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 To be transcribed fully

'Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research'

1937 Frazer Lecture by Henry Balfour

Extracts from this lecture, published in 1938 by the Clarendon Press, Oxford. A copy is available for researcher access in the Pitt Rivers Museum manuscript collections: Balfour papers Box 3

'The comprehensive scientific study of Man, in all the aspects, which are included under the term 'Anthropology' is ranked among the younger sciences.' [p. 3]

'The general study of Mankind has been divided and again subdivided into a number of compartments, each concerned with some special aspect of, or approach to, the whole. Fresh avenues of inquiry suggest themselves and are followed up eagerly by those whose flair leads them to seek enlightenment from a pursuit of those lines of research.' [p.4]

'I am well aware of the fact that these terms, Ethnography and Ethnology are applied variously by different continental schools of Anthropology, to which term also dissimilar duties are assigned. ... I put forward the plea that terms such as these should be allowed to mean what they actually do mean etymologically, and that to attempt to restrict their employment to other, arbitrarily selected uses only creates confusion. -Graphy and -logy as terminals, or suffixes, indicating, in the one case, description, and, in the other, comparative or reasoned treatment, have significance-value, as distinguishing the process of recording facts from that of collating and interpreting assembled data.
Unorganized terminology is one of the bugbears of the anthropologist, and international agreement in the adoption of appropriate nomenclature is a great desideratum. It would eliminate much misunderstanding and would help to clear the air for the comprehensive study of Man, which is the task of the anthropologist. His task is, in the main, to elucidate the progressive history of Mankind, whether it be concerned with human physical or cultural advancement. The mechanism of progress is in itself a complex, [sic] needing the attention of both specialist and generalist for its diagnosis.' [pp.10-11]

'In endeavouring to trace the phylogenetic history of material objects it is frequently necessary for Ethnology to combine with Archaeology, in order that each may assist the other. The archaeological record can often offer a progressive or more or less connected sequence of changes, which can be displayed in their true chronological order. But there are usually many 'missing links' in the chain of evidence, and many whole groups of artefacts, which must have existed, are missing from the record, owing partly to the perishable nature of the materials from which they are made, and partly to the fact that they are still underground and undiscovered. The Archaeologist's 'river-system' must necessarily be incomplete and syncopated!
The ethnologist can frequently fill gaps in the archaeological record, or at least suggestively, from data derived from a study of the more primitive, or 'backward', peoples of recent times, whose culture has been retarded and has stagnated at various stages in the general progression.' [p. 14]

[N.B. boldenings not part of original paper text]

Partly transcribed by Alison Petch as part of the ESRC funded Other Within project [undated]





From Mary Douglas 1995 'Acceptance: Science Technology Human Values

Nearly fifty years ago I went to the Pitt Rivers Museum to be registered for the Oxford Diploma in Anthropology. The curator, the late Mr. Penniman, told m e to read and reflect o n Henry Balfour’s 1937 Frazer Lecture and return the next day to be questioned (Balfour 1938). The lecture, Spinners and Weavers in Anthropological Research, was a parable on the philosophy of science: spinners were the providers of information, weavers were the theorists who took the spun yarn and wove it into theories. Clearly, the humble spinners were virtuous; the weavers, ambitious and sinister. The lecture was a strike for British empiricism against the complexities of German ethnology. When I was asked the next day whether I wanted to be a spinner or a weaver, clearly the right answer was to choose spinning. I failed the test, but the experience started me worrying about whether facts can exist without theory.

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