Herman Gluckman life and biography

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Herman Gluckman biography

Date of birth : 1911-01-26
Date of death : 1975-04-13
Birthplace : Johannesburg, South Africa
Nationality : South African-British
Category : Arhitecture and Engineering
Last modified : 2010-10-09
Credited as : Anthropologist, analyses of political systems among African tribes,

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Max Herman Gluckman was a South African-born British social anthropologist, who greatly contributed to the field of political anthropology with his analyses of political systems among African tribes. Under his influence a school of anthropological thought was formed that became known as the Manchester School. Gluckman stressed the importance of high standards of scholarship in research, with detailed case studies and the use of statistical methods in analysis. The focus of his research, and that of the Manchester School, was the development of social relationships within the daily life of people in society as revealed through their activities in gaining material necessities. He viewed conflict as inevitable, and that traditions and rituals were the natural way that societies preserved themselves. He noted that colonialism brought a new dimension to conflict, one that led to greater violence and unpredictability as the colonial society did not follow the same traditions as those of the indigenous society. While Gluckman's analysis indicated that through understanding each other human beings could come to develop common traditions and methods of overcoming the contradictions and conflicts within daily life, his focus on the material aspects of human life could not reveal the development of humankind toward a world of peace and harmony, in which conflict is no longer inevitable.


Max Herman Gluckman was born on January 26, 1911, in Johannesburg, South Africa to Russian-Jewish parents. He grew up in South Africa, and attended the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he studied anthropology under Agnes Winifred Hoernl and Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). Although initially he enrolled to study law and become a lawyer, after hearing lectures by Hoernl on anthropology, he decided to dedicate his life to this new developing field of study. In 1934 he went to Oxford as a Transvaal Rhodes Scholar and received his Ph.D. in 1936.

He returned to Africa in 1936 and carried out fieldwork in Zululand for two years. He published two books based on his experience among Zulus, The Kingdom of the Zulu of South Africa (1940) and Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand (1940).

In 1939, Gluckman traveled to Northern Rhodesia to conduct research for the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute among the Lozi of Barotseland. He spent two years there, and afterwards took on the directorship of the Institute. Gluckman eventually continued with this work in Barotseland, studying judicial processes in the Barotse tribal courts. His two books The Judicial Process among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia (1955) and The Ideas in Barotse Jurisprudence (1965) come from that period.

In 1947 Gluckman left the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute and took a teaching position at Oxford. He remained there only briefly, leaving in 1949 to become the first professor of social anthropology at the University of Manchester. He continued his involvement with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, training most of the Institute’s research officers and providing the academic environment for their field study analyses. He was among the first to host lectures and presentations of material gathered from the field studies. Under his guidance the anthropology department became one of the most prominent in Britain, proliferating into what became known as the Manchester School of anthropology.

Max Gluckman's prodigious energies were not restricted to his anthropological research. He was a political activist and remained throughout his life a strong supporter of organized sports. He became an acknowledged expert and avid fan of soccer.

Gluckman served as professor of social anthropology at the University of Manchester until 1971, and thereafter as research professor. He died in 1975 in Jerusalem.


Although he attended some of Malinowski's lectures and seminars at the London School of Economics, it was the structural analyses of Edward E. Evans-Pritchard and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown that left the strongest mark on Gluckman’s work. In his early career he had become interested in African legal systems and the dynamics of local conflict and resolution. In his two early works The Kingdom of the Zulu of South Africa (1940) and Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand (1940), Gluckman examined the issues of segmentary opposition, which were the focal point of his work at the time. Segmentary lineage is a way of organization of groups of relatives, found particularly in Northern and Eastern Africa. According to this system, close kin relatives unite to stand together against more distant kin relatives (such as cousins against second cousins). All relatives, however, unite against any threat from groups of non-kin. Gluckman was particularly interested in the dynamics of the whole process, and how it functions in conflict situations—for example, in regulating inheritance and property rights.

In his early intellectual development, Gluckman came under the influence of Marxist theory, as well as Freudian psychoanalysis. This influence is particularly visible in his views on conflict. Like Freud and Marx he agreed that conflict occurs within the individual, as well as within groups of people. Moreover, argued Gluckman, conflict and rebellion are inherent in society, as each individual or group of individuals struggles to achieve their own private interests. However, unlike Marx who saw conflict leading to revolution, Gluckman claimed that conflict led to resolution. That is, once opposing parties engage in a conflict, the stage of resolution is often reached based on the existing tradition of the society. Marx saw conflict resulting in a new form of government; Gluckman argued that the type of government does not change, only the person in power.

Gluckman saw tensions in the society tamed by the power of tradition. One of Gluckman’s most distinguished studies was on the rituals of rebellion. He showed that ritualized forms of hostility, in which individuals engage in certain types of behavior to express their disagreement with the leaders or those in power, actually have beneficial effects on the social order. Through the controlled expression of hostility to authority, social cohesion is ultimately preserved.

Gluckman developed the principle of "cross-cutting" ties or alliances, based on the assumption that conflicts are inevitable in social systems and even serve toward the maintenance of these social systems. He noted that groups within any society have an inherent tendency to break apart and then become bound together again by new alliances. In this way, conflicts in one set of relationships are assimilated and compensated for in the resulting alliances. Thus, conflicts are overcome through the medium of alliances and allegiances. Even though the alliances and allegiances are broken and reformed, the social system as a whole is still maintained (Gluckman 2004).

Gluckman always studied African societies in a wider historical context, recognizing that colonization and other influences play a role in social dynamics on the local, tribal level. In his Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand (1940) he distinguished between "pre-colonial," relatively stable forms of conflict, and "colonial" forms of conflict, characterized by violence and unpredictability.

As a professor, Gluckman always encouraged detailed case studies and the use of statistical methods in the analysis of social structure. He tried to imprint in his students the highest standard of scholarship. After he established the department of anthropology at Manchester University, the department soon grew into what became known as the Manchester School of thought.

Manchester School of thought

After his arrival at the University of Manchester, Gluckman started to organize the newly established anthropology department. He gradually gathered a group of colleagues and students who shared his views and interests. This group eventually became known as the Manchester School. Gluckman once said of the Manchester school:

Anthropologists in the Manchester school] are analyzing the development of social relations themselves, under the conflicting pressures of discrepant principles and values, as the generations change and new persons come to maturity. If we view these relations through a longish period of time, we see how various parties and supporters operate and manipulate mystical beliefs of various kinds to serve their interests. The beliefs are seen in dynamic process with day-to-day social life, and the creation and burgeoning of new groups and relationships. (Gluckman 2006; 235)

The main features of the school were:

1. focus on internal, inherent conflicts in society;
2. during studies, the main attention is on the material form of existence, that is how people provide for food and what technology they use;
3. theory that contradictions and inconsistencies are embedded in social life, in a form of contradictory social roles one plays in everyday life or other social phenomena;
4. objects of study were rather small societies.

Other work

Besides his work as a professor and a researcher, Gluckman was a political activist, openly and forcefully anti-colonial. He engaged directly with social conflicts and cultural contradictions of colonialism, with racism, urbanization, and labor migration. He was also active in the development of anthropology in Israel, leading and participating in numerous joint research projects organized by Manchester University and several Israeli universities.


The Manchester School of thought, which had developed during Gluckman’s reign at the University of Manchester, became one of the most distinguished anthropological schools of thought in the western world. Gluckman had considerable influence on several anthropologists and sociologists, including J. Clyde Mitchell, A. L. Epstein, Bruce Kapferer, and Victor Turner. Turner was especially influenced, and with great precision carried on Gluckman’s ideas, further analyzing conflict in society and developing his own theories on the role of ritual in this area.

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