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Review of The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology (Evens & Handelman 2006)

May 28, 2016

The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology. T.M.S. Evens & Don Handelman (eds). 2006. Oxford/New York: Berghahn. x + 334 pp.

JOHN POSTILL
Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology
Volume 72, Issue 4, 2007

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This volume revisits the extended-case method, an ethnographic research strategy developed in the 1940s to 1960s by members of the so-called Manchester School of anthropology led by Max Gluckman. The book opens with an introductory section, followed by sections on the theorisation, history and practice of the extended-case method, and concluding with a coda by Bruce Kapferer. The introduction features reprints of classic texts by Gluckman (1961) and Mitchell (1983); the following section engages critically with the method’s enduring strengths and weaknesses, exploring new theoretical possibilities by way of Heidegger, Goffman, Deleuze and Guattari; the historical section traces the method’s mixed ancestry, including its hitherto little known Chicago connections; finally, the practical section assesses the method’s relevance to contemporary anthropological analysis.

The book accomplishes admirably its stated aim, namely ‘to highlight and critically examine the fundamental features of the extended-case method, in order to advance its substantial, continuing merits’. Its editors and chapter contributors demonstrate that the extended-case method is more than a ‘method’, it is a sophisticated mode of research and analysis arising from the long-standing political, institutional and epistemological concerns of Gluckman and his students. It is characterised by a painstaking ethnographic attention to socio-political processes as they unfold across varied contexts over time, with a focus on situations of conflict, or ‘trouble cases’ as Gluckman called them. Generalisation emerges from the data, not from a prior theoretical agenda. While Gluckman’s ‘The Bridge’ was the inspiration, the method’s masterpieces are Mitchell’s (1956) monograph The Yao Village, in which he followed witchcraft accusations in a single village over a period of six years, and Turner’s (1957) Ndembu study where he first developed the concept of social drama.

The innovation lay in bringing under a unified analysis a long series of events that were separated in time and micro-setting. This stood in stark contrast to the existing (and still common today) monographic practice of ‘apt illustration’, i.e., using unrelated ethnographic materials to support an overarching argument. Countering criticisms from Leach and others that the Manchester approach entailed the obsessive collection of masses of data for their own sake, the Mancunians defended – and still defend – the method for its openness to the messy actualities of social life and capacity to yield unexpected insights.

As Kapferer argues in the book’s coda, Gluckman and his associates were ahead of their time not only in theorising social process; their very ethnographic practice was reflexively attuned to the dialectical process of data description and analysis. Their use of situated analysis and extended cases helped to weaken static notions of bounded collectivity such as village, community or society and created a new anthropological lexicon aimed at capturing the flux and uncertainty of political life with notions such as social drama, social field, arena and action-set (see chapter by Kempny). The implications of this shift are, of course, still being worked out today (see Amit & Rapport 2002).

This book is a timely addition to the ongoing rethinking of practice theory after Bourdieu. As pointed out by the editors, American anthropology has long been besotted with aspects of Bourdieu’s theory of practice but has ignored the Manchester tradition. With its ethnographic grounding, attention to situated process, and stress on the latent potentialities of social interaction for the structuring of social life (cf. Giddens 1984), the renewal of this social anthropological tradition signalled by the present study has much to offer cultural anthropologists in the United States and elsewhere. Undergraduate and MA anthropology students will benefit from the book’s seamless integration of historiography, theory and methodology — three domains that are usually kept separate. For PhD students it should be required pre-fieldwork reading alongside one or two of the classic 1950s Manchester monographs where the method and its theoretical import are best developed (e.g., Mitchell 1956; Turner 1957; Epstein 1958). In addition, those interested in placing the book within its direct line of descent should read the edited volumes that followed the 1950s monographs (Swartz et al. 1966; Epstein 1967; Mitchell 1969) as well as Turner’s (1974) magisterial Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors.

John Postill
Sheffield Hallam University, UK
2007

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