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John Arundel Barnes (1918–2010)

by Michael Allen

John Barnes, by Marlee Maxwell, 1987

John Barnes, by Marlee Maxwell, 1987

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-675

John Arundel Barnes was born in Reading, England, on 9 September 1918. His education began at the early age of five when he was taught how to read by one of his neighbourhood playmates, a six-year-old girl. When he enrolled a year later in Clooneavon House School his teachers were surprised to find that he had already acquired this basic educational skill. In 1929 he moved to Christ’s Hospital School near Horsham in Surrey, and in 1935 won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where, for the next two years, he read mathematics. In his third year he decided to move to the Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos and soon found the social anthropology of Africa to be especially interesting. After meeting Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Fortes and Gluckman on a visit to Oxford, he resolved to pursue a career in anthropology, despite Fortes’ warning that he might need a private income!

In 1939, as his first step in pursuit of this financially dangerous ambition, John planned to enrol as a PhD student at Harvard University. But when war broke out a short while later, he decided that the threat of Nazism was such that, despite his strongly held pacifist ideals, he should join the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. He served for four years as an observer and a navigator in the Pacific, including a spell of nine months with the United States Navy in the Coral Sea, and in 1944 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

When the war ended John applied for and was awarded a research fellowship in the Rhodes Livingstone Institute in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where he joined Max Gluckman, Clyde Mitchell, the Marwicks and Elizabeth Colson. After a brief course on how to carry out fieldwork, he and his wife Frances spent much of the next two years carrying out research amongst the Ngoni in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Malawi). Two important books resulted from this research: Marriage in a Changing Society (1951) and Politics in a Changing Society: A Political History of the Fort Jameson Ngoni (1954). As was evident in their titles, John chose to break with the hitherto prevailing focus in British anthropology on the study of social institutions as structured and functionally integrated systems in what was conveniently referred to as ‘the ethnographic present’. Instead, in both of John’s books, change and historical process were given priority over structure and continuity. John’s stance on this issue has been amply vindicated in the subsequent history of his chosen discipline.

After returning to England with his family in 1949, John lectured for two years in University College London. In 1951 he was awarded an Oxford DPhil in social anthropology and a short while later he took up a Simon Fellowship at Manchester University. With Max Gluckman’s encouragement, he spent 14 months carrying out field research in a fishing community on Bremnes Island in southwest Norway. As in his African research, John was more interested in history, politics and change than in formal social structures and institutions, focusing in particular on changing patterns of land tenure and on complex networks of social relations amongst the fishing folk. He claimed that the concept of social network first came to him when admiring the intricate physical patterns of his informants’ fishing nets. In his subsequent publications based on his Bremnes research, most notably in an influential paper titled ‘Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish’ (1954), he developed the notion of social network into a sophisticated analytical tool, which subsequently was endorsed and yet further developed by his colleagues at Manchester, most notably Max Gluckman, Elizabeth Bott and Clyde Mitchell. A few years later, Seigfried Nadel also espoused Barnes’ use of network analysis in his brilliant though difficult book The Theory of Social Structure (1957). Needless to say, network analysis has continued to loom large in the social sciences, not to mention its contemporary reincarnation in the form of digital networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

In 1956, after two years of lecturing in Raymond Firth’s Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, John applied for and was appointed to the Chair of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, recently made vacant through the retirement of A.P. Elkin. It was not long before he began to wonder if he had made a serious blunder in coming to Australia. The first difficulty that he encountered was that Elkin was not taking his retirement as seriously as John might have wished; in particular, retaining his editorship of the important journal Oceania for the next 20 years. But more seriously, John found the Malinowskian brand of functionalism taught by most of his colleagues not at all to his taste. To add to his woes, the university, in common with all state-funded Australian universities during this period, was seriously underfunded, hence he saw little opportunity for either himself or his students to carry out field research. At this time, I was myself enrolled in the university as an MA Qualifying student in anthropology and in John’s first full year of teaching I was a fourth-year honours student. I recollect with the utmost pleasure my excitement at the discovery, through John’s stimulating lectures, that there was the possibility of an anthropological world beyond structural functionalism, in particular the Manchester school’s focus on change, process, history and political economy. Nor was I alone in my positive reaction, for when John left Sydney in 1958 to take up the Chair of Anthropology in the Research School of Pacific Studies at The Australian National University, he took with him as his first ANU doctoral students not only myself but also two of my fellow fourth-year honours students, Les Hiatt in anthropology and Frank Lancaster Jones, who subsequently turned to demography. In 1957, just before he applied for the ANU chair, John was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

John never did fieldwork in either Australia or the Pacific, though during his 10 years in Canberra he travelled widely in Papua New Guinea and in outback Australia, often visiting field sites of colleagues and postgraduate students. But lack of fieldwork did not prevent him from reading widely in the anthropological literature and, on this basis, he produced a number of seminal articles that had a major impact on subsequent research in both areas. Most notable was his brief article titled ‘African Models in the New Guinea Highlands’ (1967), in which he challenged hitherto widespread assumptions about the nature and importance of descent groups and lineages in the area. It must surely be one of the most widely cited papers in Melanesian anthropology. Though his contribution to the anthropology of the Australian Aborigines (‘Inquest on the Murngin’, 1967) is today less quoted than his African models article, having been rendered somewhat redundant by subsequent detailed field research amongst the Murngin (Yolgnu), it too was a product of library research and at the time succeeded in mounting a convincing critique of the numerous earlier contributions to the famous Murngin controversy by such luminaries as Warner, Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss.

During John’s 10 years at the ANU an impressive stream of publications was produced by members of the department and a substantial number of students gained their doctorates and university appointments in anthropology. The greatest concentration of effort was in the New Guinea highlands, with the remaining research carried out in parts of Asia and the Pacific, extending from Afghanistan to Polynesia. In collaboration with Stanner, John played an important part in the founding of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra, and he served as an executive member in 1962–63.

In 1969 John was appointed to the first Chair in Sociology at Cambridge University, a move he soon came to regret, in part because he had become so fond of Australia, most especially its unique bush, though also because he soon discovered that the Cambridge dons feared sociology as a possibly subversive discipline in a period of unusual student unrest, and hence were reluctant to grant the discipline full autonomy. Nevertheless, during his 13 years there he managed to produce an impressive stream of publications including three books, 50 articles and some 40 book reviews. His Three Styles of Kinship (1971) is a detailed and critical analysis of the writings of three leading scholars in the study of kinship—Murdock, Fortes and Lévi-Strauss. For anyone interested in kinship theory, which has loomed so large in much of the history of anthropology, this highly sophisticated book is still essential reading. Another major concern of John’s during the 1970s was with the difficult issue of professional ethics in the social sciences in general and in anthropology in particular. His Who Should Know What? Social Science, Privacy and Ethics (1979) is an important contribution to a difficult and controversial topic.

John took early retirement in 1982 and in 1984 he returned to the ANU as Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology, then headed by his erstwhile student Frank Jones. In 1990 he published Models and Interpretations: Selected Essays. The collection covers a wide variety of topics in sociology and anthropology, including lineage systems, social networks, colonialism, underlying assumptions of social science, and the significance of time in social analysis. This was followed in 1994 by A Pack of Lies: Towards a Sociology of Lying, an entertaining and wise discussion of the nature and role of deception in society, including its use in social science research. He looks at societies with distinctive religious and ethical traditions where lying is the norm. He also demonstrates how children acquire the capacity to lie at an early age and learn when it is appropriate to do so.

By 1998 long-distance flying became increasingly problematic for both John and Frances, and they returned permanently to a small village outside Cambridge. Despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than 10 years, John nevertheless managed to write a substantial, entertaining and informative memoir titled Humping my Drum (1997). In the final paragraph he remarked, as always insightfully, ‘though my head lies in Britain, my heart lies in Australia’. He died on 13 September 2010 aged 92. His wife, Frances, their four children and eight grandchildren survived him. Frances died in December of the same year.

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Citation details

Michael Allen, 'Barnes, John Arundel (1918–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John Barnes, by Marlee Maxwell, 1987

John Barnes, by Marlee Maxwell, 1987

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-675

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1918
Reading, Berkshire, England


13 September, 2010 (aged 92)

Cause of Death


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