Max Gluckman was born in Johannesburg on 26 Feb 1911. He was the son of Emmanuel Gluckmann (1881-1953), a lawyer, and Katie Gluckmann née Cohen (1884-1968), a prominent figure in South African Zionist circles. Gluckman's parents had emigrated from Russia some years earlier (Gluckman later dropped the final n from his surname).
Gluckman attended King Edward VII School, Johannesburg, before entering the University of the Witwatersrand in 1928. He originally studied law but switched to anthropology, being taught this subject by Winifred Hoernlé and Isaac Schapera. Following a successful undergraduate career, he gained a Rhodes scholarship in 1934 to continue his studies at Exeter College, Oxford.
At Oxford, Gluckman was influenced by the dominant functionalist approach to anthropology represented by Edward Evans-Pritchard, who became a lifelong friend, and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Gluckman received his doctorate in 1936, and thereafter undertook field research in Zululand, South Africa.
In 1939, Gluckman joined the staff of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). He undertook fieldwork with the Lozi in Barotseland, which he later developed into a series of influential articles. In 1941, he was made temporary director of the Institute, an appointment which was made permanent in 1942. In 1947 Gluckman moved to Oxford as lecturer in social anthropology, before being appointed to the newly-created chair in social anthropology at the University of Manchester in 1949. During the 1950s Gluckman strove to build up the Manchester department into one of the most important in the country. He maintained fruitful connections with the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, which his students used as a research base, and in turn, Gluckman brought Institute staff to Manchester as visiting scholars or staff members. He instituted an influential weekly seminar at Manchester, inviting economists, social scientists and philosophers to share ideas from their disciplines. Many of Gluckman's students went on to senior positions in academic anthropology.
Gluckman was a major figure, both nationally and internationally, in the institutionalisation of anthropology. He was chairman of the Association of Social Anthropologists from 1962-1966, and a member of the Human Sciences Committee of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Social Studies Sub-Committee of the University Grants Committee, and the Social Anthropology Committee of the Social Sciences Research Committee. In 1974 he was appointed to the Advisory Group of the Sports Council (Gluckman had been a very successful student athlete). Gluckman delivered a number of named lectures including the Frazer lecture at the University of Glasgow in 1952, the Josiah Mason lectures at the University of Birmingham in 1955, the Munro lectures at Edinburgh in 1958 and 1960, the Storrs lectures at Yale University in 1963, and the Maxwell Cumming lectures at McGill University in 1971. He was awarded the Wellcome Medal and the Rivers Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Gluckman was elected FBA in 1968 and a honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1970. He married Marie Brignoli in 1939, and they had three sons. At the time of his death he was Lady Davies distinguished professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Gluckman made influential contributions to both theoretical and applied anthropology. The term 'Manchester School of Anthropology' was coined to refer to the ideas and methods of Gluckman and his associates and followers. Noted as an assiduous fieldworker, his studies in Zululand and Barotseland were developed into an influential analysis of social conflict in tribal societies. Gluckman argued that in pluralist colonial societies, conflict reflected a complicated interaction of social and political roles, which were enacted in such a way to produce ultimately a restabilisation of the social order; such societies were characterised by "rebellions" rather than "revolutions". Gluckman also played a major role in developing a new field of legal anthropology, again based on his research in central Africa. His studies of Bartose jurisprudence, which emphasised the dependence of legal concepts on pre-existing social relations, won praise from jurists and anthropologists alike.
Gluckman's methodological approach to anthropology involved a careful balance of the abstract and the empirical; his theoretical works were always grounded in data gathered from fieldwork. Gluckman and his followers emphasised the importance of studying the actual workings of given social practices within wider social systems, a practice-oriented approach which contrasted with structuralist and functionalist approaches to anthropology. The emphasis on a case-study approach was held to be distinguishing feature of the Manchester School. Gluckman also advocated comparative studies between radically different societies, for example, contemporary African and medieval European societies, and he believed strongly that anthropology could both inform and be influenced by other disciplines. This cross-disciplinary approach was exemplified by his Manchester seminars; papers from which were published as Closed systems and open minds: the limits of naivety (1964).
Gluckman authored many works, the most significant of which were The judicial process among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia (1955), Custom and conflict in Africa (1955), Order and rebellion in tribal Africa (1963),Politics, law and ritual in tribal society (1965), and The ideas in Barotse jurisprudence (1965).