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Anthropology, Empire and Modernity.

The Huxley Lecture, Royal Anthropological Institute, 2012.


THOMAS HUXLEY WAS a polymath and supporter of Darwin. He surveyed the whole world through its long history and helped to establish the foundations of the great Evolutionary paradigm about which I shall be talking shortly.

Huxley’s example encourages me as his descendant to think in a broad way. So I shall stand back from the detail and try to look down from a high mountain on the last three centuries within which anthropology as we know it has developed.

When we look at that understanding of ourselves and others which we call anthropology, it is tempting to divide what has happened into three grand periods or paradigms in the Kuhnian sense. Each of them, I shall argue, was linked to the wider context and in particular to the changes in that extraordinary combination of features which we term ‘modernity’ and to the balance between imperial powers.



EVEN THOUGH WE know that the tradition of anthropology goes back through Montaigne and Ibn Khaldun to Aristotle and Plato, it can be argued that the foundations of our modern discipline were laid by the great thinkers of the Scottish and French Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. Their central problem was to understand the emergence of something which they thought strange and new in the world – ‘modernity’. I shall follow convention and call this the Enlightenment paradigm.

First in England, and then in Tocqueville’s work on America, the Enlightenment thinkers explored the contrasts between the ancien régime of peasant and tribal civilizations, which existed throughout ninety-nine percent of the history of humankind’s history, and in particular in most of Europe, including highland Scotland, and the strange modernity which they witnessed emerging in northwest Europe. The contrasts they saw became even more dramatic after the French and American revolutions and the rapid development of industrialization and experimental science.

The Enlightenment signified the shift from a cyclical view of time, to one of progress, of polishing, of growing rationality.

Very crudely, the Enlightenment signified the shift from a cyclical view of time, to one of progress, of polishing, of growing rationality. An onward and upward movement of history. The great Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundations for all the modern social sciences, so that by the end of the first Enlightenment paradigm, which could be concluded with the publication of Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime in 1856, the basic nature of modernity, as well as the basic outline of the way in which the West would come to dominate the world, had been established.


THE SECOND PHASE can conveniently be dated from the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 and in the same period the writing of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse and Henry Maine’s Ancient Law. This can be termed the Evolutionary paradigm.

This covers the period during which the Western model of modernity, enforced by science and industrialization, swept across the world, apparently pulverizing all before it. The rise of modern continental powers (Germany and France), and soon the United States, complemented the industrialization of Britain two generations earlier.

By 1870, the last resistance of major non-Western civilizations had apparently been crushed – in the Ottoman Empire, in China with the Opium Wars, in Japan with the Meiji Restoration, in India with the suppression of the Mutiny, in the annexation of lower Burma, and with the increasingly swift colonization in Africa and the Pacific.

A period lasting some 130 years when it looked as if modernity and the West had finally triumphed was born. This was the period when anthropology, both in its theoretical origins in Maine, Morgan and Tylor, and then in its participant-observation techniques from Boas, Rivers and Malinowski onwards, flourished. Anthropology, was born out of the desire and need to understand and incorporate the ‘Other’ worlds being encountered by Western powers, just as sociology was born in the attempt to find a way to deal with the atomizing effects of industrialization and urbanization.

This Evolutionary phase received its ideology from a mixture of the Enlightenment theories, Marxist dialectic and Darwinian evolution. It gained its context from the expansion of the European, and later the American, empires, which with superior technology could overcome opposition for over a century.

AS THE MERCHANTS and traders, the missionaries and educators, the administrators and judges, the armies and navies pushed out through the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, they took with them the messages of modernity. This was the ‘clash of civilizations’ of its time. The explicit or implicit aim was to replicate what westerners had learnt at home, that apparently successful package of trade, Christianity, the rule of law, commercial capitalism, education and science. The industrial revolution and the power of Western navies and armies gave it the necessary force, so it rolled over the tribal and ancien régime civilizations around the world. The world became domesticated in the Western image, while the discoveries and resources of the rest of the world flooded into the West and transformed it in turn.

In the first phase, the difficulty for the imperial expansion was the relatively small size of the metropolitan nations. Although there was naval and industrial might, this would be of only marginal use in holding together the islands and continents which were being absorbed. It was one thing to win a battle, it was another to hold together a great swathe of land often many times the size of the imperial powers. How to hold them and how to extract something useful from them when only a handful of people were apparently available to supervise operations? These were the questions.

This problem was particularly acute for the largest of those Empires, the British. Earlier ancien régime empires had held their possessions together basically by force, with large armies and violence. This was not an option for the British whose home armies were very small; the huge distances and vast numbers meant that the Empire could not be held together by face-to-face relations. Kinship could not be the mechanism, for English kinship is fragmented, and, in any case, how would this help with ruling a vast Indian or Burmese possession? Nor could religion unite, for there were few Christians and a vast number of Hindus or Buddhists.

The British had to adapt their own experience to this process and in doing so they partially succeeded in creating an ‘imagined community’ which far exceeded the nation state and which became a template for our modern, global, world. As in Benedict Anderson’s formulation, they controlled an ‘imagined country’ partly through print, partly through capitalism, but much more importantly through shared education and hence through a culture shared amongst the ruling elite.

The British controlled an ‘imagined country’ through shared education and hence through a culture shared amongst the ruling elite.

They created a new kind of Empire which was mirrored in the lives of many anthropologists. Often educated in British schools, or through living for some years in Britain, where they were domesticated into British culture, W.H. Rivers, A.C. Haddon, Bronislaw Malinowski, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Edmund Leach, Ernest Gellner and others went out to understand non-Western societies. They would not settle in the Nilgiri Hills, the Trobriand islands, the Sudan or in Burma, but come home to process their discoveries and educate the next generation. It was a cyclical migratory process, which had been underpinning British imperial expansion from at least the time of my twelfth-generation grandfather. He was reputedly the first white child born in Jamaica, in 1655, and the family started to send their children home to boarding schools in Britain from the early eighteenth century at least.

The process was linked to the mechanisms which underpinned the elite education of Britain, where the children were indoctrinated in the values of their culture, made Englishmen with all their store of local knowledge, beliefs and categories, ‘modern’ and individualistic. With these largely unexamined categories they would go out to confront and try to understand the Other.

When the Westerners went out as explorers and administrators, they soon realized that in order to make profits and to rule, they needed high quality information. They needed to understand the languages, customs, social structures and religions of the vast assembly of those amongst whom they were placed. Without this knowledge, they were largely powerless and vulnerable. With the knowledge, they could harness the powerful forces already in place, divide and rule, or rule and divide. And who better to investigate and find out the way in which ‘non-modern’, tribal and peasant societies who must be held in peace, to whom justice must be administered and taxes extracted than anthropologists?

Anthropologists were not the puppets, or even the pawns or handmaidens of imperialism. Yet they operated, usually at the margins, in the process of incorporating ‘non-modern’ systems, making them comprehensible, pulling them into the Western ambit. The widely documented mechanisms – surveys, counting, analyzing – that went into this documentation of the Other are well known. Yet the trickiest task was to understand the workings of acephalous political systems, non-theistic ‘religions’, non-capitalist systems of production, consumption and distribution, in societies dominated by kinship, caste or slavery. Only an understanding of the inner ideologies and mechanisms would allow the modern western powers to profit and spread.

Thus anthropology was the time-and-space machine for the exploration of new life forms – new, that is, for the tiny part of the world where people lived by the pretense of the separation of spheres which is modernity.

IN OUTLINING PARADIGMS, I have dealt more fully with anthropology as this is an anthropological lecture, but a similar chronology could be given for historians. For example, if we move swiftly to the post-Second World War decades we find such work as W.W. Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth, David Landes, The Unbound Prometheus E.L. Jones, The European Miracle and, later, Ernest Gellner’s Sword, Plough and Book. The work was focused on a central, post-Weberian puzzle. What had caused the European miracle, why had it happened there, then, and nowhere else?

By the end of what Jack Goody termed the The Expansive Moment in anthropology, the world was mapped. We can end this period with another precise date 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the original essay by Fukuyama on ‘The End of History’. Fukuyama argued that nothing more remained to unfold; the final stage of evolution had been reached and the destination was known. Its name was America.


YET EVEN IN the moment of triumph in the 1980’s, things had already started to change. Many forces were at work, but again I shall just isolate a few. The really serious came from ‘events, dear boy, events’, as Macmillan may have said, or, more specifically from the swing in global power, gathering pace from the 1970’s. Much of the rise of East Asia, and later of the rest of the BRICs, started to challenge Western hegemony and the confidence of the imperial phase. The debacle of Iraq and Afghanistan only underlined the rapid retreat of Western dominance.

The power shift was mirrored in a set of intellectual doubts, which is part of what some call post-modernism and is found in a related form in Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, published in 1992.  Latour pointed out that the separations of modernity, especially that of nature/society, were fragile and permeable. Though we might like to think of ourselves as objective, rational and modern, we are in fact not modern at all. We create hybrids and new juxtapositions which connect again what we thought had been separated. The Enlightenment Project, as well as the Evolutionary paradigm, were dead. Instead, a world of shifting contexts and relativity was believed to be upon us.

One of those who have stood back from the whole western tradition and challenged it is Marshall Sahlins. His main contribution to as this argument is concerned is to relativize western philosophic systems. He treats these as cosmologies – no different, in essence, from the world view of tribal society. For example, in 1988 he published an essay titled ‘Cosmologies of Capitalism’ and then in 1999 ‘What is Anthropological Enlightenment?’ as well as other essays on the same theme. He points out that we have our cosmologies too and they are pretty strange. He also challenges the inevitable dominance of the bizarre Western capitalist mode. Sahlins strongly emphasizes that we are not all heading in one direction as unilinear Evolutionism or Marxism proclaimed.

Another who has made a conspicuous recent effort to question the categories of western thought is Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. He has challenged the dualities which we impose in relation to entities such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘supernature’. His work is mainly from an Amerindian perspective, but I believe it can be extended more widely. For example, in my attempt to understand Japanese history and culture, I argue that behind the mirror of superficial westernization there lies a world which does not fit within the categories which have underpinned western civilization since the Axial age.

Elsewhere, J.M. Blaut’s The Colonizer’s Model of the World, André Gunder Frank’s Re-Orient, and half a dozen large books by Jack Goody, for example The East in the West (1996)  and The Theft of History (2006) have argued that the question has been wrongly posed. The Orient had never really been backward so there had been no special western miracle to be investigated. Look at the current success of places which had previously been written off. Weber’s speculations about factors which were inhibiting modernity in the East or encouraging it in the West – protestant religion, a particular legal system, democracy, Western logic – were irrelevant and mistaken. The East could do perfectly well without them, or, alternatively, already had them Basically the whole project from Montesquieu up to the 1980’s had been ‘Orientalist’, making Asia into a backward ‘Other’.

In relation to China,  the work of Bin Wong and Ken Pomeranz were parts of this re-orienting. For example in his Great Divergence (2000), Pomeranz argues that there was no divergence before 1800 – China was intrinsically no different from western Europe until relatively recently. The divergence is superficial, in the case of Britain caused by external factors such as coal and the profits of a windfall Empire.

The nature and reasons for the shifting paradigms.

TO RECAP A little: The first great Enlightenment paradigm, from the 1730s to the 1850s was the result of the growth of science and the unprecedented modernity emerging in north-west Europe and then America, entrenched and made almost irresistible by the huge force of industrialism. This laid the foundations for anthropology.

The Evolutionary paradigm from the 1860s through to the 1980s was based on the ideological and technical dominance of Europe and America which swept across the world during that period. When the last apparent opposition to the open, democratic, market capitalist, individualistic structure was dismantled, when communism failed in China and then in the Soviet Union, it looked as if we would all tread the path to California.

The East has its own agendas and traditions from far more ancient civilizations. The philosophies built into our civilization…are challenged.

But now the balance of power is shifting rapidly. The East has its own agendas and traditions from far more ancient civilizations. The philosophies built into our civilization since the Axial age and its monotheistic traditions are challenged.

Of course this is simplified. There have always been those who have challenged the dominant paradigm, or parts of it. For example, F. W. Maitland pointed out that the ‘unilinear stages’ theory of triumphant Evolutionism (including Marxism) is ridiculous. The Anglo-Saxons did not have to independently invent the alphabet or Christianity, just as nowadays China does not have to re-invent the steam engine or the laws of gravity

ANOTHER SIMPLIFICATION IS to reduce the great paradigms to only four:


For example, the Evolutionary paradigm contains a number of sub-models, diffusionism, functionalism, structural/functionalism and structuralism.

Breaking the four great paradigms down, makes the connection between paradigms and political power clearer. For example, the challenge to European superiority with the horrors of the First World War and the rise of the Soviet Union and Japan challenged the full-blown Evolutionary scheme. A steady-state, functionalist, paradigm suddenly made sense. Or, again, the destruction caused by the Second World War and the growing power of communism in the Soviet Union and China challenged resurgent optimism and led to another stationary paradigm: Structuralism.

Then the growing affluence of the 1950’s and the growth of U.S. dominance began to encourage other forms of re-surgent Evolutionism, a new wave of Marxism, cultural materialism, technological determinism, socio-biology and World Systems Theory. So the 1960’s to 1980’s saw a re-assertion of the earlier questions of European uniqueness.

Social anthropology is, of course, only one strand or part in these. The very nature of a paradigm is that it is a meta-model, underpinning all disciplines. For example, when functionalism took hold it did so not only in anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy, but also in engineering, aesthetics and biology. We are talking of quasi-religions, weltanschauung, ideologies, the spirit of the age.

Anthropology’s particular role in all of this is as a participant-observer of the paradigm shifts. It is a participant in that its theoretical frameworks are shaped by the huge forces which exist outside the discipline – industrialization, military technologies, imperialism, political revolutions, the rise and fall of civilizations, the relative power of the West and the Rest.

Yet anthropology is also an observer. It stands above these disciplinary changes, watches itself in relation to others, seek to treat itself as both subject and object. It is aware that the  philosophies and epistemologies of which it is a part are the result of much wider  forces, material, economic, social, technological and above all political. In the changing course of the discipline we can see mirrored the evolution of world history.

The fact that anthropology is both in the world, but also above the world, gives it a chance to escape from the relative to the absolute – to know the fly-bottle, the constraints, and hence to be free in so far as self-knowledge gives us freedom.

Implications of the shifting paradigms argument.

THIS GIVES A new life to anthropology, for it has been a discipline which attempts seriously to understand the Other without reducing that Other to us. The imaginative achievement of the generation of anthropologists of the Evolutionary paradigm, from Henry Maine to my own teachers of the great structural-functionalist generation, which helped us understand something of the variety and extraordinary complexity of different civilizations, can now be deployed again to understand social formations on a much larger scale – whole civilizations rather than small tribal or Hunter Gatherer societies.

The work of Tocqueville, Weber, and more recently of Ruth Benedict or Jack Goody, can be further extended. The panoramic work of great theorists, combined with attention to minute detail, is manifest in some of its most impressive forms in the man we honour today, Thomas Huxley. We shall need Huxley’s curiosity, courage and width of vision to understand our immensely complex and ever more mysterious, varied, and yet intimately inter-connected world.

We will also need one precious gift which anthropology bestows – its ability to imagine and understand hitherto incomprehensible permutations and worlds whose premises are very unfamiliar to us.

The rapid onrush of liberal capitalist democracies which finally triumphed after the Second World War…is over. The assumption that we would all end up like America is no longer sustainable.

There are other implications of all this for anthropology. The first is that the belief in the ‘end of history’, or at least the inevitable conquest of the Rest by the West, is in question. The rapid onrush of liberal capitalist democracies which finally triumphed after the Second World War, and which had been eroding many western ancien régimes from the eighteenth century onwards, is over. The assumption that we would all end up like America is no longer sustainable. This means that the future is unpredictable and we need to understand in detail what is happening.

The idea that all ‘Otherness’ is being flattened, and hence that there will be no role for the anthropologist, is false. Anthropology, which is above all an attempt to project ourselves out of our familiar sets of assumptions, categories and classifications and, through empathy and intuition to broaden our knowledge of ourselves and the Other, is alive and well.

Anthropologists in ‘modern’ nations will increasingly find their own societies puzzling, for they contain large lumps of ‘non-modernity’ in the increasing diaspora communities who refuse to melt into the melting pot and retain their embedded life. They will also find that the large civilizations of the newly emerging nations are not moving inexorably closer to a western model but experimenting with new hybrids never before seen on this planet.




I would like to turn more briefly in the rest of the lecture to a formal consideration of the relationship between anthropology and modernity.

There are four main human drives. One is towards material sufficiency, the production and consumption of goods – or what we would now call the economy. A second drive is towards power and domination, towards control of others through violence, physical and symbolic. This we call politics. The third is the area of the individual and society, social relations, kinship and reproduction. This is the social sphere. The final is the drive towards understanding and knowledge, belief and ethics. This is the realm of religion and ideology. The basic characteristics of most civilizations throughout history is that these are only partially separated.

One of the triumphs of anthropology was to document in detail, through the classic studies of non-literate hunter-gatherer and tribal societies, what it is like to live in a world with few or no separations, where relations are multi-stranded and where there are no instituted separate processes.

This is the world of animism, of kinship as the basic organizing force, where all objects have symbolic meanings, of the ‘spirit of the gift’. Here we can talk about politics, but not Politics, of economics, but not ‘The Economy’. There is no State, no Market, no Religion, no Society.

This was the condition of man on this planet for over nine tenths of the last hundred thousand years. It was the situation for the large majority of societies (in terms of numbers of societies, if not total population) until the birth of fieldwork anthropology towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The origins of ‘civilization’, roughly some ten thousand years ago, started to undermine the separations: writing, money, cities, advanced crafts, world religions all began to drive the spheres apart. Jaspers’ ‘Axial Age’, approximately two and a half to three thousand years ago was one major expression of this separation and dialectical tension.

The development of ‘civilization’ is a short-hand term for the emergence of what others have called ‘Traditional’, ‘Agrarian’, ancien régime, or Peasant societies. At this stage a State, a Market, a Religion and a Society (all with capital letters) were becoming instituted and separate to a certain degree.

Yet the separation was only partial because politics and ideology stayed united – as in Confucianism, Islam, Catholicism.  Furthermore, outside the pockets of cities and bounded markets, the major part of the population was still united in their lives within the domestic mode of production, where ‘peasants’ blended the unit of production and consumption with the family.

Anthropology investigated these peasant civilizations quite late in its short history, largely from the middle of the twentieth century with the work of Robert Redfield, Oscar Lewis, Karl Polanyi, Eric Wolf and others. Here was the world of the ‘little’ and the ‘great’ traditions, of bounded communities, and of the birth-given orders of slavery, serfdom, caste. Here peasants did all the manual work for a tiny literate and wealthy minority.

THE QUESTION OF when the first ‘modern’ societies emerged, in the sense in which I am using it, is much contested. If we mean the ideal-type of a society where Politics, Society, Religion and Economy are formally separated into instituted processes, Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, puts the breakthrough in England in the eighteenth century. At a global level, Chris Bayly writes of ‘The Birth of the Modern World’, dating from 1780. Marx and Weber saw the watershed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and, like Polanyi, located it in England.

In England and Holland by the later part of the seventeenth century, the mentality, morality, religious views, family system, economic structure and political dynamics were largely separated and ‘modern’.

Whatever the earlier origins, there seems no doubt that in England and Holland by the later part of the seventeenth century, the mentality, morality, religious views, family system, economic structure and political dynamics were largely separated and ‘modern’. This instituted separation of spheres was indeed in place by the start of the outward spread of the British Empire, from the early settlers in America and the Caribbean in the seventeenth century. This is why America was ‘born modern’.

The early settlers took their divided ‘modernity’ with them as they settled. They tried to shape the rapidly expanding empire, its laws, customs, market economy and administration within the ‘modern’, divided, pattern, which they had experienced in their home country.

It was this modernity, its wealth, openness, relative tolerance, balanced constitution, practical interest in science and technology, which astonished continental visitors, especially the French, when they visited England in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was the contrast between this ‘modern’ world and their experience of the Catholic and clan ancient society of the Highlands which propelled Hume, Smith, Robertson, Millar, Kames and other Scottish thinkers into their incisive speculations. They now had a successful and working model of ‘modernity’ with which to criticize and analyze the ancien régimes which still covered almost all the world (with the partial exception of Holland, Scandinavia, and, of course, England and New England).

Implications of the modernity argument.

MY CAMBRIDGE STUDENTS students were for many years faced with a paradox. For the first two years of their course we had tried to take them outside their categories into worlds where Religion, Politics, Society and Economy were blended in ways which ran totally against their experience in a modern society. In their final exams, we then set four compulsory papers called Religion, Politics, Kinship and Marriage (Society) and Economy and asked them to answer questions without overlapping between answers.

This example shows something of the tension within the discipline. We come from worlds which are divided, yet we need to enter other systems which have premises totally different from our own. Somehow, drawing on largely unexamined analogies in our experiences, for example the experience of tribal worlds within centers of academic life,  the greatest anthropologists have managed to do this.

Such imaginative leaps out of our own worlds will be needed even more now, for we are faced with combinations at a much higher level – not just a small remote tribal community where we can suspend disbelief and our own categories – but huge civilizations which are refusing to fit within our inherited vision.

Anthropologists should be able to do this and examples from Alfred Kroeber and Ruth Benedict through to Marshall Sahlins and Marilyn Strathern show us how we can scale up our perception of Otherness to tackle central issues at the civilizational level. It is essential that we continue our tradition as both analysts and translators of culture in a world where there is so much misunderstanding and so many attempts to flatten other systems to fit in with our own.

Anthropology was born partially as a response to the encounter of ‘modernity’ with the ‘non-modern’, a theoretical encounter but also one filled with battle and blood on the wings of imperial expansion.

Thus anthropology was born partially as a response to the encounter of ‘modernity’ with the ‘non-modern’, a theoretical encounter but also one filled with battle and blood on the wings of imperial expansion. It will continue to flourish because, despite the gloom of those who believe that globalization and uniformity are rapidly diminishing diversity, the apparent uniformity of the world is just a surface similarity. Once, as anthropolgists do, we start to go behind the mirror, the world of strange combinations and logical contradictions where modernity and non-modernity intersect are as great and enchanting as anything Alice encountered in Wonderland.

Furthermore, the new generations of anthropologists who are taking on the discipline in emerging nations have an even greater task, both documenting their own vanishing cultures and comprehending how the new trajectories which are influenced by, but not aping, the West, are creating new worlds which have never before existed. In doing this they will have to devise new fieldwork methods, new technical expertise, and new theoretical frameworks which improve on those suitable for a pre-internet age.

There is always a tendency to feel that the great days of a discipline are over. I remember vividly that in 1968 I gave a talk at the retirement of Raymond Firth at the London School of Economics in which I lamented the fact that after his great generation there was little left for us to do. And it is indeed true that there were giants (especially in the RAI) in days gone by. Yet the anthropological project that arose out of the encounters of modern and non-modern, of empires and societies, is likely to flourish even more in the future worlds in which we will live – increasingly bizarre, contradictory, muddled and fascinating.

Books referred to in the lecture:

Bayly, Christopher. 2004. The Birth of the Modern World. Blackwell. Oxford: Blackwell.

Blaut, J.M. 1993 The Colonizer’s Model of the World. New York: Guildford Press.

Castro, Eduardo Viveiros de. 1992. From the Enemy’s Point of View. Chicago: University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford: 1940.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. Glencoe: Free Press.

Gellner, Ernest. 1998. Sword, Plough and Book. London:  Collins Harvill.

Goody, Jack. 1996. The East in the West. Cambridge:  University Press.

Goody, Jack. 2006.  The Theft of History. Cambridge: University Press.

Gunder Frank, André. 1998. Re-Orient. California: University Press.

Hall, John. 1985. The Powers and the Liberties. Oxford: Blackwell, Oxford.

E.L. Jones. 1981. The European Miracle. Cambridge: University.

Landes, David. 1969. The Unbound Prometheus. Cambridge: University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard: University Press.

Macfarlane, Alan. 2007. Japan Through the Looking Glass: London: Profile.

Macfarlane, Alan. 2012 The Invention of the Modern World [Also published in serial form in The Fornightly Review at]

Polanyi, Karl. 1944. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence. Princeton: University Press.

Rostow, W.W. 1962. The Stages of Economic Growth. Cambridge: University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2000.‘Cosmologies of Capitalism’ and ‘What is Anthropological Enlightenment’ reprinted in Culture in Practice; Selected Essays. New York: Zone Books.

Wong, Bin. 1997. China Transformed. Cornell: University Press.



This is the text of the Huxley Lecture, 2012, with minor edits to accommodate publication. I am grateful to the Royal Anthropological Institute for the honour of being chosen to give the lecture. The lecture is the fruit of a lifetime of work within a network of colleagues, friends and family. It would be invidious to single out many of these, but I would like here to thank my chief inspirations in history, Andrew Morgan, James Campbell, Harry Pitt and Sir Keith Thomas, and in anthropology, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, Ernest Gellner and Sir Jack Goody. Among those who supported and inspired me for many years are above all Sarah Harrison, Gerry Martin, Mark Turin and Iris Macfarlane. Terry Stern kindly re-drew the diagrams and Maja Petrović-Šteger read and commented on a draft.

A version of the lecture, presented orally, can be seen at:

The version of the talk (seen in the insert screen above) is here.

The introductory talk and presentation of the Huxley medal can be seen at:

invention150Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review and author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012 and has been published by Odd Volumes, the Fortnightly’s publishing imprint. A copy may be obtained here (UK readers, here).

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