Meyer Fortes was born in South Africa in 1906. He attended school in South Africa, studying at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He went to London, where he studied psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1930, he received his PhD in psychology from the London School of Economics. However, he moved from psychology to anthropology, and in 1932, he began his studies with Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School. Two years later, he began fieldwork in Ghana, returning to London in 1937. He became a lecturer in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Soon, he moved to the University of Oxford, and then to Cambridge, where he became a professor and chair of social anthropology at King’s College from 1950 to 1973.
Fortes was an influential British social anthropologist. He trained with Charles Seligman, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Raymond Firth, significant figures in the development of British social anthropology. He went on to work with A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, as well as Max Gluckman. This extensive contact with the various branches of social anthropology allowed him to bridge the divisions within the school between the more psychologically inclined, such as Malinowski, and the more sociologically prone.
In fact, Fortes began his professional career as a trained psychologist. He combined his psychological interests with the prevailing structural functionalism of the period. His major interest ethnographically was in Africa. His primary fieldwork was with the Tallensi and Ashanti, in Ghana. His work was primarily in the study of family and kinship. Fortes developed these areas to a high level, providing major theoretical contributions in lineage theory, religion, and ancestor worship. Fortes was one of the pioneers in applying field observations to the furtherance of theoretical ideas.
Fortes was also deeply involved in the introduction of the work of Emile Durkheim to British social anthropology. Along with Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard, Fortes viewed Durkheim as a spokesperson for a new science of social institutions. Durkheim’s insistence on social facts provided a means for scientific rigor in anthropology. This rigorous structural functional approach provided social anthropology with a means and rationale for seeking interpretation for kinship systems, sacrifice, and other social collective institutions. Durkheim provided a means for uniting fieldwork and theory into a coherent theoretical statement. Each part of the system contributed to the stability of the whole.
Fortes had great influence in the overall development of British social anthropology through his position as professor and chair of social anthropology at Cambridge University from 1950 to 1973.
Fortes was a prolific writer. Among his significant works are African Political Systems (1940, with Evans-Pritchard); The Dynamics of Clanship Among the Tallensi (1945); The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi (1959); Oedipus and Job in West African Religion (1959); Kinship and the Social Order (1969); and Time and Social Structure (1970); Social Structure (1970, Ed.).
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