Volume 75 1966 > Volume 75, No. 1 > Obituary: Ernest Beaglehole, 1906-1965, by J. E. Ritchie, p 108 - 119
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OBITUARY ERNEST BEAGLEHOLE 1906-1965
Ernest Beaglehole was for many years a member of the Polynesian Society; he served on its council, and contributed to this Journal. His research on Pacific peoples which extended over thirty years included field experience in five Polynesian cultures and constitutes a remarkable record of ethnological reporting and ethno-psychological interpretation. His career was rich not only in academic honours and productive scholarship but also in that inspired teaching for which so many of his students will remember him. His outlook was eclectic, his experience international.
As a young man he left this country to furnish his mind with the best that overseas scholars could offer, but equally determined to return to his homeland, there to place his scholarship at the disposal of his future students and community. He was a brilliant teacher and those who studied under his direction were able therefore to profit from the knowledge he could so ably impart and from the sense of contact with the mainstream of the disciplines he represented and advanced; by his international stature he overcame whatever limitations a commitment to teaching and research in New Zealand might have imposed.
Ernest Beaglehole was born in 1906 in Wellington, New Zealand. He trained first as a teacher and at the same time studied at the Victoria University College of the University of New Zealand where his teachers included Sir Thomas Hunter. From Hunter, one of Victoria's great teachers, he acquired the foundations of his interdisciplinary interests and his deep concern for, and commitment to, the social sciences as disciplines in which pure and applied aspects are inextricably linked. Hunter's rationalism was one of the earliest and firmest strands of Ernest Beaglehole's own philosophy. By precept, anecdote and quotation Hunter's tradition lived on in the teaching of Ernest Beaglehole.
Hunter and the tenor of the times directed Beaglehole into his first research—a library thesis on social aspects of propaganda in which was evident his life-long interest in social change, attitude formation and development, and social influence and control. With a Masters degree with first class honours in - 110 psychology behind him, he was drawn to the London School of Economics, where he studied with Graham Wallas and Hobhouse and took a seminar with Laski. In 1931 he took his doctorate under Ginsberg, with a research study of the psychological basis of property. Even to the present this study has remained the only comprehensive one of its kind. It is interesting to examine the seminal character of this work both for the way it expresses the orientation of its writer and for the way it prefigures so much that was to happen in the fields to which it related. The elements of both his personal career and of the developing new field of culture and personality, are there. The scope of the examination, for this was primarily a study of motivation, extended all the way from animal behaviour and the biological foundations of acquisitive behaviour, to individual and anthropological aspects; it was an essay on the nature of human nature, a topic with which Ernest Beaglehole was concerned throughout all his writing right until his last major contribution. An enormous literature is carefully researched. The data are clearly presented in chapters which open with a question and end with a summary and an answer. As a whole the book ends with a plea for greater study of the way culture patterns and family practices produce acquisitive behaviour. The technique used is also interesting particularly the tabulation of data from 30 cultures, a remarkable pre-view of the style of research which was later to develop at Yale and which eventually became the Human Relations Area File. In this section of Property one also detects ideas remarkably close to those which Benedict developed in Patterns of Culture, even though Property predates it by two years. He did not merely follow trends; he contributed to their making.
From London Ernest Beaglehole went on a Commonwealth Fund Scholarship to Yale where he joined Sapir, Peter Buck, Margaret Mead and many others in the heady intellectual climate of that place at that time.
It was a time of great ferment and change within anthropology. Edward Sapir had attracted to Yale an extraordinary group of the most brilliant anthropological scholars of the time. As a group their dominant interest was in the extension of psychological thinking, psycho-analysis in particular, to the understanding of symbolism, language, custom and culture.
Over the years he spent at Yale Ernest Beaglehole made many friends. Peter Buck was then on leave from the Bishop Museum as visiting professor at Yale. They spent long hours together discussing Polynesian matters and later when Ernest Beaglehole went to Honolulu their friendship grew and deepened. Before his death Ernest Beaglehole had been planning to write a life of Buck, but lack of time and uncertain health prevented him from carrying the project very far.
Under a Sterling Fellowship from Yale he did two summers of fieldwork amongst the Hopi of the Second Mesa. In a way the theme of these researches was an extension of his work on property. He was interested in the ethnopsychology of the daily work of living. The published reports include brief statements of his growing interest in acculturation, culture contact and social change. He had been during this time a Special Consultant on Indian Education to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was aided in the Hopi fieldwork by Pearl (Pam) Malsin who became his wife and who joined with him in so much of his fieldwork and his writings.
The Bishop Museum was at this time a field station for Yale University. It was through this association that Ernest Beaglehole was able, at long last, to return to the Pacific. Supported by a Museum Fellowship, he undertook research on a Polynesian atoll, Pukapuka, and later, as a research associate of the University of Hawaii, in Hawaii itself. The preparations were over; the full career had begun.- 111
The ethnology of Pukapuka is a model of its kind. Its style is simple and elegant. Its coverage is comprehensive. Both Gregory and Buck assisted the Beagleholes in organising the material and what emerged was a thorough and scholarly account. Beaglehole the psychologist is there in the background but the special interests never obtrude. The coverage of material culture, of economic organisation and of formal social organisation make this a sound ethnology. The sections on the life cycle and non-material culture fill out the complete record and lift it beyond the ordinary. Of all his writing this is the item which anthropologists generally hold in highest regard.
Later he published a more personal memoir of the seven and a half months spent on Pukapuka, titled, Islands of Danger. In the introduction to this book he warns the reader not to construe it as a fragment of personal history and yet this is what it is. From its pages emerges not only a vivid portrait of the lives of some very engaging Polynesians but also of the man himself; sensitive, tolerant, charming, pragmatic and capable of finding immense delight in the simplest of pleasures, music, quiet musing over a pipe, good talk and the paradoxes, quirks and wonderful variety of human conduct and behaviour.
Though he returned to New Zealand to become a lecturer at Victoria in 1937, the urge to continue field research was irresistible, and in 1939 he spent a summer in Tonga, the results of which were published two years later as a Memoir of this Society. During the same period he was not only contributing articles on various aspects of his studies of Polynesian cultures to a wide variety of academic and other journals and collections but also he wrote a series of major theoretical papers examining the utility of Sullivan's interpersonal theory of psychiatry for social psychology generally. He had met Sullivan through Sapir at Yale and been impressed by the scope of his revolutionary developments in psycho-analysis. Ernest Beaglehole's writing on this theme culminated in his 1944 article on the concept of character structure, now a classic in the literature of the field. For these and other contributions the University of London awarded him the degree of Doctor of Literature.
In 1940 he returned to the United States for a year where he worked at Santa Rosa, California, in an experimental programme of adult education. This programme was based on the educational philosophy of Alexander Meiklejohn and based in San Francisco. In the programme various representatives of the social sciences, a political scientist, an economist, an historian and an anthropologist were brought together to work in an interdisciplinary way. At the same time he was chairman of a United States National Research Council Committee on the study of primitive children.
On his return he began the first of two research studies on contemporary Maori communities. This fieldwork in 1941 and 1942 was eventually reported in a book, co-authored with his wife, titled Some Modern Maoris. It was, and remains, a trail-breaking and remarkable study for it initiated a new research style in the study of the New Zealand Maori and applied the concept of character structure to the analysis of the data.
Shortly after this book was published Ernest Beaglehole was off once more, this time to Aitutaki in the summer of 1948-49. The full report of this work did not appear till the publication of Social Change in the South Pacific in 1955. The historical sections of that book were researched by Pam Beaglehole in the files of the London Missionary Society in London during study leave in 1949.
In 1948 he was appointed to the Chair of Psychology at Victoria in succession to Hunter who became full-time principal of the College. Though he had briefly taught a course called Man in Culture in 1939, students at Victoria might never have been aware that they were learning their psychology from a distinguished anthropologist until in 1951 he prepared and taught a graduate - 112 course in ethno-psychology which gave full scope to his scholarship and power in the field of his special interest.
The Royal Society had made him a Fellow in 1947 and this recognition of his leading role in social science in New Zealand was furthered by the award of the Hector Medal in 1950. He also became a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Further recognition came in 1951 when he was appointed as New Zealand representative to the International Labour Office Committee of Experts on Indigenous Labour. He was elected to the Chair at the second session of this committee in 1954, and became Chairman of its successor body, the International Labour Office Panel of Consultants on Indigenous and Tribal Populations. Those associated with him in this work write of his exceptional insight into the problems of indigenous populations, his staunch championship of the principle of integration aided by special measures to facilitate the progress of indigenous people towards it, and of the contribution he made to the launching of the Andean Indian Programme. This programme developed out of a United Nations Mission which Ernest Beaglehole headed and directed in 1952 and 1953 to alleviate the social, economic and educational problems of the Indian populations of the high Andes. The mission reported in terms which led directly to action by the Governments of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, severally and collectively.
This programme, in the words of the Deputy Director, I.L.O., (Mr. Jef. Rens), establishes in no uncertain terms that “indigenous populations are perfectly capable of being transformed quickly into excellent producers and conscientious and active citizens”, furthermore the operational centres set up under the programmes have been gradually assimilated into the structure of general administration of the countries concerned and have thus produced a new sense of solidarity between these countries with common geographic boundaries. Beaglehole sought no glory for his role in this work, or any other, and indeed rarely mentioned it, yet it is a matter of record that his years of study and research helped profoundly to benefit thousands of poverty stricken Indians on a treeless arid mountain wasteland, who had never heard his name, nor met him, nor knew that they had cause to honour him.
His final research role and his second team research venture was an attempt to explore further the concept of character structure, its utility and relevance to cultural analysis. The team worked in the Urewera location which they later called Rakau. Ernest Beaglehole himself visited the field only once, and then but briefly, but he directed the programme throughout and supervised the reporting of material from these studies which were published in the monograph series of the Department of Psychology. His role was that of the questioner, searching for new techniques, new hypotheses, new ways of not only describing but of conceptualising human behaviour, working with his students rather than in the field. From 1959 onwards he had a succession of graduate students working on a wide variety of psychological and ethno-psychological problems and had the satisfaction of seeing the development of graduate studies within his department.
In 1956 he lectured on ethno-psychology at several British Universities at the invitation of the British Council. These lectures summed up his whole background and experience and they continued to form the basis of his seminars and much of his thinking and writing until his death. In 1964 the Royal Society again honoured him by inviting him to deliver the Hudson Lecture, where he returned once more to a problem of definition which had always been his direct enquiry: what is the nature of human nature, is it something fixed or fluid, how can it be described, what is its relationship to social and cultural change and to social factors in evolution? The answers he gave in 1964 were in a way as indefinite as those he gave in Property in 1932 but reflected - 113 the subtlety and sensitivity of thirty years of thought and scholarship. Human nature, he concludes, like all living matter, is in a process of continuous change and evolution; each new technology, each new idea demands its re-definition. Man's most striking capacity is that of adaption to change, his potential unrealised, neither in the lifetime of an individual nor from generation to generation, his greatest resource his variation. In an unpublished paper he speaks of human nature as something not fixed but responsive to the changes of the culture in which it exists and through which it is given expression. Culture change can be regarded as a progression. It is cumulative. It flows in the direction of freedom from magic and superstition. It moves towards freedom from physiological and anatomical limitations. It is marked by an increasing reliance on science and technology to improve the lot of man. As culture changes so too the content of human nature, and probably its structure also, change in parallel form. The idea is a complex one, as rich in implication as it is richly supported by the years of study which lay behind it.
We of the Polynesian Society have special cause to note the consequence as well as the content of Ernest Beaglehole's work. A report prepared in 1920 for the First Pan-Pacific Science Conference in Honolulu had pointed to the urgent need for skilled anthropological reporting of Polynesian cultures which to that date had been recorded only in untrained and unsystematic research. By the time he was ready to begin fieldwork in the Pacific, the Bishop Museum had taken up the challenge and so the study of Pukapuka was added to the catalogue of cultures saved in their indigenous form for the research of future scholars. Writing in 1937, Ernest Beaglehole repeated the urgency of the need, pointed out the gaps remaining and called especially for the study of the personal meaning of these cultures to those whose possession they were; this to be done by the then new methods of life history compilation, the study of cultural conditioning and socialization, and by the analysis of configurational patterns. At the same time he envisaged eventual study of Polynesian culture as a whole as well as in the categories and sub-categories of particular cultures or culture groups within the area. When this picture was complete then the full picture of development would emerge, the special seen as a development of the general. Bright and clear as this vision was it could never be realised; change, and in particular war, overtook the whole programme before its essential components were complete. He did as much as any man could do to make it a reality. Anthropology in New Zealand can be no longer described in his phrase, as “the poor sister of the sciences, lacking dowry, dress or home” and its development here was profoundly influenced by Ernest Beaglehole and his work.
Beaglehole changed his research style along with the changes overtaking Pacific peoples and indeed the changes themselves became the object of his studies. In studying social change the essential role of psychological understanding was very clear to him from the outset. Character structure was the filter or screen mediating social change. Anxieties, resistances, areas of conflict or defence had to be understood to explain the acceptance or rejection of specific innovations. The personalities of the disaffected were as important as those of the conforming majority. The relation between statuses and the development of personality throughout life must be studied.
Ernest Beaglehole's work on social and personal change in Polynesia reached culmination in his Maori research. Here one sees character structure emerging as a powerful analytic tool to be used along with economic and structural analysis to understand the dynamics of culture change. Indeed he once wrote that “it is the value system of the communities concerned that provides the key to understanding social action not ecology or economics or history.” And character structure is the psychological expression of such - 114 cultural values. One sees too the opening of a truly modern study of modern Maoris using the concepts and techniques of social psychology, the study of personality and of sociology as well as those of anthropology. The reaction of those studied was not always one of approval but such reactions, while never viewed by him without concern, were placed in the perspective of his scientific objectivity, in his own phrase “the disinterested pursuit of truth”. His answer to such criticism was as definite as it was sympathetic; change is a human characteristic; the future must be built on real understanding not on mutual myths or self-deceptions; the future will demand more change and more rapid change; the social scientist cannot offer a blueprint but what he can offer he modestly should for he bears a responsibility not only as a scientist but as a human being to see that policy is enlightened.
This was, I think, well understood by Buck when he wrote his foreword to Some Modern Maoris. It must have been something of a shock to him to realise, from the facts presented in the book, how great a change had occurred amongst his people since he left his homeland eighteen years before. He did not doubt the truth of these facts and he appreciated the necessity of presenting them however distasteful they might seem. His regard for Ernest Beagle-hole and his respect for his work were very great and though he had some reservations about the theoretical aspects of the study he put these into a nice balance with his appreciation.
Buck wanted this book to be well received, to have an impact of the right kind and not be lost in irrelevant controversy. The foreword did much to achieve this. The book as a whole helped to create a new climate of awareness of the dangers of complacency about Maori social problems. Perhaps we missed taking an opportunity then which it is now impossible to make good, for if Ernest Beaglehole and Peter Buck had been able to combine on some sequence of Maori studies this would have produced quite extraordinary results. There was a rapport between them of quite uncommon quality.
As the integrity of each primitive cultural mould is broken by the intrusion of another, the pace of change must increase as all of mankind searches for new ways to satisfy old values and to affirm new values to suit new circumstances. In an unpublished paper Beaglehole wrote: “How can we help Maoris today to find anew the values they so desperately need if life is going to be as worthwhile for them as it is for most other people in New Zealand? Not by helping them turn back the clock; not by helping them fix themselves into a culture that is a pale bloodless imitation of some half-way house between aboriginal Maori life and the ongoing life of New Zealand . . . only, I think, by helping them go forward rapidly so that they reach out quickly for full participation in New Zealand life as Maori New Zealanders . . . the days of a Taihoa policy are surely long past . . . Maoris should support for their own sakes in New Zealand more change not less, fast change not slow, radical change not change bit by bit. New horizons mean hope, enthusiasm, energy, challenge.” One hears through his words echoes of his voice quoting Hunter: “The blood on the altars of the ignorant is the blood of the ignorant.” In his work, as in his life, he resolutely turned away from deceptive illusions.
He could bear with any human failing with a patience that was amazing, yet he never condoned stupidity or carelessness. He held before his students a model of scholarship of daunting perfection. His conversation had charm, grace and wit and his seminars continue to provide for many students a vivid recollection of intellectual keenness and excitement. Everything he read or came into contact with was drawn into the stream of his thinking and he would illustrate a point with half a dozen anecdotes or examples all the way from his conversation that morning with the University cleaning lady to a recent novel or some learned book or paper. Those who encountered him, however briefly, - 115 recognised immediately that they were in the presence of wisdom and with it generosity in all things. He combined a toughness of mind with a gentleness of heart and we were privileged to share the fruits of his wisdom, his experience and his humanity.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF WORKS BY ERNEST BEAGLEHOLE