Dr Ray Abrahams: Curriculum Vitae

Introduction to CV

This Introduction sets out the main areas of my research. References are to works listed under Publications.

Regionally, I have mainly contributed to the study of eastern Africa (especially Tanzania and Uganda) and north-eastern Europe (Finland and Estonia), (cf. 1967a and b, 1981, 1985a, 1991a, 1994a, 1994b, 1999a and b). After two decades of concentration upon Africa, I began work in eastern Finland in order to broaden my research experience, while maintaining my African connections. The advent of perestroika and glasnost made investigations in culturally and linguistically related Estonia both interesting and feasible, and I was the first foreign social scientist to work in rural Estonia. This drew me into new networks of links with scholars working on other areas of eastern and central Europe (see conferences).

My research in these regions has largely focused on the lives and strategies of rural populations in their political and economic relations with the state and other institutions of the wider society. This focus has been a unifying element in my work, providing possibilities of comparison both within and between regions. Thus, I have been able to witness successful struggles against 'colonialism' (British and Soviet respectively) in the two regions, especially in Tanzania and Estonia, and to study the impact on village life of socialist policies, or their threat, and their subsequent dismantling under later regimes. I have also worked on the patterns of social and economic co-operation which villagers in both areas have generated for themselves at the neighbourhood level, and I have been interested in Finland and Estonia in the paradoxical relation between such co-operation and the deep-seated individualism which is said to mark the culture and society of both countries (1991a, 1994b and e).

Within this same broad field, I have also had a long-standing interest in forms of local level social control. This began in my first work in Tanzania (1957-60), where I studied the relation between village-level courts and those of the wider chiefdom and colonial state systems (1967a). More recently, I have paid particular attention to the phenomenon of vigilantism. This subject raises interesting questions about the legitimacy and power of the state, but it has been relatively neglected by anthropologists and other social scientists. I first studied vigilantism in post-colonial Tanzania, but it is historically and geographically extremely widespread, tending to appear wherever the state fails to provide locally desired levels of justice and order. Having published several papers on its emergence in the Tanzanian countryside (1987a, 1989b, 1993a), I turned to the broader study of its nature and significance as a commonly illegal form of crime control. A paper analysing its main features (1996b) was followed by a book Vigilant Citizens: Vigilantism and the State (1998) and further papers (2001, 2002c and d, 2003, 2007, 2008 forthcoming).

A further research interest has been the relation between past and present in society (cf. 1990c). I have been particularly interested in the middle and long-term persistence of structural features in both Tanzania (1967a, 1989b) and Estonia (1994b). This last work analyses both continuities and transformations in the agrarian history of Estonia. It pays particular attention to continuities in the conjunction and conflict between different evaluations of land as a social and economic resource and, relatedly, to different perceptions of the merits of small-scale family farming and large-scale estate, collective or company forms of agricultural enterprise.

I have also paid considerable attention to family and kinship organisation. Much of this work has concerned the dynamics of family farm organisation, including both shorter and longer-term relations between families and land (cf. 1981, 1991a, 1995a).

An ongoing interest is the historical European institution of retrait lignager whereby kin may retain residual rights in inherited property which one of them has sold outside the family. A paper in preparation explores some of the implications of this custom and some comparable features of property holding in Africa and elsewhere. I have also analysed the structure of both rural Finnish and west-central Tanzanian kinship systems, highlighting the problems of understanding these in terms of current typologies and clarifying the differences between them and systems based on forms of unilineal descent and some other principles (1978b, 1991a). A major focus of my research has been the relation between kinship and other forms and levels of organization such as neighbourhood (1965, 1967a, 1977, 1991a), age-organisation (1978a), village soviets (1992b) and the wider society and economy (1989a, 1991a and b). I have also examined some aspects of the relation between kinship and identity (1973) and between kinship and new medical developments, especially organ transplantation, in Britain and elsewhere (1991b, 1992c).

In addition to my own first hand research, I have also acted as research supervisor and advisor to many students and others in related areas to my own. Most of this research has been in Africa, though I have also had students working in Greece, Italy, Russia, USA, and the Baltic States. I have been particularly pleased to give academic support to many African students (from Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa) both in their PhD research and in their work for publication (cf. 1993a, 1994a).

Curriculum Vitae

Personal Details

Born 17.6.34, married 1962, 3 children.


1945-53: Manchester Grammar School

1953-57: Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, BA (Classics, Social Anthropology)

1957-62: PhD, Cambridge, in Social Anthropology (thesis on Nyamwezi politics in Tanzania)


1957-60: Junior Research Fellow, Makerere

1961-2: Research Assistant, University College, London

1963-7: Assistant Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Cambridge

1967: Research Fellow, Makerere (6 months)

1967-1998: University Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Cambridge

1969-current: Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge


R.A.I. Rivers Memorial Medal, 1996 for research and publications over the preceding five years.

Fieldwork experience

1957-64: Fieldwork in west-central Tanzania (2 years 3 months) on local politics and village and family organization and co-operation (Makerere Research Fellowship).

1967: Fieldwork in Labwor, Karamoja, northern Uganda (1 year) on age-organization and other features of social and political life (British Academy, Makerere and Cambridge supported).

1974-5: Further fieldwork (5.5 months) in west-central Tanzania on social change and ujamaa socialism (SSRC supported).

1978: Short research visit to Tanzania.

1979: Research for Halcrow, ULG in southern Tanzania (ODA funded) on the social implications of a proposed irrigated rice scheme.

1980-1: Fieldwork in North Karelia, Finland on family farms and rural development (ESRC supported).

1982: Research visit to south-east Tanzania (1 month) to advise ODA on social research needs in the area.

1982: Further fieldwork (two months) in North Karelia, Finland.

1986: Visit to Tanzania (February and March) to explore new research projects on village vigilantism and other topics.

1991: Further visit to north-west and south-west Tanzania (February and March).

1991-2: Fieldwork in Estonia (spring and summer 1991 and summer 1992) on privatisation of agriculture (ESRC East-West Research Initiative supported).

1994 & 1996: Brief revisits to Estonia.

Recent conferences

  1. 15th European Congress of Rural Sociology, Wageningen, Holland (2-6 August) as a participant in the sessions devoted to eastern European agricultural development and change. My paper is included in a special issue of Sociologia Ruralis (1994e).
  2. In September 1993, I organized a three day ESRC-funded workshop in the Møller Centre, Churchill College, on the 'Privatisation of Agriculture in Eastern Europe' attended by social scientists from Hungary, Poland and Estonia in addition to UK experts in this field (see 1996a).
  3. Invited participant at conference of medical and social scientists on Culture, Kinship and Genes organized at Abergavenny from the Universities of Cardiff and Manchester, March 1994.
  4. Invited participant at an international conference organized by Professor M. Branch of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at Iitti in Finland (June 3-5, 1994) on Identity and the Writing of National Histories in the N.E. Baltic Region (1999a).
  5. I attended the Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, Oslo, June 24-27, 1994 (1996b).
  6. Paper on 'Continuities and Changes in Estonia' at a workshop on Rural Social Transformations in Eastern Europe in the University of Liverpool on February 3, 1995.
  7. Paper on 'The Transformation of Rural Estonia?' at Estonia Day seminar held in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, March 31, 1995.
  8. Papers on 'A Comparison of Finnish and Estonian Family Farming' and on 'The Future of Family Farming in Eastern Europe' at a conference in Krakow, May 29-31, 1995 (see 1995).
  9. Paper on Land Reform in Eastern Europe at the 16th Congress of the European Society for Rural Sociology, Prague, July 31 - August 4, 1995.
  10. Paper on 'Rural Transformations in Estonia' at the conference of the European Sociological Association, Budapest, August 30 - September 2, 1995.
  11. Paper on Vigilantism for Workshop on Morals of Legitimacy, University of Kent, September 1996 (see 2001).
  12. Invited to AAA, San Francisco, November 2000 and delivered 'Distinguished Lecture' ('Anthropology and the Inner Frontiers of The State') to Anthropology of Europe division (see 2002c).
  13. Paper presented at ASA Conference Sussex (see 2002a).
  14. Invited as participant to give 'Keynote Address' to Global Vigilantes workshop organized by D. Pratten and A. Sen, Sussex, 2005 (see 2007).
  15. Invited discussant at workshop on African Vigilantes and Militias 2005 organised in Halle by T. Kirsch and T. Grätz (German Anthropological Association Conference, October 2005), (2008 forthcoming).

Recent Academic Visits

  1. Invited visit to the Universities of Tampere and Jyväskylä in Finland to discuss my Estonian work at a conference and to advise Professor I. Alanen on his forthcoming Estonian research, December 1993.
  2. Took up invitations to spend May 1994 at the Baltic Studies Centre in the University of Stockholm and the European Centre in Gothenburg. This visit was funded by the ESRC International Exchange Programme.
  3. Invited visit to the Department of Sociology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, mid-June 1994
  4. Invited visit to European Research Centre, Gothenburg University to lecture on Agrarian Change in Eastern Europe, December 1996.



1967a: The Political Organization of Unyamwezi, Cambridge. (pp. xvi, 208).

1967b: The Peoples of Greater Unyamwezi, International African Institute, London. (pp. 92).

1981: The Nyamwezi Today: a Tanzanian People in the 1970s, Cambridge. (pp. xiv, 144).

1985a (editor): Villagers, Villages and the State in Modern Tanzania, Cambridge African Studies Centre monograph. (pp. 167).

1991a: A Place of Their Own: Family Farming in Eastern Finland, Cambridge. (pp. ix, 205).

1994a (editor): Witchcraft in Contemporary Tanzania, Cambridge African Studies Centre monograph.(pp.93). (This volume puts together edited papers from a workshop which I ran at the African Studies Association of the UK biennial conference in September 1992).

1994b (overall editor and co-author with J. Kahk): Barons and Farmers: Continuity and Transformation in Rural Estonia (1816-1994), University of Gothenburg. (pp. 169).

1996a (editor): After Socialism: Land Reform and Rural Transformation in Eastern Europe, Berghahn Books, Oxford (pp. ix, 221).

1998: Vigilant Citizens: Vigilantism and the State, Polity Press (pp. viii, 192)

Articles and Reports

1961: "Kahama Township" in Southall (ed) Social Change in Modern Africa, 242-53, Oxford.

1965: "Neighbourhood Organization; A Major Sub-system among the Northern Nyamwezi", Africa, XXXV, 168-86, April 1965.

1966: "Succession to the Chiefship in Northern Unyamwezi" in Goody (ed) Succession to High Office, 127-41, Cambridge.

1970: "The Political Incorporation of non-Nyamwezi Immigrants among the Nyamwezi of Tanzania" in Cohen and Middleton (eds) From Tribe to Nation in Africa, 93-113, Scranton, Pa.

1972a: "Spirit, Twins and Ashes in Labwor" in LaFontaine (ed) The Interpretation of Ritual, 115-34, Tavistock.

1972b: "Reaching an Agreement over Bridewealth in Labwor" in Kuper and Richards (eds) Councils in Action, 202-15, Cambridge.

1973: "Some Aspects of Levirate" in Goody (ed) The Character of Kinship, 163-74, Cambridge.

1976: "Synopsis of Research in Unyamwezi 1974-5" in Architectural Psychology Newsletter, VI, 2, 1975.

1977: "Time and Village Structure in Northern Unyamwezi", Africa, XXXVII, 372-85, 1977.

1978a: "Aspects of Labwor Age and Generation Grouping and Related Systems" in Baxter and Almagor (eds) Age, Generation and Time, 37-67, Hurst.

1978b: "Aspects of the Distinction between the Sexes in the Nyamwezi and some other African Systems of Kinship and Marriage" in LaFontaine (ed) Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation, 67-87, Tavistock.

1979: Report to Halcrow on Social Implications of a Rice Scheme in Madibira, Tanzania.

1982: Report to ODA on Social Research Needs in Mtwara and Lindi Regions, Tanzania.

1984: "Co-operation on and between Eastern Finnish Family Farms" in Long (ed) Family and Work in Rural Societies, 99-115, Tavistock.

1985b: Introduction to "Villagers" volume, 1-15.

1985c: "Family, Farm and Wider Society: the Finnish Case", Ethnos, 50, 40-59, 1985.

1985d: "A Modern Witch-hunt among the Lango of Uganda", Cambridge Anthropology, 32-45, 1985 (Memorial Issue for Audrey Richards).

1986a: "Dual organization in Labwor?", Ethnos, 88-104, 1986.

1986b: "Anthropology among one's Affines", Anthropology Today, April, 18-20, 1986.

1987a: "Sungusungu: Village Vigilante Groups in Tanzania", African Affairs, April, 179-96, 1987.

1987b: "Third World Sociology and Anthropology" in Proceedings of a Seminar on Engineering in Developing Countries, Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

1987c: "The Name of the Game",, Cambridge Anthropology, 11, 2, 15-20. (commentary on and co-published with a paper by Leach on ethnography as fiction).

1988a: "Life Goes on behind God's Back" in Ingold (ed) Social Implications of Agrarian Change in N. and E. Finland, 48-62, Helsinki.

1988b: "Two East African Entrepreneurs", Cambridge Anthropology, 12, 1, 1-14, 1987.

1989a: "Heating, Lighting and a Decent Funeral: Wills and Contracts among Finnish farming Families", Ethnos, 1-2, 45-62, 1989.

1989b: "Law and Order and the State in the Nyamwezi and Sukuma area of Tanzania", Africa, 59, 3, 354-68, 1989.

1990a: "Old Master, Young Master: Retirement on Finnish Farms" in Spencer (ed) Anthropology and the Riddle of the Sphinx, 156-66, Routledge.

1990b: "Edmund Leach. Some early memories", Cambridge Anthropology, 13, 3, 19-30, 1989-90.

1990c: "Chaos and Kachin", Anthropology Today, 6, 3, 15-17 (an Estonian version of this paper has also been published in Acta et Commentationes Universitatis Tartuensis: Studia Philosophica, I (37), 1993).

1991b: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?" in Shapiro (ed) On the Generation and Maintenance of the Person, Special Issue No.1 Australian Journal of Anthropology, 131-46. (A Finnish version of this paper on aspects of organ transplantation was published in Journal of Social Medicine, Helsinki, 1991.)

1991c: "Ancient Law and Modern Fieldwork" in Diamond A. (ed) The Victorian Achievement of Sir Henry Maine, 185-92, Cambridge.

1991d: "The Nyamwezi and Sukuma" in Encyclopedia of World Cultures. (3500 word entry) Human Relations Area Files.

1992a: "Back to the future? Rural Estonia in 1991", Churchill Review, 14-16, 1991.

1992b: "The Emergence of New Family Farmers: The Countryside of Estonia in Transition" in D. Lane (ed) Russia in Flux, 133-48.

1992c: CA* Comment on Chris Shore "Virgin Births and Sterile Debates: Anthropology and the New Reproductive Technologies", Current Anthropology, 33, 3, 302, June 1992.

1993a: With S.Bukurura. "Party, Bureaucracy and Grass-Roots Initiatives in a Socialist State: The Case of Sungusungu Vigilantes in Tanzania", in Hann (ed) Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practices, 92-101, Routledge.

1993b: Comment on "Explaining incest in Graeco-Roman Egypt" in Man, 28, 3, 599, 1993.

1993c: "Witchcraft in modern Tanzania", Bulletin of the Britain-Tanzania Society, No. 45, 11-13, May 1993.

1993d: Article on Vigilantism in The Guardian, PS Column, 1.7.1993.

1993e: Report to ESRC on East-West Comparative Research project (1991 and 1992) on the Privatisation of Agriculture in Estonia and comparisons with Finland. (pp. 16).

1994c: "Introduction" to Witchcraft in Contemporary Tanzania, (9-22).

1994d: "Women and Rural Development in Contemporary Estonia", Rural History, 5, 2, 217-26.

1994e: "The re-generation of family farming in Estonia", Sociologia Ruralis, XXV, No.4, 1994, 354-68.

1994f: "Villagers and the State among the Baloney?", Cambridge Anthropology, 17, 1. (An autobiographical discussion of the development of, and connections between, my research interests 1957-94).

1995: "Between East and West: Family Farming in Finland and Estonia", in Gorlach and Serega (eds) Family Farming in the Contemporary World: East-West Comparisons, (43-51), Jagiellonian University, Krakow.

1996b: "Vigilantism: order and disorder on the frontiers of the state", in Harris (ed) Inside and Outside the Law, (41-54), Routledge.

1996c: "Some thoughts on recent land reforms in eastern Europe", Introduction to Abrahams (ed) After Socialism, (1-22), Berghahn.

1996d: "Women and rural development in contemporary Estonia", in Blom, Melin, Nikula (eds) Between Plan and Market: Social Change in the Baltic States and Russia. Berlin. (169-80). (revised version of 1994d).

1999a: "Nation and Identity: a view from social anthropology" in Branch (ed), National History and Identity, (34-47), Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki.

1999b: "Friends and networks as Survival Strategies in North-east Europe" in Bell and Coleman (eds) The Anthropology of Friendship, (155-68), Berg.

1999c: "Messages from Outer Finland", Churchill Review, 1999, (40-1).

2001: "Vigilantism, State Jurisdiction and Community Morality: Control of Crime and 'Undesirable' Behaviour when the State 'Fails'" in Pardo (ed.) The Morals of Legitimacy, (107-26), Berghahn.

2002a: "Out of the Collective Frying Pan. Ideals and Practicalities in the Reformulation and Restitution of Political and Property Rights in Post-Soviet Rural Estonia", Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers, No. 34.

2002b: with Huon Wardle "Fortune's Last Theorem", Cambridge Anthropology, 23(1), (60-2).

2002c: "Anthropology and the Inner Frontiers of the State". Based on a 'Distinguished Lecture' given in San Francisco 2000 (see Conferences above). Cambridge Anthropology, 22(3), (1- 13).

2002d: "What's in a name? Some Thoughts on the Vocabulary of Vigilantism and Related Forms of 'Informal Criminal Justice'", in Feenan (ed.) Informal Criminal Justice, (25-40), Ashgate.

2003: "The Vigilantes Ride Again?", Cambridge Anthropology, 23(2), (67-8). (A comment on the Iraq War).

2004: "Isaac Schapera: recollections and thoughts", Cambridge Anthropology, 24(1), (53-6).

2007: "Afterword: Some thoughts on the comparative study of vigilantism", in Pratten and Sen (eds), Global Vigilantes, (419-42), Hurst.


2008: "Afterword: some further thoughts on comparative study" to be published in a volume edited by Grätz and Kirsch on African Militias and Vigilantes based on the 2005 Halle conference (see above).

I have also published many book reviews.


In my Department, in addition to other duties, I served on several occasions as Academic Secretary. I also acted on two occasions as Head of Department and as Chairman of the Departmental PhD Committee.

At Faculty level, I served regularly on the Faculty Board and Degree Committees of both Archaeology and Anthropology and Social and Political Sciences, and I was a member of the original committee that established SPS. I have been Faculty Board and Degree Committee Secretary and Degree Committee Chairman in Archaeology and Anthropology at different times, and was responsible for drafting the present Departmental Structure of the Faculty. As an early Chairman of the SPS Library Committee I organised the establishment and cataloguing system of that library.

I have represented the Faculty on a variety of University Committees, including the Smuts Managers and the Development Studies Committee. I served as Chairman of the Management Committee of the African Studies Centre for many years, and I also served as Chairman of the Russian and East European Studies Committee.

I have been a member of the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute and have served on the Council of the African Studies Association of the UK, and on the Committee of the Association of Social Anthropologists at various times. I have been a judge for the Amoury Talbot Book Prize and the Curl Essay Prize of the Royal Anthropological Institute. I have also served as an advisor for professorial appointments by the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Academy.

I have been Chairman of Examiners and Senior Examiner on many occasions and I have also served as external examiner in the University of London (LSE, UCL, SOAS, Goldsmiths), and in Nairobi.

In Churchill College I have served at different times as a College Lecturer, Director of Studies and Tutor. I have also been a member of several committees including the Archives Committee, Hanging Committee, Council, Fellowship Electors and Southern African Bursary Committee.