work in the Pacific and for his contributions to anthropological theory.He is known for theorising the interaction of structure and agency and his demonstrations of the power that culture has to shape people’s perceptions and actions. One of his most widely recognised text, ‘Stone Age Economics’ (1972) collects some of Sahlins’s key essays in substantivist economic anthropology. The substantivist approach puts forward the idea that economic life is produced through cultural rules that govern the production and distribution of goods, so any understanding of economic life has to start with cultural principles, not from the assumption that the economy is made up of independently acting, “economically rational” individuals. Hiss most famous essay from the collection, “The Original Affluent Society,” builds on this theme through an in depth exploration of hunter-gatherer societies. Other notable publications by Sahlins include: ‘Culture and Practical Reason’ (1976); ‘The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology’ (1976), and ‘Islands of History’ (1985).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1944-present)

Scheper-Hughes is an American anthropologist known for her writing on the anthropology of the body, hunger, illness, medicine, psychiatry, mental illness, social suffering, violence and genocide. In 2009 her investigation of an international ring of organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel led to a number of arrests by the FBI. Her first book ‘Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland’ (1979), won the Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1980 and established her ability to provoke controversy through her writing. She has also discussed the challenges and ethics of ethnography, which are issues of growing importance as anthropologists are increasingly working in communities that can read and critique their work. She has also worked extensively as an activist and with social movements in Brazil (in defence of rural workers, against death squads, and for the rights of street children) and in the United States (as a civil rights worker for the homeless mentally ill).

These were ten more famous anthropologists, but again the list is not long enough so look out for another list in the future! Don’t forget to follow this website (which you can do via the sidebar), and check out Harris-Jones Anthropology on Facebook and Twitter, thank you.

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Image credits:

Marshall David Sahlins‘ by  Elkziz is licensed under CC BY 3.0

All other images used in this article are in the public domain.

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