Vale Elizabeth Colson

When Elizabeth Colson passed last month at the age of 99, anthropology lost one of its preeminent figures. Colson was a unique figure in many ways: She straddled the English and American anthropological traditions, rose to prominent positions of authority at a time when anthropology was still largely a men’s club, and exhibited a devotion to her research that few can match: According the Facebook post I was able to find confirming her death (thanks Hylton), Colson died and was buried in Africa.

Colson’s life followed an unusual trajectory. Born in small town Minnesota, she majored in anthropology at UMN before doing a doctorate at Harvard with Clyde Kluckhohn. In addition to doing work with Indian communities, she was also part of Alexander Leighton’s project to study the ‘relocation camps’ the US army set up to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II. About this experience she has said “I can only say that we regarded the internment as a gross violation of civil rights. But I thought then as I think now that witnesses were needed and that anthropologists had skills suited to that task.”

But Colson is most well-known for her role in the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, the center for research in Zambia which helped spawn the Manchester school of anthropology. The RLI became a place where anthropologists studied social change, urbanism, migration, and other contemporary aspects of African life which did not fit into stereotypical images of Africa as a place untouched by history or colonialism. Colson was the director of the institute from 1947 to 1951, and helped relocate it to Lusaka as well as develop its seven year plan for this period.

Her 1953 article “Social Control and Vengeance in Plateau Tongan Society” was the first to develop the concept of ‘cross-cutting ties’ — relationships that individuals had between groups and which helped tamp down inter-group conflict. This paper, perhaps Colson’s most well known, is an example of the hard-headed, empirically detailed political anthropology she would spend the rest of her life producing. Her commitment to Tonga speakers resulted in a large body of work studying displacement, migration, politics, and law. This work included analyses of order in ‘stateless societies’ — a topic anthropology has unfortunately relinquished as unfashionable, only to have it taken up by the likes of Jared Diamond — as well as the social consequences of resettlement caused by development projects. Hers was a wide, deep expertise.

Colton taught in many places, including Manchester itself. But her longest academic appointment was her twenty years at Berkeley, where she influenced professors like Laura Nader. Public recognition of her work peaked in the mid 1970s, when she gave the AAA’s distinguished lecture in 1975, and the Morgan Lectures in 1973. In 1977 she was elected to the American National Academy of Sciences. But this also meant that the last decades of her career were overshadowed by a baby boomer generation interested in rethinking what anthropology could be.

A rigorous and unstoppable fieldworker — over sixty years of fieldwork in Africa from 1946 to 2006 — she drew on Hume, Rousseau, and Locke when discussing social order. This meant that her work was not as attractive as more ‘theoretical’ approaches drawing on Marx, Freud, Weber, Heidegger or French thinkers such as Foucault or Bourdieu. These facts, combined with her willingness to pursue her own work and life in and on Africa, rather than train disciplines to spread a ‘Colson school’ mean that she was perhaps not given the attention she should have received in main stream anthropology.

Colson’s longevity ensured that she would be remembered by peopel working in her area, however. There are two festschrifts for her — one published in 1984, and the other in 2006! It’s telling that the second, The Tonga-speaking Peoples of Zambia and Zimbabwe: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson has such a strong areal focus.

Colson was an important part of anthropology’s history, showing us how a single person could blend together seemingly-disparate research topics through a strong commitment to areal ethnography and a keen analytic focus. She deserves to be remembered as one of our discipline’s great ethnographers.

Open Access Selected Sources on Elizabeth Colson’s Life and Work In Case You Decide To Write A Biography Of Her

Long biographical interview with Colson featuring and important and personal foreword by Laura Nader

Colson, Elizabeth. 1976. Culture and Progress: Distinguished Lecture – 1975. American Anthropologist 78(2): 261-271.

Opportunity, Constraint, and Change: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson. Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 1984:64/65. (includes a thorough bibliography)

Alan Macfarlane interview with Colson

University of Florida’s archival footage of an old-school interview with Colson

Podcast interview with Colson focusing on regugee studies

Update 4 Oct 2016 — here’s some more references:

Buchignani, Norman. 2016. A New Bibliography of Elizabeth Colson

Remembering Elizabeth Colson, 1917-2016 from Berkeley’s Center for African Studies

Professor Elizabeth Colson 1917-2016 A long detailed blog entry from Remnants of Empire

Video of an Interview and Talk by Colson Her talk covers the history of the ASA and reflections on the history of anthropology


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “Vale Elizabeth Colson

  1. So so sad. Rest in peace Prof. Lizzy. In September 1979, I arrived from the Sinai to U. C. Berkeley because of you. You saved me from being expelled from the Berkeley PhD program when everyone else wanted to flunk me due to my 1980 MA paper. I wrote about the PNG Naven rituals as a Turnerian drag show, analyzing the comforting relationship between the mother’s son and her brother during the initiation-into-manhood rituals. The brother, according to Bateson, was cross-dressed as “a filthy hug”. I thought this datum, buried in Naven, called for analysis. You were the only prof in that weighty faculty meeting who thought I had an important and highly original point to make, though I didn’t listen to you at the time, and did not devote my grad school to study gender. Later, when I dedicated my intellectual efforts to feminist of color ethnography, I sheepishly told you that I should have listened to you back in the early 1980s. You introduced me to Prof. Bill Shack of blessed memory. He became my legendary doctoral advisor. You and Bill helped me transform my gifts of clear, poetic writing from my native Hebrew to English. It was difficult and I could not have done it without your mentorship and compassion. Because of you, English eventually became my step mother tongue. From 1979 until now, when I sit in front of the screen and grope for words, you two sit on my shoulders and peer into my computer screen. My wisdom owls. So I write and rewrite until the complex ideas are articulated in straight forward, musical prose. You always demanded this from me. You also demanded that I stay close to my ethnographic data — the location that facilitates theory to flower forth. An end of an era. Rest in peace, Prof. Lizzy. Rest in power. My heartfelt gratitude to you for making me who I am.

  2. Colson was, indeed. a magnificent field worker and mentor. Lucky were those who worked with her guidance. She could be difficult, very, to those who were slackers and very, very supportive to those who worked with effort. One has to join the person who wrote that they were very happy to hear that if we lost Colson the redeeming truth was that she eternally rests under African skies.

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