Meyer Fortes (April 25, 1906 – January 27, 1983) was a South African social anthropologist, best known for his studies on kinship, family, and religious beliefs of the Tallensi and Ashanti people in Ghana. He was influential in developing comparative ethnology, particularly with regard to the religious aspects of different cultures. Through objective comparisons between his own Judaism and the religious beliefs of the African tribes he studied, Fortes found numerous similarities. As a trained psychologist and anthropologist, his work focused on the role of religious beliefs in social structures and behavior, not on doctrinal issues. In this way his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of universal common values, supporting the development of harmonious relationships among all people.
Meyer Fortes was born on April 25, 1906, in Britstown, Cape Province, in South Africa. After completing his master’s degree from the University of Cape Town in 1926, and went on to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science at the University of London, where he received his Ph.D. in psychology in 1930.
In 1932, however, he found a new interest in anthropology, receiving his anthropological training from Charles Gabriel Seligman, also studying under Bronislaw Malinowski and Raymond Firth. He specialized in African social structures, and from 1934 to 1937 participated in numerous field studies of Tallensi and Ashanti peoples in Ghana.
Fortes spent much of his career at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He was a reader in social anthropology at Oxford from 1946 to 1950, and then was appointed a director of the anthropology department of Cambridge University in 1950, carrying this duty until 1973. At the same time, he was a professor of social anthropology at King’s College in Cambridge.
Fortes died on January 27, 1983.
Originally trained in psychology, Fortes employed the notion of the "person" into his "structural-functional" analyses of kinship, the family, and ancestor worship, setting the standard for studies on African social organization. His famous book, Oedipus and Job in West African Religion (1959), fused his two interests, making a significant contribution to comparative ethnology.
Most of Fortes' research was done in nations along the Guinea coast of Africa, but his study of the Ashanti and Tallensi established him as the authority in social anthropology. In his two books, The Dynamics of Clanship Among the Tallensi (1945) and The Web of Kinship Among the Tallensi (1949), Fortes wrote about the religions of the peoples of the Upper Volta of Ghana, especially underlining the worship of ancestors and the role it plays in people’s everyday life—particularly in marriage, family, and tribal organization. In addition, Fortes explicitly compared his own religious background of Judaism with the religion of the Tallensi people, finding numerous parallels between the two, such as the importance of the first-born, filial piety, respect for age, and value of kinship.
Along with contemporaries Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Edmund Leach, Audrey Richards, and Lucy Mair, Fortes held strong views that insisted upon empirical evidence in order to generate analyses of society. His monographs on studies of the Tallensi and Ashanti laid the foundations for the theory of descent. This formed the basis of the "structural-functionalism" that dominated social anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fortes contended that social institutions, like family or tribe, were the building blocks of society and the key to maintaining the harmony of the social whole. Through studying those institutions, especially their political and economic development, he believed that one could understand the development of the society as a whole.
Fortes also collaborated with Edward E. Evans-Pritchard on the volume African Political Systems (1940), which established the principles of segmentation and balanced opposition. These principles became the hallmark of African political anthropology.
Despite his work in French-speaking West Africa and numerous books published in the French language, Fortes was greatly respected in the Anglo-Saxon world. His work on political systems exerted great influence on other British anthropologists. Through the work of Max Gluckman, Fortes' work played a role in shaping what became known as the Manchester School of Social Anthropology, which emphasized the problems of working in colonial central Africa.
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