Volltext: Anthropos, 78.1983,1-4

W. Arens 
Evans-Pritchard and the Prophets: 
Comments on an Ethnographic Enigma 
Abstract. — An overview of the ethnographic corpus on the Nuer of the Southern 
Sudan by E.E. Evans-Pritchard elucidates a peculiar shortcoming with regard to his inter 
pretation of the political role and function of the prophets. Subsequent reanalyses and 
comparative material offered by other anthropologists are more convincing on the need 
to recognize the significant political role played by these religious leaders. This essay 
addresses what has implicitly been assumed to be an intellectual failing on Evans-Pritchard’s 
part, and suggests in contrast that he either consciously or unconsciously sought to 
deemphasize the political nature of this office for extraneous reasons when he formulated 
his now celebrated model of Nuer social structure. The argument is supported by reference 
to (1) the historical context within which the original fieldwork took place; (2) Evans- 
Pritchard’s remarks on the nature of colonial rule in Africa; and (3) his published work on 
other African societies which bear on this question. It is concluded that although his 
paradigm was and continues to be valid for the interpretation of acephalous societies, 
Evans-Pritchard nonetheless failed to give due credit to the political character of Nuer 
prophets which he was cognizant of. [Nuer, Prophets, Colonialism, Evans-Pritchard] 
Though no enemy of the Sudan administra 
tion ... he [Evans-Pritchard ] was really grati 
fied that the pyramid of the prophet Deng 
Kur . . . could still be seen across the plain 
from Akobo to Malakal, outlasting the 
administration which had tried to destroy 
it (Lienhardt 1974: 303) 
However defined, the discipline of social anthropology rests upon 
ethnography. It is perplexing, therefore, that anthropologists have had little 
to say on the subject of what makes for good ethnography (see Karp and 
W. Arens is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New 
York at Stony Brook; Ph. D. from the University of Virginia in 1970 with a dissertation 
based upon fieldwork (1968-1969) in Mto wa Mbu, a poly-ethnic rural community in 
Northern Tanzania. The results of this research formed the bases of a number of articles, 
essays, and the monograph, On the Frontier of Change (University of Michigan Press, 
1979). He is also the editor of A Century of Change in Eastern Africa (Mouton, 1976) 
Anthropos 78.1983 


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