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Sir Edmund Ronald Leach (7 November 1910 – 6 January 1989) was a British social anthropologist.


Personal and academic life

He was provost of King's College, Cambridge from 1966-1979, was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1972 and knighted in 1975. He introduced Claude Lévi-Strauss into British social anthropology.

He was born in Sidmouth, England, the youngest on three children and the son of William Edmund Leach and Mildred Brierley. His father owned and was manager of a sugar plantation in northern Argentina. Edmund was educated at Marlborough and Clare College, Cambridge where he graduated with honors in Medical Sciences in 1932.

In 1940 Edmund married Celia Joyce who was a talented painter and also published two novels. They had a daughter in 1941 and a son in 1946.

After leaving Cambridge University Edmund took a four-year contract in 1933 with Butterfield and Swire in China. He found out after his contract expired that he did not like the business atmosphere and never again was going to sit on an office stool. On his way home he stopped and spent some time among the Yami of Botel Tobago. Here he took ethnographic notes and made drawings of the Yami.

Back in London Raymond Firth introduced him to Bronisław Malinowski. Edmund went to Iraq to study the Kurds, but he abandoned this and went back to London. "He wrote: "I’ve got an enormous amount of ability at almost anything, yet so far I’ve made absolutely no use of it…I seem to be a highly organized piece of mental apparatus for which nobody else has any use" (D.N.B. 258). In 1939 he was going to study the Kachin hills of Burma, but World War II intervened. Edmund then joined the Burmese Army, where he achieved the rank of Major.

After he left the Army in 1946, he became a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics. In 1947 he received a Ph.D. in anthropology at the London School of Economics. In 1953, he became a Professor at Cambridge University of Social Anthropology. He was elected provost of Kings College in 1966 and retired in 1979; President of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1971-1975); a Fellow of the British Academy (from 1972) and was knighted in 1975.

His first major book was Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954); it challenged the theories of social structure and cultural change. His second major work was Pul Eliya, a Village in Ceylon (1961), where he directed his attention to theories of kinship as ideal systems. Edmund applied his ability of kinship to his disagreement with French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss. His book Levi-Strauss was translated into six languages and ran three editions.

He died from a tumor of the brain.


  • Political systems of highland Burma: A study of Kachin social structure (1954). Harvard University Press
  • Rethinking Anthropology (1961). Robert Cunningham and Sons Ltd.
  • Pul Eliya: a village in Ceylon (1961). Cambridge University Press.
  • A Runaway World? (1968). London: BBC.
  • Genesis as Myth and other essays (1969). Jonathan Cape.
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss (1970). Viking Press.
  • Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which Symbols are Connected (1976). Cambridge University Press.
  • Social Anthropology (1982). Oxford University Press.
  • The Essential Edmund Leach Volume 1 and Volume 2 (2001). Yale University Press.


  • Tambiah, Stanley J., Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life (2002). Cambridge University Press.
  • "Leach, Edmund Ronald" Contemporary Authors Vol. 127, Gale Research Inc. 1989.
  • "Leach, Sir Edmund Ronald" Dictionary of National Biography 1986-1990. Oxford University Press 1996.
  • "Leach, Edmund Ronald" International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Garland Publishing 1991.

See also

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Noel Annan
Provost of King's College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Bernard Williams

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