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Jean La Fontaine

Jean La Fontaine


Jean La Fontaine trained in Cambridge and taught at the LSE where she is Professor Emeritus. She has conducted research in Africa and the UK and has written extensively on ritual (especially initiation rituals), gender and kinship, witchcraft and satanism, child abuse and incest.

Professor La Fontaine’s publications include: The Gisu of Uganda (1959), Initiation (1985), The Interpretation of Ritual (1972), Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation (1978), City Politics: a Study of Leopoldville 1962-3 (1970), Child Sexual Abuse (1990) and Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England (1998).

The interview

Click on each question to watch Professor La Fontaine's reply.

  1. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your background and how you became interested in anthropology?
  2. So that was at undergraduate level that you studied anthropology? … So how did you come to do your first fieldwork? How did you decide on that area?
  3. Could you tell me a bit about your first fieldwork experience?
  4. Were you always interested in ritual or…?
  5. So when you were writing this up you were in Cambridge, were you? Who were your influences at that stage in your career?

  6. So on your book Initiation, can you talk about the main argument of that book and how it fitted into other anthropological work on the subject at the time?
  7. You seem to emphasize as well the social context of the ritual, that it relates, that it is not separate from the social life…
  8. Have you told your interpretation of the ritual back to them? Is it something that they would agree with?
  9. In the book, in initiation you use comparative material as well, about the Freemasons in an entirely different cultural context. Is there anything generalisable or universally true about ritual in these different contexts?
  10. A lot of anthropologists have looked at ritual now and been preoccupied with it. Is there anything about ritual which offers a key to understanding a society?

    The Interpretation of Ritual
  11. The book The Interpretation of Ritual is in honour of Audrey Richards. You were obviously influenced by her. What was it that you like about her approach?
  12. In that book, one of the last sentences of the chapter you wrote I found quite striking. You said, “symbolic action and rites of passage is the means by which Gisu culture underlines the significance of related oppositions which when symbolically co-joined ensure man’s control over nature.” Can you explain what you meant by man’s control over nature?
  13. So after that, what did you do next?
  14. And was that at the time as you did work with Childline?
  15. What was the experience of doing that research?

    Child Sexual Abuse
  16. Your intentions behind your book Child Sexual Abuse, were they practical?
  17. Did your experience of doing research in Africa have any bearing on your work in Britain on children, social relationships and incest? … In what way [is it much harder working in Britain than in a small scale community]?

    Speak of the Devil
  18. How does your work on child abuse link to Speak of the Devil and the witchcraft projects?
  19. When you were doing this research [on child abuse] was it difficult personally?
  20. Do you think it convinces you that anthropology should have more of an applied aspect, that it should have some practical application?
  21. On the question of politics, you worked in Kinshasa or what was then Leopoldville, just after Independence, which must have been an extraordinary time to research…
  22. You call it a city in crisis and a city of politicians. Can you say something about that?
  23. You talk about patronage and kinship ties which in some ways are elements of continuity…
  24. In some ways did they also prop up political elites as well as provide continuity?
  25. And these were the people who were expecting to take over?
  26. It must be very confusing doing research in that kind of environment...
  27. In your experience and especially early on in your career when you were in your twenties, what difference did it make being a woman? Did it make any difference?
  28. What about in the 1970s with feminist anthropology, did that make a huge difference?
  29. Just quickly about your research methods. I am interested in the use of life histories and key informants, these quite individualised forms of anthropological knowledge that are derived from individuals that we know, friends and key informants. But sometimes, especially in other disciplines, what kind of evidence they constitute is in question. What [methods] have you used in your research?
  30. Could you say something about the work you are doing now and future directions, not just in your work but in anthropology in general, do you have any thoughts on that?

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Last modified 23 October 2009