Sir Edmund Leach Biography

Sir Edmund Ronald Leach (7 November 1910 – 6 January 1989) was a British social anthropologist of whom it has been said:

"It is no exaggeration to say that in sheer versatility, originality, and range of writing he was and still is difficult to match among the anthropologists of the English speaking world".

Leach was born in Sidmouth, Devon, the youngest of 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. Leach was educated at Marlborough and Clare College, Cambridge where he graduated with honours in Engineering in 1932.

After leaving Cambridge University Leach 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, an island off the coast of Formosa. Here he took ethnographic notes and made drawings of the Yami.

Back in London Raymond Firth introduced him to Bronisław Malinowski. Leach 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. Leach then joined the Burma Army, where he achieved the rank of Major.

In 1940 Leach 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 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 lecturer at Cambridge University, later being promoted to Reader, and in 1972 receiving a personal Chair. 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. Leach applied his ability of kinship to his disagreement with French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. His book Lévi-Strauss was translated into six languages and ran three editions. His turn of phrase produced memorable quotes, such as this on Lévi-Strauss:

The outstanding characteristic of [Lévi-Strauss' writing], whether in French or English, is that it is difficult to understand; his sociological theories combine baffling complexity with overwhelming erudition. Some readers even suspect that they are being treated to a confidence trick".

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.

Leach's work on Lévi-Strauss is often relied on by other authors. For example, in Richard Wrangham's (2009) book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, he relies on Leach in describing Lévi-Strauss' analysis of cooking in relation to human culture.