Elizabeth Florence Colson (June 15, 1917 - )

Jennifer Cash

Posted May 1998


Elizabeth Florence Colson is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work in anthropology addresses politics, religion, social organization, social change, migration, anthropological history and theory, and the ethnography of Africa and North America. Dr. Colson is best known for her ongoing fieldwork with the Gwembe Tonga of Zambia, which began in 1956 through the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute as a controlled study of the social change caused by forced resettlement. All of Colson's work is solidly anchored in ethnography, and through it she has made theoretical contributions to the sub-disciplines of applied, development, and political anthropology.

This report on Elizabeth Colson contains the following sections.


Biographical Outline

A.    Education

B.A., Anthropology, University of Minnesota, 1938
M.A., Anthropology, Radcliffe College, 1941
Ph.D., Social Anthropology, Radcliffe College, 1945

B.    Professional Positions

Research Assistant, Peabody Museum, Harvard, 1945
Researcher among Plateau Tonga of Rhodesia, Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, 1946
Director, Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, 1948-51
Senior Research Fellow, Manchester University, 1951-53
Goucher College, 1954-55
Boston University, 1955-59
Brandeis University, 1959-63
Northwestern University, 1963-64
Fellow, Center for Advanced Behavioral Sciences, 1967-68
Professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1964-87
Fairchild Fellow, California Institute of Technology, 1975-76

C.    Professional Societies

Member, National Academy of Sciences, elected 1977
Honorary Fellow, Royal Anthropological Institute
Fellow, American Anthropological Association
Fellow, British Association of Social Anthropology
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Association for African Studies
Society of Women Geographers
American Anthropological Association Sub-sections: American Ethnological Society, Association for Political and legal Anthropology, Association of Senior Anthropologists, Council for General Anthropology, Culture and Agriculture, National Association for the Practice of Anthropology

D.    Honors and Listings

Lewis Henry Morgan Lecturer, University of Rochester, 1973
AAA Distinguished Lecture, "Culture and Progress," 1975
Honorary Degrees, Brown University, Rochester University
Who's Who in America, 1988-89; 75th edition, vol. I.
International Dictionary of Anthropologists, 1991
Phi Beta Kappa


Early Research and Influences

As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Elizabeth Colson was influenced by Wilson Wallis and his wife Ruth Sawtell Wallis. Colson's first experience with fieldwork involved measuring school-age children with Ruth Wallis as part of a Bureau of Home Economics study which ultimately made it possible to standardize children's clothing sizes (Case 1988:365). After Colson graduated in 1938, the Wallises helped finance her first year of graduate school at Radcliffe College. Instead of repayment, they requested that she make similar loans to her own students in the future.
At Radcliffe College, Elizabeth Colson experienced the sex-discrimination in academia that she would later work to document and eradicate at the University of California during the 1960s and 1970s. At least one anthropology professor at Harvard/Radcliffe required female students to sit outside the lecture hall and forbade them to ask questions. Apparently, sex discrimination was widely practiced in anthropology and in academia in general in the 1930s-40s. Colson's undergraduate mentor, Ruth Sawtell Wallis, was fired from her position as a physical anthropologist after she married because it was unthinkable to have two employed academics in one family during the Depression.
Colson rapidly completed her course-work under Clyde Kluckhohn at Radcliffe, and left to do a year of doctoral fieldwork among the Makah Indians at Neah Bay, Washington in November, 1941. She arrived one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and some of the Makah viewed her as a potential Nazi spy.
Colson was interested in culture change, but unlike most of her contemporaries, she wanted to focus on assimilation and integration in the present. Others studied how Indian cultures had changed since pre-reservation times (acculturation), but Colson wanted to study how the Makah continued to exist as a distinct people despite assimilation and integration into the surrounding American society. She initially intended to do a culture and personality study, and to test the hypothesis that "basic orientations are resistant to change while cultural content changes much more rapidly" (Colson 1953:v).
However, she discovered that the Makah were quite heterogenous, and that she could not apply the American model of "culture" to understand them. The Makah lived in mixed villages with white Americans and could not be distinguished by appearance, physical type, language, names, or other observable traits. Furthermore, group membership was only partially based on biological descent; once a blood link was established, Makahs selectively included individuals based on social behavior. In this setting, Colson found that the British "community" model offered a better way to understand Makah social organization.
When she returned to write her dissertation, Kluckhohn wanted Colson to develop a "conceptual scheme" to explain the behavior she had recorded, but she insisted that anthropology was too new and had too little data to construct general theories that explained human behavior (Hartland-Thurnberg 1984:24). Colson has maintained this attitude throughout her career, advancing only theories and conceptual schemes that emerge from field data.

British social anthropology had a strong influence on Colson's career, first through Kluckhohn who studied under Robert Marett as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and later through her affiliation with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, Oxford University, and Manchester University. Max Gluckman was the Director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute when Elizabeth Colson joined it in 1946. He, Meyer Fortes, and E.E. Evans-Pritchard influenced Colson's early thought and work, while Lucy Mair and Raymond Firth were later influences.
In 1946, Colson did a year's worth of field research among the Plateau Tonga of Rhodesia for the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute. Importantly, this research continued her introduction to "tribeless" tribes. The Plateau Tonga were a geographic sub-division of a larger linguistic group. Colson found that they frequently had more common "culture" with their non-Tonga neighbors than with other Tonga. Additionally, they called themselves "Tonga" but this term had no symbolic value; until recently they had shared no overarching political or economic structures. The family appeared to be the basic social unit in the family, but the Tonga had trouble agreeing on what types of people constituted a family (Colson 1951). Again, "culture" was hardly an appropriate way to explain what held this group of people together. Colson responded by carefully documenting their social organization and relations as they were practiced. She has continued this practice in all her fieldwork, and in so doing has greatly contributed to anthropology's understanding of the relationship between culture and social organization.
Colson has conducted long-term research on social and cultural change on the Gwembe Tonga since 1956, and traces her interest in long-term research to Clyde Kluckhohn. In the Navajo studies of his early career, Kluckhohn discovered that ethnographic data collected by earlier researchers was outdated by the time of his own study. He was also influenced by Edward Sapir and John Dollard to undertake long-term research on the socialization of children, and by David Scott’s emphasis on the importance of continued observation. In turn, Kluckhohn's work affected Colson, as well as Evon Vogt (Harvard Chiapas Project, 1957-75), Leopold Pospisil (Tirolean peasants in Austria, 1962-63, 1964-75), and Louise Lamphere (Lake Powell Project, 1972-77). Colson distinguishes Kluckhohn's (and her own) variant of long-term fieldwork from the "re-study" approach exemplified by Robert Redfield. (Colson 1979:5)

Gwembe Tonga Project

Elizabeth Colson's most well-known work began in 1956, when the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute sent her to study the effects of resettlement on the Gwembe, or Valley, Tonga of Northern Rhodesia. The Gwembe lived along a river on which the government wanted to construct a dam and hydro-electric power plant, but the Gwembe were agriculturalists, and the river's flood-plain was the most fertile soil in the area. The resettlement would force the Gwembe to change their lifestyle, but no one could predict what changes would occur.

Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder, then a second year graduate student at Harvard, spent a year among the Gwembe collecting base-line data. Colson focused on social and political organization and ritual, while Scudder recorded information on human geography, agriculture, and the Gwembe's general use of their environment. They returned for a follow-up study after the dam was completed in the 1960s.
In the project report, Colson outlines a general sequence of social reactions to resettlement: 1) the initial period of upheaval and sense of dislocation lasts approximately five years, 2) communities are hostile to the government, 3) local leaders associated with the resettlement project lose their legitimacy, 4) local rule is accomplished more by force than by consent, 5) religious beliefs and practices are questioned, 6) there is an initial emphasis on kinship and family ties, but this eventually creates tension, disputes, and the re-scattering of kin, and 7) there is minimal innovation of social structure. The Tonga resisted resettlement and change, and Colson draws on Edward Spicer's work Human Problems in Technological Change to explain that they resisted because resettlement threatened their basic securities, and also because they did not understand the benefit of the technology (i.e. the hydro-electric power plant), and because the impetus to resettle was commanded from outside the Gwembe community (Colson 1971: 1-3).
Scudder and Colson have continued their collaborative study of the Gwembe Tonga since 1956, and the project is designed to continue indefinitely. Additional members have been added to the project, including local Zambians who record core data on an ongoing basis.
Theoretical and Disciplinary Contributions

Elizabeth Colson's long-term research with the Gwembe Tonga has directly contributed to discussions of resettlement, migration (both forced and voluntary), and refugee communities in applied and development anthropology. Her work on the "life cycle of resettlement" illustrates that anthropology in practice as field research or applied anthropology can also produce theory, instead of just serving as the testing ground for academically produced theories. Colson's collaborative work with Scudder on the role of education in forming elites is also claimed as an important work by practitioners of urban anthropology.
Political anthropology has benefitted from Colson's ongoing interest in social organization and social control. In her 1973 Lewis Henry Morgan lectures at Rochester University, she put forth an explanation of why violence erupts infrequently even in societies that have minimal or diffuse government: people avoid conflict because they are afraid of causing rupture with the people they will have to continue interacting with after the rupture (Colson 1974:45-47). This is a decidedly more negative assessment of social control than Morgan's version of rule-determined reciprocity or Sahlins' 1960s ideas on exchange motivated by rational self-interest, but empirical work on the related "conflicting loyalties theory" suggests that Colson's explanation is more applicable to a wide variety of peoples than are other approaches to understanding social control.
"Conflicting loyalties theory" is a more specific application of Colson's ideas on social control. This theory is also advanced by Gluckman and Flap to explain how exogamy prevents conflict. Other theories suggest that exogamy creates social harmony because it promotes alliance (through economic exchange), or survival (because it promotes adaptation). "Conflicting loyalties theory," however, stresses conflict prevention over the creation of harmony. According to this view, exogamy helps prevent social conflict because it produces cross-cutting ties and allegiances. Through patterns of intermarriage, any set of individuals will always have conflicting social relationships. Since conflict is always possible and potential, disputes are usually resolved peacefully. World-wide, cross-cultural, quantitative studies of fraternal interest groups bear out this prediction, but not the alliance or survival explanations. (Kang and Kang 1996:46)
Colson's contributions to anthropology are clearly linked to her commitment to long-term research. Her work has advanced anthropology's understanding of culture change, and in that respect, culture. Colson understands culture as something that people "fiddle with" as they attempt to adapt or create new situations and institutions for themselves, and her work among the Gwembe Tonga illustrates this at more than a theoretical level. In her years of working with the Tonga, they have developed a "Tonga" identity; been involved in African nationalist movements; become part of a national community and even competed against each other for state-level political control; they travel to other countries, and are aware of and affected by international events. Colson's ethnographic work details these changes. Colson has initiated discussions of the particular ethical and methodological issues involved in long-term research, and she is a member of the Linkages group, which is developing computer programs and other research and analytical tools to consistently record, code, and analyze the massive quantities of data produced by longitudinal studies.

Other Contributions
In addition to her direct contributions to anthropology, Elizabeth Colson has been a strong mentor for numerous students. She has also used her work to understand society around her. Her 1973 Lewis Henry Morgan lectures were based on fieldwork among the Tonga and extensive reading in political philosophy and anthropology, but Colson's insights on the mechanisms of social control responded directly to the social and political turmoil of 1960s America. Her work to improve the status of women in academia also places Elizabeth Colson with the likes of Boas, Kroeber, and Margaret Mead as "part of a North American tradition in which eminent anthropological scholars have taken a public position on the major social problems of their time" (Starr 1984:29).

Key Works - * Indicates that this source was cited in the above text.

Colson, Elizabeth

1951*     Seven Tribes of British Central Africa (ed., with Max Gluckman). Published on behalf of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute. London: Oxford University Press.

1953*     The Makah Indians: A Study of an Indian Tribe in Modern American Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

1954     The Intensive Study of Small Sample Communities. In Method and Perspective in Anthropology: Papers in Honor of Wilson D. Wallis. Robert A. Spencer, ed. Pp. 43-59. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

1960     Social Organization of the Gwembe Tonga. Human Problems of the Kariba, Vol. I. Published on behalf of the Institute for Social Research, University of Zambia. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

1971*     The Social Consequences of Resettlement: The Impact of the Kariba Resettlement upon the Gwembe Tonga. Kariba Studies, No. 4. Published on behalf of the Institute for African Studies, University of Zambia. Manchester: University of Manchester Press.

1974*     Tradition and Contract: The Problem of Order. The 1973 Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures presented at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York. Chicago: Aldine.

1980     with Thayer Scudder, Secondary Education and the Formation of an Elite: The Impact of Education on Gwembe District, Zambia. New York: Academic Press.

A more extended bibliography of Elizabeth Colson's work can be found in:

Glazier, Jack, et al, eds.

1984    Opportunity, Constraint and Change: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson. Jack Glazier, et al, eds., Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, Nos. 63-64.

References Cited - See also key works with *.

Case, Patricia

  1. Ruth Sawtell Wallis. In Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary. Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, and Ruth Weinberg, eds. New York: Greenwood Press.

Colson, Elizabeth

1979     with George Foster, Thayer Scudder, and Robert Kemper, eds. Long-Term Field Research in Social Anthropology. New York: Academic Press.

Hartland-Thurnberg, Penelope

1984     An Appreciation of Elizabeth Colson: Her Early Intellectual Development. In Opportunity, Constraint and Change: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson. Jack Glazier, et al, eds., Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, Nos. 63-64.

Kang, Tai S. and Gay E. Kang

1996     Alliance, Conflict, and Exogamy. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds., New York: Henry Holt.

Starr, June

1984     Scholars and Controversy: A Note on Elizabeth Colson's Work Against Sex Discrimination in Academia. In Opportunity, Constraint and Change: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth Colson. Jack Glazier, et al, eds., Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, Nos. 63-64.