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Profile summary

  • Emeritus Professor
  • Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
  • School of Hist, Rel St, Soc, SP&C
  • Sociology
  • r.h.finnegan

Professional biography


MA, Dip Anthrop, BLitt, DPhil (Oxon), FBA

Research interests

  • The comparative sociology/anthropology of artistic activity (especially verbal art and music), communication, and performance
  • Debates relating to literacy, 'orality' and multi-modality
  • Amateur and other ‘hidden’ activities, including knowledge production and shared nonlocal communicating

Current research includes:

  • The incidence and meaning of dreams and dreaming
  • Altered consciousness through music
  • Taxi drivers

Honours and Awards


Fellow of the British Academy 1996
Honorary Fellow Somerville College Oxford 1996
Hon Member Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, 2002
OBE (order of the British Empire) 2000
Member International Research Council of Humanities and Social Science Studies on Africa, 2014
Rivers Memorial Medal, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 2016


Oral traditions and the verbal arts, shortlisted for Katherine Briggs Award, Folklore Society, 1992.
Communicating, the multiple modes io human interaction 1st edition, shortlisted for British Association of Applied Language book prize, 2012 2nd edition, Finalist, cultural nonfiction, Readers Favorite Book Award, 2016.
Oral literature in Africa, 2nd edition, Honorable Mention, Herskovits prize, 2012.
'There', semi-finalist essay prize, New Millennium Writing, 2016.
Where is language? Bronze medal, Readers Favorite Book Award, 2016.
Why do we quote? Honorable Mention, cultural nonfiction, Readers Favorite Book Award, 2016.
Black inked pearl a girl’s quest Honorable Mention, romance, New York Book Fair, 2016, Finalist, Christian / fantasy, science fiction, Readers Favorite Book Award, 2016 Finalist, visionary fiction, 10th Indie National Excellence Awards, 2016.


Academic Publications 2005-15: Books

(ed.) Entrancement, University of Wales Press, 2017 (in press).

Travels and Travails of Music, Callender, 2016.

Where is Language? Bloomsbury, 2015.

Music and Creation, Callender, 2012.

Oral literature in Africa, 2nd (enlarged and illustrated) edition, Open Book, 2012.

Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation, Open Book Publishers, 2011.

The ‘Oral’ and Beyond: Doing Things with Words in Africa, James Currey, Oxford, University of Chicago Press, and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, South Africa, 2007.

The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town, 2nd edition, Wesleyan University Press (Music/Culture series), 2007.

Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection, Routledge, 2002, 2nd (enlarged) edition 2013.

(ed.) Participating in the Knowledge Society: Researchers Beyond the University Walls, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005.

Recent Academic Publications: Articles and Papers

‘Oral composition’, in Patrick Hogan (ed.) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011: 570-72.

‘Studying the oral literatures of Africa in the 1960s and today’, special issue, eds Itala Vivan and Maria Renate Dolce, Journal des Africanistes 80, 1/2, 2010: 15-28.

‘Response from an Africanist scholar’, in Werner Kelber and Paula Sanders (eds) Oral Tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, special issue, Oral Tradition 25, 1, 2010: 7-16.

‘Rewards and issues in studying oral literature: some personal reflections’, Language Documentation and Description 8, 2010 (special issue, eds Imogen Gunn and Mark Turin): 8-28.

‘Creativity – but where do you look? A tale of musicians in Milton Keynes’, Oral History 37, 2 (special issue Community and creativity: a life stories perspective), 2009: 45-50.

Select Earlier Publications: Academic Books

Limba Stories and Story-Telling, Clarendon Press, Oxford (Oxford Library of African Literature), 1967; Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1981.

Oral Literature in Africa, Clarendon Press, Oxford (Oxford Library of African Literature), 1970; Oxford University Press Nairobi, 1976.

Modes of Thought. Essays on Thinking in Western and Non-Western Societies, (ed. with Robin Horton), Faber and Faber, London, 1973.

Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context, Cambridge University Press, 1977 (2nd edition, Indiana University Press 1992).

The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry (ed.), Allen Lane ( also as A World Treasury of Oral Poetry, Indiana University Press), 1978, Penguin paperback, 1982.

Essays on Pacific literature (ed. with Raymond Pillai). Oral Tradition Series, 2, Fiji Museum, Suva, 1978.

(ed. with Graeme Salaman and Kenneth Thompson) Information Technology: Social Issues, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987.

Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication, Blackwell, 1988 (also Allen and Unwin, Sydney, Australia) (Italian translation La Fine di Gutenberg: Studi sulla tecnologia della comunicazione, Sansoni, Firenze, 1990).

The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989 (2nd edition, 2007, Wesleyan University Press).

Tales of the City: A Study of Narrative and Urban Life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

(ed. with Margaret Orbell) South Pacific Oral Traditions, Bloomington IN, Indiana University Press, 1995.

Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts: A Guide to Research Practices, Association of Social Anthropologists 'Research Methods in Social Anthropology' Series, London, Routledge, 1992.

Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context, 2nd edn, Bloomington IN, Indiana University Press, 1992.

Select Earlier Publications: Articles, Chapters and Papers

‘Attitudes to the study of oral literature in British social anthropology', Man, 4, 1, 1969, 56-69.

'How to do things with words: performative utterances among the Limba of Sierra Leone', Man, 4, 4, 1969, 537-52.

'The kinship ascription of primitive societies: actuality or myth?', International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 11, 3, 1970, 171-94.

'Students and university teachers: a case study of informal student pressures', Sociology, 5, 2, 1971, 191-207 (published under the pseudonym of Hilary Campbell to preserve anonymity of case cited).

'Literacy versus non-literacy: the great divide?' in R.Horton and R.Finnegan (eds.), Modes of Thought, 1973, 112-44.

'How oral is oral literature?', Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 37, 1, 1974, 52-64.

'What is oral literature anyway? Comments in the light of some African and other comparative material', in B.A.Stolz and R.S.Shannon (eds), Oral Literature and the Formula, Center for the co-ordination of ancient and modern studies, University of Michigan, 1976, 127-66.

'Musical groups in Suva', Heritage (Fiji Museum), Dec.1979, 1-7; Oct.1981, 1-7.

'Literacy and literature', in Barbara Lloyd and John Gay (eds.), Universals of Human Thought: Some African Evidence, Cambridge University Press, 1981, 234-55.

Short time to stay: comments on time, literature and oral performance (Hans Wolff lecture 1981), African Studies Program, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1981, 55pp.

'Oral literature and writing in the South Pacific', in N.Simms (ed.), Oral and Traditional Literatures, Pacific Quarterly Moana, 7, 2, 1982, 22-36.

'Oral composition and oral literature in the Pacific', in Bruno Gentili and Giuseppe Paione (eds.), Oralita: cultura, letteratura, discorso, Edizioni dell'Ateneo, Roma, 1985, 125-54 (Discussione 155-60).

'How is research disseminated?' Quarterly Journal of Social Affairs, 2, 1, 1986, 3-11.

'The relations between composition and performance: three alternative modes', in Tokumaru Yoshihiko and Yamaguti Osamu (eds.), The Oral and Literate in Music, Academia Music, Tokyo, 1986.

'Oral poetry', International Encyclopedia of Communications, Annenberg School of Communications and Oxford University Press, New York and London, vol.3, 1989, 231-4.

'Communication and technology', Language and Communication, 9, 2/3 1989, 107-27.

'Studying local musicians in an English town: an example of modern anthropology', Suomen Antropologi (Journal of Finnish Anthropology Society), 3, 1989, 31-43.

'Why the comparativist should take account of the South Pacific', Oral Tradition 5, 1990 159–84.

'What is orality - if anything?', Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 14, 1990,130-149.

'Studying musical practice in an English town: A "doorstep" ethnographic study and its implications', in A. Buckley, K. O. Edström and P. Nixon (eds), Proceedings of the British-Swedish Conference on Musicology: Ethnomusicology Institute of Musicology, Göteborgs Universitet, 1991, 305–317.

'Tradition - but what tradition and tradition for whom?' Milman Parry Lecture, Oral Tradition 6, 1991 104–24.

'Problems in the processing of "oral texts": some reflections on the researcher's role in innovation and consolidation', and ‘Foreword’ in E.Sienaert, N.Bell and M.Lewis (eds) Tradition and innovation: new wine in old bottles?, Durban: University of Natal, 1991, ix–xi, 1–23.

‘Recovering “academic community”: what do we mean?’, Reflections in Higher Education, 4, 1992, 7-23 and (in revised version) in Ronald Barnett (ed.) Academic community: discourse or discord? London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1994, 180–93.

'Literacy as mythical charter', in D.Keller-Cohen (ed.), Literacy: interdisciplinary conversations, Hampton Press, New York, 1994, 31–47.

‘The poetic and the everyday: their pursuit in an African village and an English town’, Folklore, 105, 1994, 3-11.

'Teaching and learning through 25 years at the Open University: some personal reflections', Reflections on Higher Education 7, 1995, 37-48.

‘Personal narratives and urban theory in Milton Keynes’, Auto/Biography, 4, 2/3, 1996, 13–25.

‘Literacy’, ‘Oral literature’, ‘Poetics’ and ‘Translation’, in Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer (eds) Encyclopedic Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, London, Routledge, 1996 (pp. 337-9, 404-5, 426-8, 553-4).

‘Oral tradition’ in The Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, ed. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, Lakeville CT, American Reference Publishing Company, 1996 (Vol. 3, 887-91).

'Oral literature', 'Oral style' and 'Sociology of oral literature' (in German translation) in W.J.G.Möhlig und Herrmann Jungraithmayr (eds) Lexikon der afrikakanistischen Erzählforschung, Köln: Rüdiger Köpper, 1998 [short entries only: pp. 170-73, 204-5].

'Sociological and anthropological issues in literacy' in Daniel Wagner et al. (eds) Literacy: an international handbook, Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1999, 89-94.

'Why study music? an anthropologist's reflections from the field' (published in Spanish translation as '¿Por qué estudiar la música? Relexiones de una antropóloga desde el campo'), Antropología: Revista de Pensamiento Antropológico y Estudios Ethnográficos 15/16 (special international issue on anthropology of music), 1999, 9-32. [also published on internet 2002 through TRANS – Transcultural Music Review: and in Cruces, Francisco and Galán, Beatriz Pérez (eds) Textos de Antropología Contemporánea, Madrid; Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, 2010, 203-29.

'Oral literature', in Peter France (ed.) Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, Part 1 'Theory and History', pp. 112-115.

'Musical practices and hidden musicians: a perspective from sociology and anthropology', in David Greer (ed.) Musicology and Sister Disciplines, Oxford University Press, 2000, 299-308.

' "Not the message": media, meanings and magicality', in Knoblauch, H. and Kotthoff, H. (eds) Verbal Art across Cultures. The Aesthetics and Proto-Aesthetics of Communication, Tuebingen: Narr, 2001, 33-61.

'Learning to research: background and context', in Robin Humphrey and Chris Middleton (with Ruth Finnegan, Sue Hemmings and David Phillips) Learning to Research, Sheffield: SSP2000 Resources for Learning and Teaching in Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 1 Reflections on Learning to Research, 2001,1-19.

'Epilogue: ways back and forward', in Russell H. Kaschula (ed.), African oral literature: functions in contemporary contexts, Claremont: New Africa Books, 2001, pp. 274-85.

'Oral and literate expression', International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2001, vol. 16, 10887-10891.

'Must modern ways inevitably oust those of the past?', Foreword to R. Kaschula, The bones of the ancestors are shaking: Xhosa oral poetry in context, Cape Town: Juta, 2002, v-xi.

'Music, experience, and the anthropology of the emotions', in Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (eds) The cultural study of music: a critical introduction, New York: Routledge, 2003, 181-92.

'Where is the meaning? the complexities of oral poetry and beyond', in Fotis Jannadis, Gerhard Lauer, Matias Martinez and Simone Winko (eds) Regeln der Bedeutung. Zür Theorie der Bedeutung literarisher Texte (Revisionen: Grundbegriffe der Literaturtheorie, 1), Berlin and New York: de Gruyter: 2003, 384-400.

‘ “Oral tradition”: weasel words or transdisciplinary door to multiplexity?’, Oral Tradition 18, 1, 2003, 84-6.

‘Orality and literacy: epic heroes of human destiny?’, International Journal of Learning 10, 2003, 1551-60.

' “Oral literature”: issues of definition and terminology’ and ‘The Oxford Library of African Literature’, in Philip Peek and Kwesi Yankah (eds) Encyclopedia of African Folklore, New York: Routledge, 2004, 310-13, 327-8.

‘The how of literature’, in Andrew Gerstle, Stephanie Jones and Rosalind Thomas (eds) Performance Literature, special issue, Oral Tradition 20, 1-2, 2005: 164-87.

‘It’s not just the words … : the arts and action of performance’, in Goodman, S. and O’Halloran, K. (eds) The Art of English: Literary Creativity, Basingstoke, Hants, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, 183-94.

'Not by words alone: reclothing the oral', in Michael Cole and David Olson (eds), Technology, Literacy and the Evolution of Society: Implications of the Work of Jack Goody, Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006, 265-87.

‘Should we notice researchers outside the university?’, British Academy Review 10, 2007, 58-61.

‘Literature: oral’, in John Middleton and Joseph C. Miller (eds) New Encyclopedia of Africa, 5 Vols, 2nd edition, Detroit: Gale Cengage Learning, 2008, Vol. 3 335-40.

‘Data – but data from what?’ Language Documentation and Description 5, 2008, 13-28.

“O que vem primeiro: o texto, a música ou a performance?” [translated into Portuguese from English original ‘Which comes first: the words, the music or the performance?’], in Cláudia Neiva de Matos, Elizabeth Travassos, and Fernanda Teixeira de Medeiros (eds) Palavra cantada: ensaios sobre poesia, música e voz, 7 Letras: Rio de Janeiro, 2008, pp. 15-43.

'¿Por qué estudiar la música? Relexiones de una antropóloga desde el campo' [Why study music? an anthropologist's reflections from the field], in Cruces, Francisco and Galán, Beatriz Pérez (eds) Textos de Antropología Contemporánea, Madrid; Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, 2010, pp. 203-29 (reprinted from Antropología: Revista de Pensamiento Antropológico y Estudios Ethnográficos 15/16, 1999).

Other Academic and Related Items

1996-2001, joint ed. with L. Faulkner and (2001) D. Weinbren of Project Reports in Family and Community History, CD-ROM annual series, Milton Keynes, The Open University (available from Faculty of Social Sciences (CD-ROM orders), The Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA).

1998-2002 founder editor and joint general editor of Family and Community History, the twice-yearly academic journal founded in 1998 which extends the interests generated by the research-based Open University honours course DA301, Studying Family and Community History: 19th and 20th Centuries (1994-2001) and its CD-ROM archive of student research. The journal's focus is on small-scale studies in family and community history set within a scholarly framework and directed to independent as well as institutionally based researchers.

'Oral poetry' [article plus audio examples] Encarta, Microsoft, 1999 [multi-media CD-ROM encyclopaedia].

For further background on research interests and personal experiences over the years see the interview by Alan Macfarlane in the series 'Filmed Interviews with Leading Thinkers'.

In preparation

Early Irish Kingship; A Contribution to Anthropological History
The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers
The Shared Mind: Living in Dream, Knowledge and Music
Time to learn - from Africa

Creative writing

(as Catherine Farrar)

The Wild Thorn Rose, Callender Press 2012.

The Self Quartet, four novellas:

(as Ruth Finnegan)

Black Inked Pearl. A Girl's Quest (epic romance novel), Garn Press, 2015.

Kate’s Black Ink Poems, Callender, 2016.

Pearl of the Seas: a Fairytale Prequel to Black Inked Pearl, Callender 2016.

Film scripts, in preparation

Black Ink Pearl
Monsieur Le Comte de Tavannes

Oratorio libretto

David (music in process - Adrian Boynton)