Marilyn Strathern

Social anthropologist and former mistress of Girton College, University of Cambridge


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Marilyn Strathern , former Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

Question (1): What are you most passionate about? In life? In your work?
(1)  I don’t know if passion is the right word, but ever since being in Papua New Guinea Highlands I have never been able to leave Melanesia alone.  It is certain people I think of first, but of course they are not ‘my’ passion – whatever relationship we have has its own momentum.   All the same, at this distance, I could say that I am mesmerized by two things: by the physicality of the place (wind soughing through casuarina trees in the early afternoon, sweet potato cooked in the ashes, the smell of woodsmoke,  the opening of an earth oven, the intense clarity of the light, someone carefully breaking a pack of cigarettes or a spray of betelnut into ones or twos to sell), and by the way people think – but that last is not quite right, I mean rather by the thinking, by the imagination, that is forced upon one by how they convey what they do.   It is a double privilege for which I never cease to be grateful – but those are not just words in my mouth, these things have got under the skin.

Question (2): What makes you angry or, conversely, delighted?
(2)  Angry over:  (a)  The Thatcher legacy and the impoverishment of our (UK) political vocabulary.  Making assumptions about what motivates people.  (Could talk about the attack on civil service / bureaucracy; what is happening to the very idea of research – in science as well as humanities and social sciences: ’ impact’ etc.)
(b) Myself when I fail to do the obvious.  (Whether a courtesy to a colleague, a piece of homework for a meeting, speaking up when I should, whatever.)

Delighted by :   (a) logically — making connections; aesthetically — lines
(b) one to one conversations with close friends (as opposed to party mode)
(c) students’ successes; children’s achievements; grandchildren, tout court

Question (3): How and when did you become aware of anthropology as a field? What made you decide to pursue it?  Was there a book or teacher that particularly inspired you?  An idea?
(3)   I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know about social anthropology – but it must have been in my late teens at school.   I used to go digging (Roman remains) – loved archaeology – but was also inspired by my history teacher at school (we did the eighteenth century and I read a bit of Rousseau and had grandiose ideas about the study of ‘society’).  Found the combination of archaeology and anthropology in the first [undergraduate] year at Cambridge irresistible.  If I hadn’t gone to Cambridge would have gone to Oxford and read history. I was bowled over by two books before really starting the course: Structure and Function completely fascinated me; the description of the cattle bells in The Nuer gripped me for its detail and evocation.

Question (4): How would your earliest teachers or mentors (either in anthropology or beyond it) have described you when they first taught you? Were you shy?  Adventuresome?  Determined?  Unyielding?  Sure of yourself?  A bookworm?  And what did you think of them (at the time and then also now)?
(4)  I would include my parents among my teachers – e.g. my mother was teaching (adult education) courses on women and art, women and literature, etc.,  before second wave feminism began.    Have no idea what she thought – our companionship taken for granted perhaps and she must have found me receptive, possibly over-studious, but also lazy — I do recall her lamenting [for not trying to train it] my atrocious memory (has been atrocious ever since) and I had none of her language skills.  My university teachers?  Did they think I was shy, clever, not speaking up enough?  (had intellectual confidence, not social confidence).   Significant university teachers included Meyer Fortes and Edmund Leach (via their u.g. lectures) – inspiring.   Individual supervisors over the three years as undergraduate: they were mediators between me and the discipline (didn’t really stop to think what I thought of them, though became fond of all of three).

Question (5): You have been a visiting scholar in the U.S. and Australia, and have had along and distinguished career in the U.K..  Has anything in particular struck you about the differences in the practice of anthropology (and the university systems) in the different places in which you have worked, taught, and/or lived?  Or would you argue that the similarities in university life and structure, bureaucratic regulations, and relations with the state or the market prevail?
(5)  An interesting question.  Between the US and the UK (the Australian system is quite close to UK, but I was never in an Australian teaching dept.) there are both organizational differences (in the way departments are administered, students graded, choosing subjects is managed) and other differences such as the role of competition between students and relations of patronage between staff and students.  The current national Higher Education audit system in the UK corresponds I believe to some US audit practices carried out at other levels  — but relations with the state are, of course, different in terms of public and private provision.  One global tendency, however, over the last thirty plus years, has been for the university to move from the position of an entity valued for being (to all intents and purposes) independent of market and state to being valued for its proximity to them.  But, as I imply, this isn’t confined to the US and UK.

Question (6): Some of my students really want to know what your hopes are for thefuture of anthropology.  Do you think this is a question worth asking, and would your answer energize them or cause them to pause?
(6)   I hope it would energise them – though perhaps from an unusual angle.  Anthropology can look back on a century of superlative ethnographic work in the way that – a century ago! — it could not have.   Something I have long thought about is how we keep that work alive, because that life is bound up with how we live in the here and now: it requires an acute sense of our present circumstances.  For as our ideas ‘newly’ unfold we are able to ask fresh questions of what otherwise seem ‘old’ data—and it is in the freshness of our questions that past and present both live.  That gives everyone’s past a future ….

Question (7):  Did you ever consider taking a different career path—either before
beginning your career as an anthropologist, or during?  Clearly as an intellectual leader and a leader in academic administration you have experienced variety in your duties and responsibilities, but I believe you have always stayed grounded in the academic world.  Am I wrong?
(7)  Career path:  no.  Stayed grounded: right.  Though fairest to say that I have remained grounded in anthropology.   Rather a zigzag career in the academy as such, in fact, until I went to Manchester University in 1985.  Partly because of personal circumstances (marrying young and marrying an anthropologist) I never seriously considered anything else.  But then it was a privileged time: in the UK the university system was expanding, and I was lucky in the support I had.  Things are much, much more difficult now.

Question (8):  When you write, do you struggle with it?  Do you always write at a certain time of day or night?  Do you write drafts as a way of exploring what you think or only once you have decided what you think?  Are you especially proud of one or two of your written publications (books or articles)?
(8)  Writing is definitely a struggle, but the struggle takes place at a rather odd juncture.   Typical trajectory for a paper: (a)  initial depression, have nothing worth saying, etc.  [this can’t be faked /  clears the decks]; (b) getting out of the depression , exhilarating rush of  the first draft, usually written quite fast;  (c) the struggle:  eliminating all the absurdities and mistakes of the draft – this is the phase where the real work gets done, can be quite daunting; (d) editing the more or less final version, also enjoyable.  Book I enjoyed writing most is Partial Connections (1991). Oh and I am an early morning person – or was! – and the best time for writing was before anyone else was about (I can organize my thoughts in the first part of the day – become less and less capable of doing so as the day wears on).

Question (9):  What emboldens you, or enables you to take risks (in your thinking,writing, professional choices, or otherwise)?  Or do you think of yourself as risk-averse?
(9)  Don’t think of myself as taking risks – do think of myself as from time to time challenging conventional ways of thinking.  (In many other ways I am extremely conventional.)

Question (10):  Do you have a favorite novel, poem, play, film, work of art, song, ormeal?  Does this question make you smile or does it seem to come “out of the blue”?  As I try to help our readers and listeners get to know the person (who is also an anthropologist) and not just the work, I ask questions that sometimes surprise people.  Is this one of those?  If not, what would be a real eyebrow-raiser were I to ask it?  I almost asked you if you have any guilty pleasures and are willing to let us know about them now.  I also almost asked you which of the many impressive titles, prizes, and distinctions you have been awarded are dearest to your heart.  But I wasn’t sure I dared to ask.   Should I?
(10)   What makes me smile is that I dislike being asked for an opinion (’what is your favourite X?’) – I find ‘the opinion’ an awkward genre, and squirm at hearing interviewers on the radio trying to elicit an opinion from an athlete who just lost an event, or someone who has just triumphed for that matter.   But I can tell you this: I have been sorting out my books and, among the many collections I have, I cherish my Ray Bradbury, Ursula le Guin and C.J. Cherryh.  (At the moment I am re-reading I, Claudius [Robert Graves] that had a huge effect on me when I was [I think] about 13.)

Eyebrow raisers and guilty pleasures?  Well, chocolate bars apart [when things were more hectic than they are now, and I was not looking after my health, chocolate, coffee and vitamin C were my principal props], but what I didn’t want people to know about was that there were periods when — one way or another — I worked all the time.  I improved when I began taking holidays seriously and, if anybody is listening, would just like to pass that on.  But perhaps more obviously a pleasure (though not so much guilt) is the fact that I have always liked institutions, including hospitals, and their organizational rituals and routines.

Yes, well, quite, about the awards: they are all appreciated.   But the two that are a little special is the 30th Anniversary of Independence medal from the Papua New Guinea Government, and a little later an honorary degree from the University Papua New Guinea.

Question (11): When you look back on your work so far (and its various topics orthemes, from gender to audit cultures to reproduction and kinship in very different parts of the world), do you now tend to see the discontinuities in your work over the course of those decades more than the shared threads (or moves), or is it, in fact, the opposite?
(11)  Aware that other people might see vast leaps and gaps between different areas of my work, I have myself  only been conscious of the continuities and connections, even if they’ve been no more than a hinge on which a door can swing.  The exception to this, I suppose, is my interest in audit cultures, which came specifically from the position I found myself in as Head of Department at first Manchester and then Cambridge.

Question (12):  Many of us in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who know about the new A-level in anthropology recently approved in the U.K. (for secondary schools) are excited and impressed that our colleagues in the U.K. managed to get this done.   Were you involved at one or various steps in the process?  What was the process like?  I hear it took years.
(12)  Good question, but I wasn’t anything to do with it.  This was very largely an initiative of the RAI.

Question (13): What inspired you to begin anthropological studies of English kinship? Would you agree that an increasing number of scholars (mostly in Britain) have begun to attend to the anthropology of Britain, perhaps following your lead?  Would you also agree that non-English anthropologists tend not to engage the anthropology of Britain?
(13)  Three distinct beginnings: Audrey Richards and Elmdon – picking up fieldwork that had been done by other people under her direction (late 70s /early 80s); NRT developments – being asked for an anthropological view on egg donation between sisters and waking up to the public debate about kinship (mid 80s); having finishedThe Gender of the Gift and needing to write something a bit more subtle about what I then called ‘western’ life late 80s).

There always was a distinct strand of British ethnography, which I joined rather than led (where I have perhaps led is in juxtaposing issues arising from this material with questions from Melanesian anthropology).   Interesting question about non-English anthropologists (who tend to regard their work as ‘anthropology at home’)… is this also true of the States?  You are involved with the International Forum for US Studies – what does the ‘international’ refer to?

Question (14): What is the question you most wish I had asked and didn’t?
(14)  I am not sure I wish you had asked it, but you don’t say anything about anxieties, fears and defects.  Negative feelings, including bad feelings about one’s capabilities, have an important role to play in anything one does.  At the same time I have often, in a thoroughly old-fashioned way [does one belong to one’s parents’ formative years – would that make me an Edwardian?], followed my mother’s attempt to separate inner and outer states of being.  Because I think there is something important to the idea that one can interact with others, do things, have an effect, regardless of inner feelings.  I thus put quite a high value on performance despite calamity, or on the stoicism with which I see friends managing sometimes extremely difficult circumstances, something I really admire.  (According to good structural-functionalist tenets, as an office-holder I had no problem in managing a distinction between person and office.)  Of course, I am also not my mother, and have to say that the moments of peace come when such distinctions blend and, in the idiom we use, it is possible for one to be ‘oneself’.


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