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Aidan Southall

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Aidan Southall

Aidan Southall (11 September 1920 – 17 May 2009) was a British cultural anthropologist recognised for his fieldwork in urban settings in post-war Africa. Often identified as a pioneer in the study of African cities, Southall is said to have played a significant role in the development of urban anthropology.

Early life and education

Southall, the son of a parson of the Church of England, was born in Warwickshire, England. Having been born into an impoverished family, Southall was unable to attend boarding school with his friends. He attended a preparatory school, The Perse School in Cambridge, England, at the age of 8 years old. At the age of 11, Southall began his secondary education and eventually worked his way up to Cambridge University where he initially studied Classics. During his last year at Cambridge university at the age of 18, Southall had the opportunity to travel to Jamaica, his first exotic experience. Shortly after this, Southall switched over to anthropology after having been persuaded by one of his professors. At Cambridge University, he gained his bachelor's degree in social and cultural anthropology. After graduating in 1942, Southall followed his colleagues to Uganda with the interest of pursuing social anthropology as a career. He eventually attended the University of London where he gained his PhD[1]


Southall was given the opportunity to apply a position at Makerere University in Uganda, and in 1945 he became a professor of social studies at this institution. He had the opportunity to carry out research in that particular area among others in Africa, and eventually conducted fieldwork in Nyanza with a Luo student in Kenya. In Karachuonyo, South Nyanza, being restricted to a short-­term study over the span of his vacation, Southall found it difficult to conduct long-­term fieldwork and therefore focused more on food and lineages. While researching the Luo People, it was at this time that Southall made a short visit to Alur, which became one of his most significant life changing experiences from which he published his first written work called Alur Society. He returned to Alur to conduct doctoral fieldwork in 1948, where he spent two years of his life. In the 1950s, Southall increasingly became more interested in urban anthropology, and his work became more focused on the complexity of developing urban areas. Unlike most anthropologists of his time, Southall was generally interested in urbanisation and the development of African cities in particular.

After completing his PhD in 1952 in London, he returned to Makerere as a member of East African Institute of Social Research. During his years at Makerere, he obtained a UNESCO fellowship which slowly contributed to the expansion of his notability and connection by the visit to the United States, where he encountered to other influential researchers. One of the influential researchers was sociologist Talcott Parsons, who influenced Southall in developing an appreciation for Marx Weber's work. As it reflected in his publications, there was a gradual shift in Southall's theoretical position as he began adopting more Marxist views.

Aside from teaching at Makarere University, Southall also taught at several other schools including the University of East Africa, the University of California, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Due to extensive fieldwork and research, Southall was also able to become fluent in several languages including Nilotic languages, Swahili and French. He also became a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Furthermore, Southall was also a member of International African Institute, The African Studies Association of USA and the American Anthropological Association.[2]


For his doctoral dissertation, Aidan Southall wrote Alur Society: A Study in Processes and Types of Domination (1956), and it focuses on the study of political structure among the Alur people of Northwest Uganda. He carried out anthropological fieldwork among the Alur people for approximately two years between 1949 and 1952. Southall revealed a continuous process of political and cultural domination taking place, done almost entirely without the use of force.[3]

His next publication was Townsmen in the Making: Kampala and its Suburbs (1957), featuring two specific reports that were developed as part of a general study of African life in greater Kampala, Uganda. Examining such issues as land, housing, economic activity, and marriage, Southall looked to draw upon the survey results for specific information while also supplementing quantitative data with qualitative material and anecdotes.[4]

As Aidan Southall grew more experienced observing urban systems, he released Social Change in Modern Africa (1961), which contained the proceedings of the First International African Institute Seminar at Makarere, a school where he taught in Kampala. This seminar and thus this publication speculated about how complex social systems should be studied.[5]

Some time afterwards, Southall published a collection of papers originally presented at the Wenner-Gren seminar of 1964 about cross cultural similarities in the urbanisation process. This collection of papers was titled Urban Anthropology: Cross Cultural Studies of Urbanization (1973) and attempted to identify and characterise significant issues in urban anthropology.[6]

Later that decade, Southall published a collection of essays entitled Small Urban Centers in Rural Development in Africa (1979). His essays are broken down in different categories, the first of which being the social and anthropological perspective. Another category of his essays would be historical or political viewpoints, which he follows with economic case studies finished with an argument about whether their findings are conceptual or theoretical in nature.[7]

Aidan Southall's next big published work was in conjunction with Greg Gulin entitled Urban Anthropology in China (1993). This text originated at the First International Urban Anthropology Conference in China in December 1989, after being postponed and put on hold many times. This collection of essays involves Chinese urban ethnicity, finished off by Chinese urban culture and life cycles. [8]

His final book that he wrote was The City in Time and Space (2000), written about cities on a grand scale. Having been someone who studied urbanisation his entire life, this book was an overview of what he believed the life process to encompass. The book starts off as a survey of implications, varying across time and space, of demographic, social, cultural, political, and economic concentration for society as a whole. The sustained attention to the development of cities was what we wanted to share with the audience in his final book.[9]

Despite being relatively unknown in the world of anthropology, Southall's work is more "diffuse than that of some more prominent British figures", as he spent most of his lifetime in Africa.[10]


  1. ^ Burton, John W. (1992). "An Interview with Aidan Southall". Current Anthropology 33 (1): 67–83.  
  2. ^ Abrahams, Ray (2009). "Aidan Southall Obituary". Anthropology Today 25 (5): 26–27.  
  3. ^ Baxter, P.T.W. (1959). "Alur-Society: A Study in the Processes and Types of Domination by Aidan Southall – A Review". Man 59: 32–33. 
  4. ^ Banton, Michael (1958). "Townsmen in the Making: Kampala and its Suburbs by Aidan Southall and Peter Gutkind – A Review". Man 58: 164. 
  5. ^ Gutkind, Peter (1962). "Social Change in Modern Africa – A Review". Man 62: 157. 
  6. ^ Jacobson, David (1978). "Urban Anthropology; Cross Cultural Studies of Urbanization by Aidan Southall – A Review". American Anthropologist 80 (4): 949.  
  7. ^ Norcliffe, G.B. (1981). "Small Urban Centers in Rural Development in Africa by Aidan Southall – A Review". Canadian Journal of African Studies 15 (2): 390–392.  
  8. ^ McGee, Terry (1995). "Urban Anthropology in China by Aidan Southall and Greg Gulin – A Review". The China Journal 34: 307–308.  
  9. ^ Collins, Peter (2001). "The City in TIme and Space by Aidan Southal – A Review". The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 7 (2): 376–377. 
  10. ^ Abrahams, Ray (2009). "Aidan Southall Obituary". Anthropology Today 25 (5): 26–27.  
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