Short history of the ASA

The Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) was founded in 1946 by Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, along with ten other social anthropologists, at a meeting in Oxford. A key rationale for the association was to assist this new school of anthropology in gaining a stronger foothold within British universities, as it had previously been taught only at the LSE and Oxford.

Before the establishment of the ASA, social anthropologists depended on the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) to promote their interests. The RAI had a large and diverse constituency to represent, partly because of its open membership policy. Those seeking to promote the academic fortunes of social anthropology were in a minority. Differences over the role and purpose of the RAI came to a head in 1939, during A. Reginald Radcliffe-Brown’s presidency. Other RAI officers feared that the ‘narrow’ focus of social anthropology that he championed could threaten the very existence of the institute and its broad-based appeal.

This conflict of vision spilt over into the work of the RAI's Applied Anthropology committee as it drafted a memo responding to the new Colonial Development and Welfare Act’s recommendation for extensive social research in the ‘colonies’. Radcliffe-Brown’s draft memo emphasised the role of university departments in leading anthropological research initiatives, whilst other members of the committee called for the RAI to act as a central co-ordinating body, and for greater recognition of the importance of the contributions of government anthropologists. A compromise was finally reached, but the memorandum prioritised a vision of anthropology as an academic discipline.

Establishing a new association became a necessity for Radcliffe-Brown and his followers, even though many of the ASA’s founders remained active officers and council members within the RAI. The model for such an association came from the informal pub-tutorials led by Radcliffe-Brown in Oxford before the war. These discussions, involving Edward Evans-Pritchard, Max Gluckman and Meyer Fortes, led to a number of publications. After the Second World War, Evans-Pritchard decided the moment was right to reconvene these meetings on a more formal basis, and wrote to Radcliffe-Brown suggesting that social anthropology might now be considered ‘an autonomous discipline and that we should combine in an association to further its interests’.

Having discussed the matter with Fortes and Radcliffe-Brown, circulating responses to his initial proposals from Gluckman and S. F. Nadel, Evans-Pritchard went on to invite Raymond Firth, Brenda Seligman, Daryll Forde, Audrey Richards, Edmund Leach and John Layard. The archaeologists Louis Leakey and Anthony Arkell were also present, but did not become members of the association. The inaugural meeting, in Oxford on July 22nd 1946, resolved to form a ‘professional association of teachers and research workers in social anthropology’ as an ‘independent body’. Several aims for the association were promulgated: 1) to promote the study and teaching of social anthropology 2) to hold periodical meetings 3) to represent the interests of social anthropology and to maintain its professional status 4) to assist in the planning of research and 5) to publish information on social anthropology, and a register of social anthropologists. Radcliffe-Brown was made Life-President , and Evans-Pritchard held the roles of both Chairman and Secretary from 1946 till 1952, at which point Gluckman was made Secretary. The ASA met at six-monthly intervals until 1960, and held yearly conferences thereafter. At these meetings, two or three senior members presented papers, either on an intellectual topic or on institutional issues facing the discipline, such as undergraduate teaching or research funding.

Membership was by invitation, and increased slowly, as members openly discussed – and disputed – the merits of nominees. In the winter of 1946, many of Radcliffe-Brown’s students and colleagues in the ‘dominions’ (in this case South Africa and Australia) were invited to join. Initially the rule was ‘one black ball’ to exclude, and then in 1950 secret voting was adopted, with a two-thirds majority necessary for membership. The initial qualifications for membership were simple: ‘persons holding, or having held, a teaching or research appointment in Social Anthropology’. Yet even this was seen as a necessary but not sufficient qualification. It also threw up further issues: did this include those who, whilst trained in British universities, went on to get posts in ‘foreign’ – read ‘non-commonwealth’ – countries? There was also debate during the 1950s over whether to admit US anthropologists sympathetic to social anthropology, before Fred Eggan pointed out that selection would be embarrassing to all concerned. Australian members of the ASA, led by Ian Hogbin, had a different request, wishing to set up their own branch of the organisation. In response, the ASA renamed itself as the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth. The Australian branch later seceded to become an independent society. Despite such uncertainties there were 240 members by 1968, of whom a quarter were based in the Commonwealth; there are now around 600 members, 90% being UK-based. Over the years, the criteria for membership have become steadily more inclusive.

Once founded, the ASA immediately produced a register of members, and has continued to publish its Annals on a regular basis. Despite much early discussion about publishing a journal or textbook dedicated to social anthropology, the first four books under the ASA's imprimatur arose out of the ‘Anglo-American’ conference of 1963, which brought leading US anthropologists to Cambridge. This set a precedent both for a yearly conference-based publication, and a 10-yearly ‘decennial’ international conference, initially hosted alternately by Oxford and Cambridge. Much more recently, the ASA has begun holding conferences outside the UK, the first of which took place in Zimbabwe (1997) and Tanzania (2002).

Today, the Association’s aims broadly parallel those espoused in 1946, with the additional objective of supporting and promoting the professional practice and application of anthropology outside the academy. In recent years the ASA has established a closer working relationship with the RAI, and in 2003 a joint student membership subscription was launched.