Criticism Of Rivers

Criticism of Rivers

William Rivers, like anyone else, was not exempt from criticism. The majority of this was aimed at his later anthropological work and not the psychological, physiological, pastoral or that which he accomplished with the soldiers and pilots of the Great War. There were instances of the latter but these will be explored in due course.

Unfortunately without full knowledge and, thus understanding of Anthropology, it is difficult to describe the aspects involved or offer comment on the justification of the critics therefore the basic reasons will be explained and judgement left to those who are either better able to research them or who have a deeper education in the subject

A Man of His Time?

One interesting charge is that Rivers was elitist or very ‘of his time’ when it came to his views regarding the native occupants of various places. Edvard Hvinding and Cato Berg, in The Ethnographic Experiment remark upon the fact that in describing two seperate villages Rivers mentions that one holds to ‘a definite Maternal system’ whilst in the other ‘it has been replaced by a system of Father-right’, and imply that he sees this as a necessity of evolution. This , in reading the piece in which Rivers is writing is not essentially true; he is merely stating the differences and more accurately appears to imply that he sees it as a consequence culture imposed by the white man. Other points are interesting to examine. It is true that Rivers was indeed a man of his time in some extents, including his use of language and various of his mannerisms but hardly ever does he use the terms race or racial ; in description he is mainly factual. It later becomes apparent that he is somewhat surprised to find that the ways of the people are as valid as that of the white man but his words seem to make one feel that this is more due to self discovery than anything else. Notions, not related to race that he just had not thought of before; issues that had not occurred to him rather than any sense of looking down upon the individuals he is writing about; more that he sees their non-judgemental attitude as superior. Erik Linstrum, in his book Ruling Minds, points out that in Rivers’ 1922 campaign speech that he made ‘ a provocatively relativistic case … that Britain’s vaunted civilization was far less rational, just, and praiseworthy than it might seem’.^^  In this his view is more modern than that of several contemporaries, including those of William MacDougall who has been volunteered as a close comparison. MacDougall, whilst like Rivers in his sympathetic views on shell-shock, displayed himself as something of a racist later on^

It has equally been claimed that Rivers was far ahead of his time and would have pointed out third world problems or the likelihood of their happening before anyone else. This could well be true given his unusual approach to the problems of Melanesians, and his still growing fondness for what others might call less developed races.

Evolutionary versus Diffusionism

Early on Rivers is said to have adhered to the Evolutionist theory of anthropology: ‘the view of anthropologists and other scholars was that culture generally develops (or evolves) in a uniform and progressive manner. The Evolutionists, building from Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, sought to track the development of culture through time. Just as species were thought to evolve into increasing complexity, so too were cultures thought to progress from a simple to complex states. It was thought that most societies pass through the same series of stages to arrive, ultimately, at a common end. Change was thought to originate from within the culture, so development was thought to be internally determined.’ (Social Evolutionism,
Heather Long and Kelly Chakov)

Later, after noticing how traditions, skills and beliefs frequently occurred in succession along a string of countries, due to trade and geographical mobility of a people. The Doctor began to write of a new theory, that of Diffusionism.
“- the spread of a cultural pattern from one culture to another, and where no internal direct change agent is apparent.”. Unfortunately that not only went against the beliefs of those who came closely after his death but also involved an element of speculation, ideas to be proved more thoroughly at some point in the future, and that did not sit well with many young anthropologist. Thus much of Rivers work became discarded and almost buried in infamy.

Ironically, with the aid of modern technology, archaeological research and insight, the view of science is swinging back. It has become apparent that both theories; Evolutionary and Diffusionist are correct in some instances. History has shown that the nature of the world and its human inhabitants has shown this to be true. It is doubtful that Rivers will be completely repatriated into his former position in Anthropological study but his work has begun appearing on various university curriculum’ once more, and usually in a favourable light.

It is well to note however, that the work of Rivers and his colleagues was done at the early times of the subject officially being included as an academic?. They had very little prior suggestion or knowledge to work from which meant that they were susceptible to making mistakes or drawing conclusions which would be challenged later. In conjunction, it was equally natural, perhaps that their successors would question and judge what they had produced, in the same way a teenager will query the authority of his parents, particularly if new evidence or information has come to light. Arthur Kleinman, Professor of Harvard University explained the outcome thus: ‘his students, especially Radcliffe-Brown, and the other young fieldworkers who followed him including Malinowski, disguised the contribution Rivers made-out of what Harold Bloom has called in the poetic tradition, the anxiety of influence-and they did so so effectively that Rivers has largely disappeared from the way anthropologists think about the history of the discipline and its current challenges.’

For a wider discussion upon Rivers’ contribution to the subject, Paul Whittle’s ‘A Founding Father Well Worth Remembering’ provides a useful starting point.

The ‘Abandonment’ of John Layard

Reading the recollections of Rivers students in general (for example, Fred Bartlett or A.M. Hocart) , one might normally gather the notion that the Dr was universally well thought of by those he taught, despite his ‘being a little dry’ as a lecturer. There is one famous instance where this was not the case and his commitment to his pupil was probed.

The story is difficult to recount because the situation was complex and the two people involved, Rivers and a student named John Layard, presented opposing views upon what really happened.

It is known that, in 1914, Layard accompanied Rivers to the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu), after A C Haddon, who was travelling with them decided against taking the student with him on his expedition. Some days later, Rivers continued further to Australia whilst Layard stayed on a small island collecting data for a year.
Upon returning to England, Layard claimed that Rivers had ‘abandoned him’ ( see ) after he spoke out over ‘an attraction that Layard himself was willing to express’. Many have taken this and further scathing remarks made by the student concerning Rivers and the topic of sex, to mean that the Dr was homosexual but could not admit to himself or anyone else that he was attracted to men, particularly his own student. Contrary to the notion that he abandoned Layard because of this lack of ability to cope with all his presence meant is the fact that he treated him for psychological problems for many years to come.

Rivers’ own account was somewhat different and rather less exotic. He agreed that he and Layard had disagreed over some points and that he had tried to help the student who was having problems coming to terms with his sexuality but maintained that the relationship was purely mentor-to-pupil. Layard was known to have greatly admired the Dr and his tone in memoirs and written recollections of the time, some argue, smacks of a bitter reaction to rejection, real or imagined by a person who was not actually as attracted to him either as he imagined or as he felt vice versa; that it was in fact unrequited. The reason the Dr gave for leaving the island is much more straightforward: that he was already late for a pre-arranged seminar in Australia, through staying in an attempt to counsel Layard and make certain he was capable of completing his tasks in Vanuatu – and promptly left once he was sure this was the case.

The actual events will be argued over for years to come and there is no way now of convincing biographical experts one way or the other. Layard indeed seems to have suffered after Rivers left but why is a matter of speculation. It is likely that he did not feel a student should be left by his mentor : others of Rivers students recall that this was the doctor’s way; once he felt a protégée was capable of what was asked he backed off and, in Bartlett’s words ‘left them to their own devices’. This was not, however because he did not care but more so they could see for themselves what they could and could not do. Just as he did not withdraw psychological help from Layard despite the damage the student’s claims could do to his reputation, so he did not withdraw academic support from students who needed it. It was well reported that his ‘door was always open’ for those who wished to discuss anything with him.

Why did Rivers not refuse in protest to treat the servicemen of the Great War?

Since Pat Barker published her Regeneration series, this question has come up under several guises both officially in study curriculum or in the minds of students and ordinary readers.

Indeed the series begins in July 1917 with a protest* by Siegfried Sassoon being read out by the Dr as he is being given the choice as to whether to treat the poet or not. Sassoon, a second Lieutenant, with field experience ( and a medal for valour), had been home convalescing from a wound when he decide to publish a statement refusing to return to service overseas as a protest against the manner in which the war was being progressed and the treatment of the ordinary soldier. The piece was printed in the paper local to where he was, later in the Times and on 30th , debated in Parliament.

It was a brave attempt at helping his fellows which could well have seen Sassoon shot for cowardice or refusal of a direct order but instead, thanks mostly to fellow writer and friend, Robert Graves, he was famously declared to have war neurosis and was sent to Craiglockhart for treatment. Rivers was appointed as his doctor. As time wore on, it became clear that the doctor was finding some truth in his patient’s opinions. Some, perhaps including the Lt at first, suggest that Rivers should have joined the protest and refused to treat patients further until some kind of better policy was brokered.

The short answer is that there would have been no point and Rivers had the sense to see it. He was used to controversial theory and despite being shy on his own account, was not slow to voice support for those whose cause he supported as Fred Bartlett often confirmed.

One needs to examine the wider picture. Rivers was not in a position to act independently without having to account to a higher rank, in this case, the Army. He was a doctor; he had responsibilities but was, after all, also a temporary Captain of the Royal Army Medical Corps. He too could have been court-martial and, in the extreme, executed though this is not that which would have deterred him from action. The thought of his patients or their psychologically injured fellows, did.

Had Rivers made such a kind of protest, the first measure taken would have been that to remove him from his position as a doctor. More and more men were returning from France who needed psychological care and those patients would thus have lost one of the few physicians who it was felt (see ) actually understood what was happening to the troops and why. He would be immediately prevented even from treating those who were already under his charge, which in itself could cause them problems but the damage would not merely be limited to the doctor’s own patients.
As ‘an Eminent Psychologist’ who believed Shell shock was a genuine illness, Rivers was already, if partially on an unwitting basis, at conflict with much of authority, particularly since he openly championed and devised a humane approach. He was well aware that the ‘relaxed regime ‘at Craiglockhart was already under negative scrutiny. Another large and wasteful offensive had just been launched along the Passchendaele Ridge; the army and government would have wanted to shut him up and disgrace him in the public eye as quickly as possible. It would not be good for someone of a respected position to cause a stir when the another round of high casualty figures was about to begin rolling in, with all the doubts and recriminations it would automatically entail.

If Rivers was then to overstep the line, he would be discredited much as Sassoon had been and, should he be declared to have been suffering a mental illness or just plain ?, so would be the entire attempt to show the truth about what was happening. The whole cause would have been brought to ill-repute by the ‘necessity’ of the authorities; this would be quickly seized upon by detractors.. It would be a great opportunity for the government to rule out doctors such as himself, and hospitals like Craiglockhart in favour of harsher regimes. Even the argument that ‘if enough people had spoken out…’ does not change the situation. An entire French regiment in France rebelled and this was not deemed ‘enough’. The doctor knew that there would not be the numbers come forward or to make a difference and, while he came to agree with some of Sassoon’s views, he was not rash enough to put unwell men at risk.

Rivers chose to suffer in silence himself whilst carrying on the attempt to make certain at least some soldiers would be cured or at least helped without the use of pain or punishment as tools.

*Full text of Sassoon’s declaration:
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

July, 1917. S. Sassoon.

^ For more on the view of William MacDougall see for example:,+racist&source=bl&ots=1L2lBkyAed&sig=AFvSJvF3IpSSQse3bQIM6eIxe1Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjFs_bo5abRAhWGBsAKHbPkB4kQ6AEIRjAD#v=onepage&q=william%20Mcdougall%2C%20racist&f=false,+racist&source=bl&ots=Bp5DQJI49X&sig=65eN2pzRuXeIKoN7NK13QoQ9fPg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjFs_bo5abRAhWGBsAKHbPkB4kQ6AEITDAF#v=onepage&q=william%20Mcdougall%2C%20racist&f=false