Radical: about the inherent, fundamental roots of an issue.
Anthropology: the study of what it means to be human.
Anthropology asks one big question: what does it mean to be human? To answer this, we cannot rely on common sense or on philosophical arguments. We must study how humans actually live – and the many different ways in which they have lived. This means learning, for example, how people in non-capitalist societies live, how they organise themselves and resolve conflict in the absence of a state, the different ways in which a ‘family’ can be run, and so on.
Additionally, it means studying other species and other times. What might it mean to be almost – but not quite – human? How socially self-aware, for example, is a chimpanzee? Do nonhuman primates have a sense of morality? Do they have language? And what about distant times? Who were the Australopithecines and why had they begun walking upright? Where did the Neanderthals come from and why did they become extinct? How, when and why did human art, religion, language and culture first evolve?
While RAG has never defined itself as a political organization, the implications of some forms of science are intrinsically radical, and this applies in particular to the theory that humanity was born in a social revolution. Many RAG members choose to be active in Survival International and/or other indigenous rights movements to defend the land rights and cultural survival of hunter-gatherers. Additionally, some RAG members combine academic research with activist involvement in environmentalist, anti-capitalist and other campaigns.
The Radical Anthropology Group started in 1984 when Chris Knight’s popular ‘Introduction to Anthropology’ course at Morley College, London, was closed down, supposedly for budgetary reasons. Within a few weeks, the students got organised, electing a treasurer, secretary and other officers. They booked a library in Camden – and invited Chris to continue teaching next year. In this way, the Radical Anthropology Group was born.
Later, Lionel Sims, who since the 1960s had been lecturing in sociology at the University of East London, came across Chris’s PhD on human origins and – excited by the backing it provided for the anthropology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, particularly on the subject of ‘primitive communism’ – invited Chris to help set up Anthropology at UEL. During the 1990s several other RAG members including Ian Watts, Camilla Power, Isabel Cardigos and Charles Whitehead completed PhDs at University College London and Kings College London, before going onto further research and teaching.
For almost two decades, Anthropology at UEL retained close ties with the Radical Anthropology Group, Chris becoming Professor of Anthropology in 2001. He was sacked by UEL’s corporate management in July 2009 for his role in organising and publicising demonstrations against the G20 in April.