I had visited Cambridge
twice before. Once was when I went for an entry examination in 1960
and then for an anthropology conference in 1968. I certainly remember
being amazed at its beauty, and particularly that of King's College,
where I was based on my second visit. Nevertheless it was still a shock
to arrive in the more elevated status of Senior Research Fellow at King's
College in the autumn of 1971. The Fellowship was only for four years,
and it was likely I would move on. As things turned out, I have never
left. There was a period between 1976 and 1981 when I was not a Fellow
of King's, though still a Member of the High Table and a University
Lecturer. After 1981 I was a Fellow of the College, as I now am for
life, and I remained in the University until retirement in 2009.
This means that
Cambridge has been my work place for well over half my life. It has
indelibly influenced me. My time there can be briefly described as comprising
Research Fellow of King's College, 1971-4
elected to a Senior Research Fellowship in History at King’s College,
Cambridge and went there in autumn 1971. Sarah Harrison, who became
my second wife, and I started to develop the intensive study of two
English parishes, Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria and Earls Colne in Essex.
We also began our long collaboration with computer scientists. Simultaneously
I was pursuing the themes started in The Family Life of Ralph Josselin
and my M.Phil. dissertation on marriage, family and sexual history in
England. We edited the full Diary of Ralph Josselin, published
by the British Academy in 1976.
I became more involved
in the work of the ‘Cambridge Group for the History of Population
and Social Structure’. In King’s College, I was a member
of the Fellowship Electors and met many distinguished thinkers, including
some world famous scientists. This was a time when I consolidated my
historical training with wider reading in the Annales School, deeper
work on historical sources, and improving my methods and understanding
of history and anthropology.
in Social Anthropology 1975-1981
I was appointed
to a Lectureship in Social Anthropology in 1974 and started teaching
from January 1975. These are the years during which I was finding my
feet as a teacher and administrator in the Department of Social Anthropology
under the guidance of Jack Goody, who became a very large influence
on my life from this period onwards.
Sarah and I moved
with her children to our house in the village of Lode, near Cambridge,
where we have remained since – setting up a home, large garden,
stocking our library and starting a second-hand book business.
I was involved
in a great deal of administration in Faculty and Department and became
a long-serving member of various committees of the Social Science Research
I was also
laying down the skills and contents of a full lecture load, supervision
of undergraduates and postgraduate students, in a discipline which I
had only come to late in life. I was also running a large a research
project on the history and anthropology of three communities for the
Social Science Research Council. The methodology we had developed for
the study of Earls Colne in Essex and Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria was
summarized in a book on Reconstructing Historical Communities
I was undergoing a major shift in my theoretical paradigm. My whole
framework of thought changed in 1977 as I started to write The Origins
of English Individualism (1978), which received widespread attention
and caused considerable controversy.
in Historical Anthropology 1981-1991
a personal Readership in Historical Anthropology in 1981 and was elected
a Fellow of the British Academy in 1986. This was a time when we were
completing the Earls Colne study and publishing the records on microfiche.
The introductions were later published as A Guide to English Historical
originally intended to do a parallel study on the parish of Kirkby Lonsdale
in Cumbria. In the end, moving south and preoccupied with other things,
the study was abandoned. The main outcome was a book describing the
activities of a network of burglars, coin clippers and highwaymen in
seventeenth century Westmorland, The Justice and the Mare's Ale
the time of writing various drafts of Marriage and Love in England
1300-1840 (1986). Ten years after writing Individualism I also
collected together a number of essays I had written in the intervening
years and published them as The Culture of Capitalism (1987).
The work on database
systems continued and began to enter a new phase with the start of work
on the new probabilistic retrieval systems. I began to spend much energy
trying to learn how the Museum Cataloguing System (MUSCAT) worked, and
also experimenting with multi-media, which began to be possible as Videodisc
It was also in
this period that I set up the Cambridge Rivers Video Project, mainly
so that I could work with my talented Ph.D. students to give them some
training in filming. We made several films and also started to make
long interviews of leading anthropologists. By 1986 I had filmed 16
interviews, all of them with anthropologists. This was the start of
a project which, as of summer 2017, comprising more than 230 interviews
in all fields of creative and intellectual work.
I returned to Nepal
and the Gurung village of Thak for the first time in 1986 with Sarah.
This would be the second of twenty visits by 2017, including trips almost
every year until the Maoist insurgency of 2003. This was a time of deepening
of fieldwork techniques and of more supervision of graduate students
working on India and Nepal.
this work in Nepal came films, surveys, censuses. Apart from a few essays,
there was also a short book written with Indrabahadur Gurung, A
Guide to the Gurungs (1990). Sarah and I also published an English
language edition of Bernard Pignède’s work on the Gurungs,
with a number of new appendices.
of Anthropological Science 1991-2009
I received a Personal
Chair (Professor of Anthropological Science) in 1991. The first two
years continued with much administration as I was effectively Head of
Department much of the time. A major turning point was meeting Gerry
Martin in the autumn of 1990. He provided crucial support, mental and
material, for the next fourteen years and made it possible to finish
the Naga videodisc project, to film more effectively in Nepal, and encouraged
me to return to those big questions concerning the nature and origins
of the modern world.
turning point was in the summer of 1990 when we made our first visit
to Japan. Over the next fifteen years we worked together with our Japanese
friends to translate between British and Japanese culture. In the autumn
of 1993 I started to write a book on The Savage Wars of Peace: England,
Japan and the Malthusian Trap (1997).
I also pursued
the interest in technologies and material culture which Gerry and I
shared. Involvement in Gerry Martin’s ‘Achievement Project’
and a growing interest in world history and running seminars on Japan
and China were also important.
This fed into the
experience, in 1998-2000, of working as a principal advisor and presenter
for a six part series with which the TV Channel 4 made to celebrate
the Millenium, ‘The Day the World Took Off’. This was also
a time when, after the birth of Sarah’s first grandchild in 1997,
we spent a good deal of time visiting Australia and filming our grandchildren
growing up – a new comparative film project.
venture into philosophical history was central to the later 1990's.
This culminated in The Riddle of the Modern World (2000) and
The Making of the Modern World (2002). It was also a time when
I worked with Gerry on the history of technology and particularly glass,
which resulted in our joint book The Glass Bathyscaphe (2002).
The Internet was
just becoming fully usable as storage, editing and bandwidth all improved
dramatically. So we could realize our dream of making both the Earls
Colne and Naga databases available permanently on line.
encouraged me before his death in 2004 to try to summarize my work in
a simpler form. So I wrote and published the first of my simpler books,
written for my eight-year old grand-daughter (imagined to be about seventeen),
Letters to Lily: On How the World Works (2005). I was also
working with my mother on a book, Green Gold: The Empire of Tea
(2003), combining her experience on an Assamese tea garden for twenty
years with my historical interests.
In 2005 I completed the book on Japan which was published as Japan
Through the Looking Glass (2007). By this time we were becoming
interested in China. We went on our first serious expedition in 2002
and have visited on average once a year since. I set up a project which
incorporated half a dozen Chinese Ph.D. students and various collaborations
with Chinese universities and filmmakers.
This period is most
notable for its emphasis on forms of mass communication.
Earlier periods had been about how to find, analyse, link and interrogate
data and make it available in a fairly undigested form through databases
and long books. From about 2001 onwards the Internet began to flourish
and, with Mark Turin and Sara Shneiderman, we set up ‘Digital
Himalaya’ and my own website. I started to upload videos to ‘Youtube’
in October 2006. As of June 2017 I have 1563 videos uploaded, with 10,466,000
views and 13,000 subscribers.
As I approached
retirement from my University Professorship at the age of 67 in 2009
I decided to write a set of reflections on what I had encountered over
the years, both in the University and King's College. This was published
as Reflections on Cambridge (2009).
Cambridge years I had been heavily involved in teaching and administration.
I lectured to students on kinship and marriage, introductory anthropology,
economic and political anthropology, demography, classical theories
in the social sciences, the state, technology, property, visual anthropology,
feudalism and capitalism, comparative law, community, urban anthropology,
inequality, population, the western family, war and violence and sexual
Like Oxford, Cambridge
is noted for its intensive supervision system. This involves setting
an essay, reading it, discussing it one to one or one to two for an
hour. During these thirty years I supervised well over two hundred undergraduates
in all fields of anthropology.
Each year I took
on one or two taught master’s students, many of whom have gone
on with me to do a Ph.D. They have come from all over the world, and
each one requires a dozen supervisions, and direction on their thesis.
There have been over sixty of these.
I have supervised
over forty Ph.D. students, supervising on average five or six at any
one time. They have worked on many topics in most continents, for example
on face-whitening in Japan, family structures in Singapore, religion
in Sarawak, social change in Vietnam, identity in Malaysia, shamanism
in Nepal, hunter-gatherers in India, development in South America, tourism
in Greece, politics in Spain, nationalism in Germany, manufacturing
in France, kinship in England, and farming in Ireland.
About a quarter
of my time during term was absorbed in administration. I sat on numerous
College, Departmental, Faculty and National committees. I was Fellow
of a number of Societies as well as the British Academy and on many
Boards and Trusts, both University and National. I gave lectures around
the world. These included the named lectures : Frazer, Burrows, Malinowski,
Radcliffe-Brown, Marrett, Maruyama Masao, Li Ka Sheng, Wang Gouwei,
Huxley and Goody lectures.
retirement in 2009
account of what use I made of my twenty-five years of education to 1966
takes the story to my retirement in 2009 when I became an Emeritus Professor
and Life Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. Free from teaching and
administration, which tends to absorb at least half of one's year and
energy, I have in the nine years since retirement been able to write
and publish as much as in the last twenty years of my full-time Professorship,
including nine small books for young Chinese and a draft of seven volumes
of my educational autobiography. I have also been deeply engaged in
projects with China and have given a number of lectures there including
the Wang Gouwei lectures at Tsinghua University, Beijing. I also gave
the Huxley Lecture in London and the Goody Lecture in Malta.
Now I can look
back and see better how the small seeds planted in those first twenty-five
years have grown into several dozen books, four large research projects
with small groups of colleagues, explorations and friendships over much
of the world and a large amount of highly rewarding teaching. I have
been extraordinarily fortunate, above all in the love and support of
my close family and friends.