20th century, Humanities

“From a young woman eager to learn to an old woman expected to know”: Elizabeth Colson

Elizabeth Colson’s love affair with anthropology
By Gaynor Cohen

Elizabeth Colson

It was in 1978, at Stanford University in California that I was directed to the tiny lady on the other side of the crowded room. Could this really be the legendary ‘giant’ of my undergraduate years? As a student of social anthropology, I had been reared on her work. ‘Are you Elizabeth Colson?’ I asked, ‘I’m Avner’s wife’. A firm but delicate hand shot into mine.

In Oxford in the eighties I witnessed her efforts to support friends struggling to establish a centre for migration studies. I now realize to what extent that fight was typical of Elizabeth. Small, modest, and quiet, never using two words when one will suffice, she rarely flinches from using any resource at her disposal to support a cause in which she really believes. Her David versus the Goliath of the mighty Oxford academic establishment ultimately helped set up a successful Centre for Refugee Studies which has just celebrated its twenty fifth year with another annual Colson Lecture. The International Gender Studies Centre too is run by women whose work has been largely unrecognised in Oxford academic life and who appreciate the subtle support Elizabeth offers on her visits.

Her early life set the stage for her as a champion of women’s issues. When she enrolled at Radcliffe in 1940 women were seen as second class intellectuals. At one anthropology course she had to sit in the corridor, the door to the lecture hall left open, to preclude her asking questions. Despite this she secured her PhD in anthropology in 1945. Anthropology itself was a challenge, offered only by three higher education institutions in the US. Her links with British anthropology began with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in the late 1940s; through them she was originally sent to work with the Tonga of Northern Rhodesia.

Queen Elizabeth House

All anthropologists are interested in social change, but few have the opportunity of using a real-life experiment. It came in 1956 for Elizabeth, when the government proposed to construct a dam in the fertile flood plain of the Zambezi river. The Rhodes-Livingstone Institute asked her to study the effects of the damn on those living in the area. Elizabeth, together with Thayer Scudder, then a junior colleague at Harvard, began a before and after study which was to last a lifetime. Elizabeth recorded social and political data, while Scudder focused on agriculture and the use inhabitants made of their environment. The report identified stages in the reaction to resettlement, including hostility toward the government, loss of faith in local leaders, force rather than consent in local rule, the questioning of religious beliefs, and dispersal of kinship ties. Elizabeth’s deep respect for and involvement with the people of the Gwembe community went far beyond conventional data collection. Most social anthropologists spend time living amongst those they study although there cannot be many who still live surrounded by the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those they worked with in their youth. In her words, ‘my role and my involvement changed over the years as I aged from a young woman eager to learn to an old woman expected to know’. The close personal bonds she formed during her research led her to resist conceptualising, and her study has become a model for others wishing to improve their understanding of migration and refugee communities.

Her respect for individuals also came across in her personal life. She and my husband Avner both enjoyed a love affair with anthropology, and while Elizabeth may herself have eschewed his theoretical approach, she harboured a great respect for him. When Avner’s health was failing I worried about his choice of a new field for study. So much has already been written on it, I said. ‘Just remember that this time it will be processed through that interesting mind’, she replied. This exemplifies Elizabeth’s approach to her work. Her writing is characterised by a clarity that enables the general reader to understand and enjoy her work, and her writing stands as an example to all anthropologists.

Her Berkeley home reflects the simple life: no frills, no heating, no television, but an ongoing battle with gophers in the garden. Back in Oxford I eagerly await her visits. She arrives, a diminutive figure at the doorstep, armed with a box of See’s Candies, a bottle of whisky and, occasionally a new paperback mystery novel. Her vast collection lines the walls of her Berkeley home, and she brings and sends me new publications to feed my own addiction. One of her biographers commented that mysteries helped ‘sharpen her professional tools’.

Despite Elizabeth’s warmth and quiet humour, she does not suffer fools gladly. Those familiar with her know never to casually use a ‘throw away’ remark. She is a stickler for the truth, eschewing idle gossip. Nothing is as likely to provoke her anger as an inaccurate, misleading, or downright untrue comment especially about people.

Colson's book on the Tonga

Another slightly more unusual skill in her arsenal is her ability to trace the kinship links between members of European royalty and Lady Jane Grey, no matter how remote. This is testimony to her superb memory for apparently insignificant details in all the lives of her friends, a skill she carries through to her work and which brings a depth to her research that few others have managed.

For Elizabeth, the individual will always matter the most. The larger part of her life has been lived with the Gwembe Tonga, descendants of those she studied as a young field worker. Recently robbers murdered her landlord. Being Elizabeth, at 91 she travelled across continents to comfort and support his widow, her friend. Through her constant devotion to her friends and the respect with which she treats others, Elizabeth Colson has broken down many of the barriers that exist for women anthropologists, and has set a shining example for all academics for years to come.

Colson. E, Tonga Religious Life in the Twentieth Century (2006)
Glazier. J, Contrast and Change: Essays in honour of Elizabeth Colson (1984)
Hartland-Thurnburgh. P, An Appreciation of Elizabeth Colson: her early intellectual development (1984)