Malcolm Ruel was educated at St Dunstan's College, Catford and Cambridge University, where he obtained a BA in Social Anthropology in 1951 under the tutelage of Professor Meyer Fortes. He then moved to Oxford University, to do an MPhil on the Dinka, followed by a DPhil (1959), supervised by Professor E E Evans-Pritchard.
Ruel undertook two main periods of Anthropological fieldwork, firstly in West Africa from May 1953 to December 1954, with the Banyang people in the Upper Cross River area of the Cameroons, an area of tropical rainforest. He lived in a hut in the village of Besongabang ,and having left his Land Rover, he would recount that he walked through in the forest in plimsolls, as these drained water more easily. This work resulted in the publication of his first book (1969) 'Leopards and Leaders'.
His second period of fieldwork, from June 1957 to Dec. 1958, was with the Kuria in East Africa, in an area of rolling grassland. There he lived, in a series of canvas tents, at first in Renchoka District of S.W Kenya, travelling widely within the area, and subsequently for four months in Butimbaru in N.W. Tanganyika, to undertake a comparative study. During the German/British Colonial period, the International boundary had been arbitrarily drawn, dividing the Kuria people, who still retained close links across the border.
In 1956 he made a short return visit to the Cameroons, and after retirement in 2002, made many visits to Kenya. In both areas, he learnt, with the assistance of native speakers, to speak their language fluently - a task he felt strongly to be essential for any Anthropologist.
Following fieldwork, he taught Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University, and subsequently at Cambridge University, becoming a Fellow of Clare College, and retired in 2002.