Anthropology Reading Journal Series I

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
IV. 09/26/2011: Revisiting “Classic” Ethnography: The Nuer

This week’s readings surround Evans-Pritchard’s and structuralist approach to anthropology. After a review of the related article, you can find my critical analysis on Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography on the Nuer after the first reading.

Reading #1

Coote, Jeremy. 1994. “Marvels of Everyday Vision: the Anthropology of Aesthetics and the Cattle Keeping Nilotes.” In The Anthropology of Art Reader, ed. Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins.

Coote’s chapter on the Nilotes of Sothern Sudan explores the aesthetics of anthropology in regards to these peoples and their practice of cattle keeping. He writes that, “all human activity has aesthetic aspect,” (p. 125) laying groundwork to his belief that art and aesthetic can be treated independently of each other.

Using the Nilotes of Southern Sudan as a case study, he gives in depth descriptions of their cattle keeping process and explains through comparative study, the value in perceptual experience as seen in different societies. Coote goes on to stress the importance of not just making assumptions of what is seen but to see how the subject sees.

Because the Nilotes value cattle as their highest type of possession, Coote examines the details of cattle and the perceptual qualities that are so prized by many of the Nilote tribes. Of the qualities so prized for aesthetic value, comes first is the color of the cattle. He writes that “on discussing the colour patterns of an animal – as they do for hours – the Dinka sound more like art critics than stockbreeders”. (p.130) They value color with symbolic importance.

The second aesthetic value they look for is in sheen. The sheen of the hide can show the appreciation and time given to particular cattle in terms of grooming. Much of beauty that is seen in regards to the sheen of cattle has been spoken about in songs and poetry by the Nilotes. 

Thirdly, the horn shape of the sculpting of the horns is particularly appealing to these tribes. The shaping of the horns while the cattle are still young is a common practice that trainers feel enhances the beauty of their cattle. Much appreciation of cattle and their horns is often expressed, once again, in song. 

The question arises, “why are these attributes so valued and important to the tribes?” As we read on, we realized that the Nilotes appreciate such qualities because of what they represent, i.e. health and longevity of the cattle. Bigness, sheen, and color in cattle therefore represent more than just symbolic beauty. Great importance is placed on these types of attributes that even linguistics are derived to reflect seeing their world in terms of a matrix of cattle related words. This perception also dictates the Nilote’s behavior, to the degree that, at times, they dance and act like cattle.  

Coote finally concludes his article with reiterating his explanation of cattle being the primary aesthetic locus for Nilotic peoples, emphasizing that people act to “maximize their aesthetic satisfaction”. By acknowledging and being aware of how a people see and what they attribute to their aesthetic, a better understanding can be garnered towards their society. 

Book #1 Critical Analysis

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of Niolitic People. Oxford: Calerndon Press.

Evans-Pritchard’s monograph entitled, The Nuer: A Description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic People, is an ethnographic text first published in 1940. At the time of its release, the discipline of anthropology was young and growing in its attempt to explain cultural diversity and difference. As anthropologist John W. Burton writes in his book, An Introduction to Evans- Pritchard, “anthropology writing at the turn of the century was being produced indirectly, having rarely to do with actual on site interactions with ‘primitive’ societies under study.”[1] To better understand Evans-Pritchard’s writing we need to see that he emerged during a time in which the field of anthropology was changing its paradigm from representing the native in ethnographies through preconceived questions to making an effort of first understanding the native’s indigenous perception.

It is also important to note that Evans-Pritchard’s methodology lay in the antecedents of past anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, who were considered pioneers of structural functionalist sociology. The concept of structural functionalism, in a broad sense, is an approach used to interpret a society’s structure through its interrelated parts. Highly influenced by these anthropologists, Evans-Pritchard approached and developed his study of the Nuer, in great detail, to describe the life of the Nuer and to lay bare the principles of their social structure”[2].

Upon reading the table of contents for this ethnology, we can see that Evans-Pritchard has organized his study by first explaining to the reader who the Nuer are, their interest in cattle and its importance, their ecology, their concept of time and space, their mode of political and lineage systems, and finally the relevance of their age-set system along with his own final conclusions. Organizing his chapters in this way allows for Evans-Pritchard to build a case for answering and describing Nuer behavior and actions that further explain their social structure and segmented society.

Evans-Pritchard’s narrative engages the reader with an account of his initial difficulties in gaining intimate access to the Nuer. He writes on the complexities and frustrations of getting to know the tribe using, as an example, his conversation with a Nuer man named Cuol which became for him a typical analogy for the experience of distrust and suspicion of a ‘first’ meeting when starting fieldwork.

What’s interesting here, aside from the amusing yet exasperating dialogue, is that Evans-Pritchard does not give background as to how the Nuer were currently living with regards to British government impositions. Instead, we receive a narrative that is devoid of imperialist context. Furthermore, keeping in mind Evans-Pritchard’s structuralists roots, underlying sub-inquiries arise in the reading of his description of the Nuer having “no government” yet having an “ordered anarchy”. This description quietly asks the question of – if no government or centralized control of authority exists, how then does the Nuer society maintain stability and exist over time? With further reading, the resolution to such questions become apparent as Evans-Pritchard builds his argument about governance through the first chapters that explain how the Nuer function in relation to their interdependence on cattle as well as their ecology.

The first chapter, “Interest in Cattle”, misleads the reader by its title and disguises the actual depth in which the Nuer relies on cattle. In actuality, we realize through Evans-Pritchard thorough descriptions, that the Nuer’s connection to cattle is far beyond just interest. Cattle tie into almost every aspect of Nuer life, being ever-present in their trade, their family structure, their linguistics, their travels, their conflicts, etc. Activities associated with cattle affect each gender and their roles as well; for example, there are rules dictating who are allowed to milk or round up the cattle.

Evans-Pritchard describes the cooperative responsibility of rearing both cattle and children in the tribe, including who comes first when providing sustenance during drought and when climate difficulties occur. Moreover, he goes on in great detail to explain how cattle are so intrinsically tied to the Nuer that there exists a cattle vocabulary that provides words specific to describing cattle by their individual physical attributes, like color, spots, horns and ears. Along with husbandry terminology, the cattle vocabulary becomes quite extensive. In fact, Evans-Pritchard argues that the development of such linguistics is a main indicator of the cattle’s importance to Nuer life.

In the next chapter, Evans-Pritchard goes on to explain Nuer ecology, describing the main characteristics of Nuerland’s flat and clay-soiled environment. He writes about the land’s typical arid and wet months, relaying the difficulties that arise for the tribe due to the land’s proclivity towards both drought and dry months. The need to move during such climatic affronts forces the Nuer to be migratory and in constant search of resources to continue maintenance of their livelihood, which Evans-Pritchard calls “transhumant”. Mobility is as much a prime factor in the maintenance of Nuer cattle as it is for the existence of the tribe, which again calls into question the fundamental questions of social stability and order. Evans-Pritchard ties together the chapter on the Nuer’s cattle obsession with the chapter detailing the pressure put forth on them by their environment, documenting a potential for arising conflicts in stability as well as, conversely, a manifestation of self-governed social order. These chapters set the stage for building on the Nuer’s political system, which Evans-Pritchard discusses in the later chapters.

Chapter three is a bridge chapter and lays the groundwork for starting to understand the Nuer in terms of their concepts of time and space. It explains that the Nuer look at time as social structure and at their livelihood based on environmental relations to that that social structure, not vice versa. Therefore, “time and space become reflections of their relations to one another in the social structure” which Evans-Pritchard calls structure time.[3] Interestingly, Nuer time does not have any expressive qualities so that Nuer cannot see time in terms of a noun in which can be wasted, saved, or passed. Slowly but progressively, Evans-Pritchard shifts us from viewing the Nuer from a simply functional perspective to one which analyzes the meaning with which they attribute their lives.

In his last chapters, Evans-Pritchard writes about political institution within the context of understanding the lineage system of the Nuer. He presents their political system as emerging out of their sense of social regulation and identity. Behaviors are governed in relation to each other, not by a higher or central authority. Power is therefore diffused and distributed along defined segments of lineage that further segment into smaller and smaller groups. As Evans-Pritchard writes, “Nuer lineages are not corporate, localized communities, though they are frequently associated with territorial units, and those members of a lineage who live in an area associated with it see themselves as a residential group, and the value, or concept, of lineage thus functions through political system.”[4] He paints a picture of a political system that emerges from of a self-regulatory mechanism that serves to maintain the Nuer livelihood.

Evans-Pritchard then describes a ritual practice associated with males and the age-set system, where boys undergo scarring initiation to become men. On its own, this last chapter seems as though it could be read as separate from the rest of the text, failing to enhance the premise of political institution that precedes it, though it attempts to present an understanding of custom and commonalities that appear across lineages.

Overall, Evans-Pritchard’s account successfully provides insight to the Nuer’s system of livelihood and political institutions as construed from a structuralist point of view.  However, his study focuses on specific features of Nuer society and lacks mention of other practices and social behaviors that may have contributed to a fuller understanding of their culture, i.e., his chapter on the age-set system. His narrative also lacks an understanding of the feminine perspective, not uncommon of his time, and therefore women and their roles in Nuer society are offered in very thin description throughout the text. Likewise, the validity of his conversations with the Nuer can be called into question, for he often met with discouraging Nuer informants who would be misleading when providing him with information on one day and tell him the truth on the next. Adding to these issues is also the fact that the imperialist context is suppressed and the reader is not made aware of Britain’s imperialist subjugation agenda concerning the Nuer and much of the Sudan region.


Burton, John W. Studia Instituti Anthrpos, vol. 45: An Introduction to Evans-Pritchard. Germany: Anthropos-Institut e.V, 1995.

Douglas, Mary. Evans-Pritchard. Great Britain: The Harvester Press Limited, 1980.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. The Nuer: An Introduction to the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Jacobson, David. Reading Ethnography. New York: State University of New York, 1991.


[1] John W. Burton, An Introduction to Evans-Pritchard  (Germany: Anthropos-Institut e.V , 1995), 23.

[2] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), 7.

[3] “Ibid.”, 94

[4] “Ibid,”, 203


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