Edwin Ardener



Edwin Ardener was a British social anthropologist and academic. He was also noted for his contributions to the study of history. Within anthropology, some of his most important contributions were to the study of gender, as in his 1975 work in which he described women as "muted" in social discourse.

Born 21 September 1927 his adolescence was spent in wartime London. After attending Holloway School, in 1945 he went to LSE to study anthropology and psychology. He was, beginning in 1945 at the age of eighteen, one of the very youngest of the post-war recruitment to the anthropological profession. Many of his colleagues were some years older, having had their training postponed or interrupted by the war.

After graduating in 1948, Edwin went to Nigeria, thus beginning a lifelong involvement with West Africa. He spent two and a half years carrying out fieldwork in Nigeria. Following this, in 1952, he became a research fellow (later senior research fellow) of the West African (later Nigerian) Institute of Social and Economic Research. This appointment took him to Cameroon, where he spent nearly all of the next eleven years. He was involved in a variety of research projects, which often reflected concerns of government and administration, and had strong empirical and demographic components. Much of this work he carried out in collaboration with other anthropologists, particularly with his wife Shirley. From this work, a variety of reports and publications appeared, prominent among them being Plantation and Village Life in the Cameroons (1960), written with Shirley

In 1960 Edwin Ardener was appointed to an Oppenheimer Studentship, attached to Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford, and was invited by Professor Evans-Pritchard and his colleagues to join the Institute of Social Anthropology.

In 1963 he was appointed to a University Lectureship in Social Anthropology. Although Edwin continued to maintain his personal and academic links with Africa and African studies, his interests and inspiration became increasingly focused on regions closer to home and he was responsible for a distinguished group of students turning their attention to areas of north-western Europe. He introduced into social anthropology the findings and methods of a variety of neighbouring disciplines, in particular those of demography, history, linguistics, genetics and animal ethology. Much of his own later work was directed towards the derivation of an empirical approach in which full account could be taken of the semantic as well as the statistical nature of the social world. He fostered academic and personal links and exchanges with Eastern Europe and I know how greatly he valued the opportunities to visit Eastern Europe, particularly his invitation to Poland in 1984 for the Malinowski Centennial Symposium.

With his wife Shirley, he introduced into social anthropology a concern with cross-cultural research on women. The results of this work provide one example among many of the fruits of their academic partnership, expressed in joint scholarship and in the inspiration that has resulted from their joint teaching. Many professional organizations and scholarly bodies benefited from Edwin's energy and farsightedness. He was chairman of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth from 1981 to 1985.

His teaching insisted on intellectual rigour and professionalism. To the newcomer his remarks in tutorials and discussion often seemed perplexing, even impenetrable, but in many students, particularly the best, he awakened a fascination with the discipline of social anthropology and made Human Sciences an important introduction to graduate studies in anthropology. He saw Human Sciences as a major focus for the different interests of social, cultural and biological anthropologists and he took particular pride to the value the University attaches to inter-disciplinary activity,

Edwin was elected to a Fellowship at St John's in 1969 and began an association which he deeply valued and to which he and Shirley contributed greatly. Edwin was a marvellous college man -to any social gathering he brought a mixture of wit and erudition few could match. At college meetings his interventions were not frequent. When they were made they were courteous but trenchant. They combined a use of metaphor and an obliqueness which made them all the more memorable and effective.

In addition to his participation in academic life and scholarship, Edwin always maintained his links with the wider community in which he lived. His home in Jericho, Oxford became a focus for support and action directed towards the needs of the community. Edwin was at once a well-loved member, in the fullest sense, of the community in which he lived, and a natural champion of local needs. He believed in anticipation rather than reaction, an approach which made him for many years a most effective Chairman of the Jericho Residents' Association. He was able both to communicate with the less articulate of his constituents and to deal effectively with the professional bureaucracy of town planners, often less conscious than he of the strength and feeling of local communities, and the need to support and preserve them.

Edwin died in 1987 just before the age of 60 years. Although his scholarship made his name in the world of academia he put it to the direct benefit of those he lived among. RH