Alan Donald James Macfarlane

For the South Australian pastoralist and politician, see Allan McFarlane.
Emeritus Professor
Alan Donald James Macfarlane
Nationality British
Fields Anthropology
Institutions King's College, University of Cambridge
Alma mater Worcester College, University of Oxford (B.A., M.A., D.Phil.)
London School of Economics and Political Science (M.Phil.)
School of Oriental and African Studies (Ph.D.)

Alan Donald James Macfarlane FBA FRHistS (born 20 December 1941) is a renowned anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King's College, Cambridge. He is the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China.[1] He has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society.


Macfarlane was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford and Sedbergh School. He then read Modern History at Worcester College, University of Oxford from 1960 to 1963 completing a Bachelor of Arts and went on to his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy on 'Witchcraft prosecutions in Essex, 1560-1680: A Sociological Analysis' in 1967. He also completed a Master of Philosophy in Anthropology on 'The regulation of marital and sexual relationships in 17th century England' at the London School of Economics in 1968 and a second Doctorate in Anthropology on 'Population and resources in central Nepal' in 1972 at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.

He went on to be a Research Fellow in History at King's College, University of Cambridge. In 1975 he was appointed Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, becoming a Reader in Historical Anthropology in 1981 and then a full Professor of Anthropological Science and Personal Chair in 1991. He became Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science at the University of Cambridge and a Life Fellow of King's College, Cambridge in 2009.

Anthropological interests

Macfarlane's first major publication, in 1970, was Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, a historical study of the conditions that gave rise to English witchcraft beliefs. His approach drew on the work of classic functionalist anthropologists Edward Evans-Pritchard and Lucy Mair. Also in 1970, Macfarlane published The Family Life of Ralph Josselin, a study of the diary of a famous seventeenth century clergyman. His approach here, exploring the emotions, fears, and relationships of an individual to attempt a historical study of private life in seventeenth century England, was reminiscent of the Annales School.

Macfarlane has undertaken several periods of ethnographic field research, the first of these a period in Nepal with the Gurung people. He used this period as the foundation of a 1976 study, Resources and Population a Malthusian analysis of Gurung responses to scarce resources and an expanding population. Following Malthus' demographic principles, Macfarlane warned that the Gurung might experience a ‘population check’ in coming decades.

Historical interests

Macfarlane has published extensively on English history, advancing the idea that many traits of so-called ‘modern society’ appeared in England long before the period of modernity as defined by historians like Lawrence Stone. Drawing loosely on work by Max Weber, Macfarlane has contrasted the defining characteristics of modern and traditional society. His 1987 book The Culture of Capitalism is a non-deterministic study of the emergence of modernity and capitalism in Western Europe.Two further books, The Origins of English Individualism (1978) and Marriage and Love in England (1986), explore the way English family institutions and social life emerged distinctly from continental European institutions and experiences.

During the 1990s Macfarlane was invited to lecture in Japan, initiating a period of research into the distinctive emergence of modernity in Japan by contrast to England and Europe. 1997's The Savage Wars of Peace returned to Macfarlane's early interest in Malthus and demographics, comparing the modernity experiences of England and Japan. The book argues that England and Japan, both relatively large but non-remote islands, were each positioned to develop an autonomous culture while still profiting from nearby continental influence. Through different means, both Japan and England overcame the Malthusian trap, keeping birth and mortality rates under control, thus providing a demographic impetus for the rise of capitalism and prosperity.

Literary works and collaborations

Macfarlane's work on modernity acknowledges his Enlightenment roots. His Riddle of the Modern World (2000) and Making of the Modern World (2001) are contributions to the field of history of ideas, addressing the work of Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ernest Gellner, Yukichi Fukuzawa and Frederic Maitland.

Another strand in his work addresses the role of particular inventions in transforming history. The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed the World (2002), co-authored with Gerry Martin, discusses how the invention and use of glass facilitated European dominion overseas. Macfarlane and his mother Iris co-wrote Green Gold: The Empire of Tea (2003), presenting the thesis that tea contributed to English prosperity, preventing epidemics by requiring the boiling of water and by promoting antibiotic effects.

2005's Letters to Lily distils Macfarlane's reflections on a life of research, as addressed to his granddaughter Lily Bee. As a non-academic work it brought Macfarlane to the attention of a wider, non-scholarly audience.

Macfarlane’s work has been widely read and referenced by his contemporaries. Critics have challenged the role he ascribes to English institutions in the establishment of modernity, and his moral relativism as a champion of modernity who nonetheless affirms the validity of non-Western institutions.

Together with Mark Turin, Macfarlane established the Digital Himalaya Project in December 2000 and now serves as Chairman of the Executive Board of the World Oral Literature Project.

External links

  • Alan Macfarlane's homepage
  • Alan Macfarlane's YouTube account


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