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In Memoriam: Dr. Marilyn Silverman (1945-2019)

By Malcolm Blincow, Associate Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, York University & Ryan James, Instructor, Anthropology and Urban Studies, York University

After a prolonged and courageous struggle with cancer, Marilyn Silverman passed away at her home in Toronto, Canada on Tuesday, 18th June, 2019. After joining the Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology at York University as a Lecturer in 1971, she was one of the founding members of a separate Dept. of Anthropology in 1973, becoming Full Professor in 1996 until her retirement. She played a fundamental role in establishing the reputation of the department’s undergraduate and graduate programs at the provincial and national levels, and of its more general scholarly reputation in Canada and internationally. Until the end of her life she insisted on the significance of a Canadian anthropology that needed to recognize its own worth (“Amongst ‘Our Selves’: A Colonial Encounter in Canadian Academia,” Critique of Anthropology 11(4), 1991).

Marilyn was born, brought up, and entirely educated in Montreal, Quebec, a fact of which she was immensely proud; she remained a devoted Montrealer to the end of her life. Her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Anthropology were all taken at McGill, where she was particularly influenced by the undergraduate teaching of Peter Gutkind and Richard Salisbury, with Master’s and PhD supervision by the latter. In recognition of that legacy and debt, she was for many of its early years the Chair of CASCA’s Salisbury Award Selection Committee, and ultimately a generous benefactor to it; she also edited a collection of essays by Salisbury’s former students, Ethnography and Development: The Work of Richard F. Salisbury (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2004).

At York, Marilyn was an outstanding undergraduate lecturer, teacher, and mentor across the entire range of undergraduate and graduate years. Always superbly organized and clear, she synthesized and presented vast amounts of engaging material for the “Intro Anthro” courses which she taught for almost two decades. With more senior years, her courses ranged farther afield, to her specialties in Political Anthropology, Agrarian Studies, Historical Anthropology, and Methods. Her rigorous senior undergraduate and graduate seminars imparted to students her own quite formidable skills of organization and discipline, clarity, synthesis, and analysis – with little leeway granted for a too-easily purchased “theoretical creativity” unless it was securely grounded. This approach especially applied to her supervisory responsibilities, where she inculcated her own high standards of scholarship in insisting on the hard and practical nature of ethnographic fieldwork, its ethical-political dimension, and the necessity of recognizing a responsibility, pride, and integrity in its collection, analysis, dissemination, and effects.

As a mentor, Marilyn’s dedication never wavered. While enduring years of intermittent chemotherapy late in her career and into retirement, she saw her final cohort of doctoral candidates through to defense without compromising her high standards. The influence of her early years, which straddled a condition of middle-class aspirations and working-class roots and experiences, were apparent in her work ethic and communication style, and endeared her to students with similar class experiences. Supervisory committee meetings always took place over food and coffee, and consisted of a blend of encouragement, empathy, intellectual exchange, humour, and brutally honest feedback in roughly equal measures. While praising and critiquing alike, Marilyn never minced words. She respected her students’ autonomy and “ownership” over their research, but was as invested in their work as she was her own. She consistently encouraged students to appreciate the work of earlier anthropologists, showing how older insights could be refashioned to fit with current issues, different ethnographic contexts, and new theoretical problems.

Marilyn also played an active role in the development of scholarship in York’s wider university setting. Over a period of 10 years, from 1988-1997, she and Philip Gulliver (her York colleague, anthropological collaborator, and partner) co-organized a group of a dozen or so anthropologists and historians who engaged in informal joint interdisciplinary seminars. The seminars produced engaged, vital, and creative work, which helped shape their approach to historical anthropology as they developed it in the Irish fieldwork context. She was also a key figure in creating the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) and became one of the first Co-ordinators of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Programme. As an active and committed unionist she also held many different offices within the York University Faculty Association, the most important and satisfying being her several terms as Grievance Officer.

Her scholarship won Canadian and international recognition: particularly noteworthy were the 2007 Henrietta Harvey Distinguished Lectureship at Memorial University (Newfoundland) and the 2002 William A. Douglass Book Prize for Best Book of the Year in Europeanist Anthropology, An Irish Working Class: Explorations in Political Economy and Hegemony (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), awarded by the Society for European Anthropology of the AAA.

Marilyn’s scholarship was imbued with detailed and finely-grained field work, synthetic organization, and analytical clarity and acuity – a rare combination. In three different fieldwork settings (Guyana, Ecuador, and Ireland), these were harnessed to a singular theme that suffused all her work as a political and historical anthropologist: an attempt to understand inequality and its reproduction and contestation over time as it played out in the realm of politics.

In her earliest, doctoral field work (1969-70), conducted in a small rice-growing Indo-Guyanese village, she explored this theme through an emphasis on the doing of politics, of power in action as local-level political activity. Utilizing the emergent methodological breakthrough of the concept of social networks (which contested the older overarching assumption of the universality of “corporate groups” as fundamental to social structure), Marilyn meticulously documented the significance of factional politics as key to local-level elite domination in a colonial, now newly-independent, national polity. Based on this research and approach, her monograph Rich People and Rice: Factional Politics in Rural Guyana (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1980), along with the edited volume (with Richard Salisbury) of A House Divided? Anthropological Studies of Factionalism (ISER, Memorial University, Newfoundland, 1978), established her reputation internationally as one of the pioneers of this innovative approach to the anthropological understanding of local-level politics.

Her next, albeit brief (1977/78), phase of fieldwork took place in the coastal lowland area around Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she studied the emergent class formation of banana plantation producers. By this time Marilyn had moved theoretically into a more distinctly political-economic mode of analysis, concerned with how wider structures of political-economic power shaped local-level and regional politics. Here her framing influences derived from Latin American “dependency theory” and structuralist marxist anthropology, along with more than a glancing nod to regional and global historical processes. These influences shifted her analytical emphasis away from the study of political domination by local-level elites to that of domination exercised through local-level and regional class formation, reproduction, and contestation. Two key articles represent this phase of her scholarship: “Dependency, Mediation, and Class Formation in Rural Guyana,” American Ethnologist 6(3), 1979; and “Agrarian Processes within ‘Plantation Economies’: Cases from Guyana and Coastal Ecuador,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 24(4), 1987.

Marilyn’s third and most extensive period of fieldwork in Ireland (four years in total from 1980-2000) provided the locale for her final and major contribution to scholarship. In collaboration with Philip Gulliver she studied workers, merchants and shopkeepers, and farmers in a small rural town (Thomastown), its hinterland, and its surrounding region (County Kilkenny) over a two century long period. Ethnography was now embedded and elaborated through deep and rich long-term historical context obtained by the extensive use of archival materials. This approach to understanding the links between power and inequality offered a combined (yet complexly interwoven) understanding of: the local and regional political economy; the formation of local and regional classes and their reproduction and contestation; and the shifting dynamics of political forms, political contests, and political action. In short, it gathered together an understanding of the encompassment of power through histories, structures, events, and actions. This overarching synthesis, contained in numerous articles and four books jointly and singly written, remains a formidable contribution to the wider field of historically-embedded, local-level and regional, political-economic analysis.

For Marilyn in particular, her Irish fieldwork provided the occasion to develop a nuanced but grounded approach to theorizing class identity in a local context. This she most innovatively developed in her prize-winning monograph An Irish Working Class: Explorations in Political Economy and Hegemony. Here Marilyn engaged with and adapted the work of the Italian communist/marxist Antonio Gramsci, in particular his concepts of “hegemony”, “common sense”, and “contradictory consciousness”, in order to develop an overarching analytical framework for understanding class in rural Ireland. She insisted that the places in which anthropologists conduct fieldwork are not field sites, or communities, but “localities” – venues for studying macro-level socioeconomic and cultural processes and their political trajectories. These processes and trajectories are fundamental to the formation of emic class identities, identities sometimes partially structured by an etic (marxist) framework of the relationship to the means of production, sometimes not. In rural Ireland, these identities formed a “status-class hierarchy” that developed through generations of “metissage” – the braiding of various strands of experience and identity over time that come to coexist, despite their contradictions. The result is not a false consciousness, or even a straightforwardly contradictory consciousness, but “a complex consciousness” through which people interpret their lives and experiences.

Marilyn’s legacy lives on.

Marilyn’s Guyana fieldnotes and photos are archived at the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University; those from Marilyn’s and Philip Gulliver’s Irish fieldwork are archived the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

We wish to thank Dr. Kathy Gordon (Anthropology, Memorial University) and Dr. Maya Shapiro and others in attendance at a Memorial Panel, organized by Dr. James, held on December 5th 2019 in the Department of Anthropology, York University, for sharing their thoughts about and appreciation of Marilyn as a person, colleague, and scholar.

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