The Nuer by EE Evans-Pritchard

Paper #1 -

Ngundeng Bong's Pyramid

Work Evans-Pritchard, Edward Evan 1940 The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard was a highly influential British Anthropologist whose contributions directly impacted the development of social anthropology in England. Evans-Pritchard’s early works focused primary on tribes of the Sudan. His seminal works about the Nuer Tribe of southern Sudan are the result of exhaustive field research that culminated in his trilogy: The Nuer, Nuer Religion, and Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer.

The Nuer, the first of this trilogy, is a self-confessed topical account that focused principally on the social structure of the greater Nuer tribe. This was achieved by outlining the interaction of the people and the physical environment, the political system, the lineage system and the age set system. The latter two works of this trilogy dive more deeply into religion and ceremony, and the lineage system.

The Nuer are a group of tribes that inhabit the swamps and open savannah that stretch across the Nile at the southern confluence of the Sobat and Bahr el Ghazal tributaries. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in East Africa. They are predominantly pastoralists who engage in limited horticulture. Cattle are the cultural core of the Nuer and are the center of economic, religious and symbolic systems. At the time of writing, it was noted that they had found perfect balance within their ecosystem even though the extremes of the rainy and dry seasons weighed heavily on everyday life. The Nuer are noted for their ferocity and are one of the few tribes in East Africa to resist British Colonization. The political structure is heterarchical; there is no single leader or leadership body, there is no governance and no established law.

Evans-Pritchard’s ethnographic data was represented in a structural functionalist framework. He was careful to incorporate the tenants of this approach; he viewed the Nuer society from a holistic perspective, he addressed the relationships between lineage, political and age-set systems and incorporated how these various institutions contribute to the stability and perpetuation of the entire structure. Among the Nuer, each institution is inextricably linked. For example, the political system is dependent on residential relationships that are dependent on social relationships. According to Evens-Pritchard,

"The political system of the Nuer can only be understood in relation to the whole structure of which other people form part and, likewise, the character of all Nuer communities must be defined by their relations with other communities of the same order within the whole political system (p.190)."

The intersection of Nuer institutions is also evident in the ritual of “blood feud.” The Nuer, a feisty lot according to the researcher, frequently engage in feuds over the mistreatment of cattle, adultery, water rights, pasturage rights among others. If a given feud results in homicide, the family of the slain is to receive as reparation, a certain number or cattle from the slayer. This sanction and the chance of settlement are dependent on the structural interrelations of slain and slayer – blood feud within a village (the smallest Nuer group) is recompensed immediately, and conversely blood feud within the tribe (the largest Nuer group) is rarely recompensed. In effect, feuds are settled swiftly when the structural distance between participants is narrow, but they are often left unsettled as that distance expands.

Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer is an effective descriptive work. True to form, he did not offer an explicit hypothesis at the outset of the work. While he did outline the structure of the account and related, briefly, the chief themes of his observations, these were simple sketches of what followed. His theories, based principally on observations and interactions, were infused throughout the text and were most often conveyed through examples. This approach made his theories and conclusions digestible - a description, a theory and an immediate concrete example were provided in small bites.

Evans-Pritchard’s descriptive approach was disciplined; he did not attempt to define the general characteristics of Nilotic culture and social structure by comparing the Nuer with the Dinka, Shilluk and other Nilotic cultures that have been studied by contemporaries or predecessors. Rather, the book was specific to the intricacies of the Nuer and intentionally bypassed Nilotic cultural themes and hackneyed assumptions about acephalous tribes of the region.

The Nuer is the result of pioneering fieldwork and is heralded as one of the most elegant and classical analyses of social structure. The work is almost entirely based on direct observation and is therefore, in the author’s eyes, both more challenging and more accurate. According to Evans-Pritchard working with an intractable and intentionally guileful group, and without informants or a translator, forced him to improve his techniques in ethnography. His previous work with the Azande tribe shaped his view of the role of ethnographer. With the Azande, he was an outsider forced to live on the margins of the community. He was also regarded with esteem and treated as a superior. Working with the Nuer improved his perspective. The Nuer required Evan-Pritchard to live among them, to participate in community affairs and to live as an equal. This subtle shift had a profound impact in the quality of his research.

Due to the historical context of this work, Evans-Pritchard’s intentions have been called into question. It has been argued that Evans-Pritchard was recruited by the British colonial authorities to provide vital information about a theretofore unconquered tribe. Indeed his employer was the government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and indirectly the British government. He was charged with documenting Nuer institutions and handing that information over to controlling powers that established policy and evoked war. It is impossible to know Evans-Pritchard’s true intentions and whether he was acting in the interests of the Nuer or the government that sought to suppress them.

The Nuer is one of the most famous ethnographies of the 20th century. Evans-Pritchard was able to glean intricately detailed information in the field. Despite this and his breakthrough in the quality of his ethnography, he was not totally satisfied with the result. Evans-Pritchard argued that an ethnographer had two formidable hurdles to clear. The first hurtle is entering the mental space of an unfamiliar world with an unfamiliar culture. Second, the researcher is then charged with describing that culture to others in a framework that is relevant to an external worldview. Evans-Pritchard’s pursuit of solutions to these challenges created a holistic and integrated view of the Nuer social system. This ethnography, among others by Malinowski, Cushing and Mead, established participant observation as the primary research method in anthropology.