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Philip Hugh Gulliver (1921-2018)



Philip Hugh Gulliver died peacefully in his sleep from “the old man’s friend”, pneumonia, on Friday, March 30th, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. He was born in Maldon, Essex, on September 2nd, 1921 and was raised in the rural village of Barkestone-Le-Vale, Leicestershire, England. Both his parents were schoolteachers. On the eve of World War II he entered University College, Nottingham, to study geography, but with the outbreak of hostilities he volunteered for service, spending most of the war (1942-1944) in the North African desert as an aircraft radio technician in the RAF. As with so many anthropologists-in-the-making at that time, Gulliver’s wartime experience entailed multiple crossings of boundaries – physical, emotional, moral, as well as sociocultural and intellectual, all of which later impelled him towards his vocation as an anthropologist.

Following the war, he completed his undergraduate education – now in sociology – through an external degree programme linked with the University of London. He then pursued doctoral studies in anthropology at the London School of Economics, serving as Assistant Lecturer in Social Anthropology (1951-52) while completing his Ph.D. (1952) under the supervision of Raymond Firth. This was based on three years of fieldwork (1948-51) with Turkana pastoralists of northern Kenya and Jie agro-pastoralists of Uganda. During this period he was significantly assisted, both as field researcher and collaborator, by his then-wife, Pamela Gulliver. The work resulted in the first complex understanding, amongst pastoralist populations, of the processual links between the shifting contexts of ecology and the dynamics of household life cycles, as well as the first detailed ethnography and explanation of age set systems. His resulting extensive monograph, The Family Herds: A Study of Two Pastoral Tribes in East Africa (1955), rapidly became and has remained an acknowledged classic in pastoralist studies.

Gulliver’s pioneering contributions as an Africanist and comparativist, as well as ethnographer and theorist, emerged from this first and subsequent immersions in a variety of field contexts in East and Central Africa – altogether an astonishing dozen years of fieldwork in seven different societies over a two decade period (1948-70).

He was, for six years (1952-58), Research Sociologist to the Government of Tanganyika. His first research in that period (1952-54) was with the Ngoni and Ndendeuli peoples of southern Tanganyika, focusing on issues of labour migration, history and political change, economic development, and, most importantly, social control/law. However, the main scholarly work which emerged from this research (Neighbours and Networks: The Idiom of Kinship in Social Action among the Ndendeuli) was not published until 1971, largely because the then-current models in anthropology were of little use in making sense of a society without corporate groups. In the 1960s, whilst re-examining the data he had collected a decade earlier, Gulliver pioneered new ways of conceptualizing and describing social relations “in action” in the settlement of disputes, using social network analysis and the concept of action-set.

His next period of fieldwork (1954-5) was spent among the Nyakyusa, and focused on labour migration and problems of land scarcity and social change. It resulted in Land Tenure and Social Change among the Nyakyusa (1958). This was followed by a spell amongst migrant and settled plantation workers in northeastern Tanganyika, after which he worked amongst the Arusha (1956-8), a period of fieldwork which led to one of his most important books, a major contribution to the emerging sub-discipline of the anthropology of law, Social Control in an African Society (1963).

At the end of his contract with the Government of Tanganyika in 1958, Gulliver spent several years in the United States, teaching first at Harvard (1958-59) and then at Boston University (1959-62). In 1962, he returned to Britain and joined the fledgling anthropology department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He remained there as Lecturer, then Reader (1965), and eventually Professor of African Anthropology (1967) until 1971, apart from briefly teaching at Makerere College, University of East Africa in Uganda (1965) and again in the U.S. at the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington (1969). During this period, he was also the recipient of the Wellcome Medal for Anthropology (Wellcome Foundation, 1957) and the W.H.R. Rivers Memorial Medal for Anthropological Research (Royal Anthropological Institute, 1966).

During his time at SOAS, he was able to re-visit some of his former research areas in East Africa. He also published a good deal, including (apart from numerous articles) Social Control in an African Society (1963), The Family Estate in Africa (edited with Robert Gray) (1964), Tradition and Transition in East Africa (editor, 1969) and Neighbours and Networks (1971). These writings covered the topics of labour migration, kinship, and age-set systems, amongst others, but his primary interest and contribution centered on social control, dispute management, negotiations, and the anthropology of law. Finally, and not least, this was also a productive period in terms of his supervision of a number of postgraduates who went on to become prominent academic anthropologists in Britain and elsewhere.

In 1971 he immigrated to Canada to assume the position of Professor of Anthropology at the University of Calgary, Alberta. He subsequently moved to York University, Toronto, Ontario in 1972, also as Professor of Anthropology. He was a foundational figure in the creation of a separate Department of Anthropology in 1975 and in establishing its graduate programme in 1975-1976; from 1979-82 he was its Graduate Programme Director. He taught key courses of the department’s curriculum at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, while also fostering and supervising graduate students. He also co-initiated informal evening seminars with colleagues from anthropology, history, and law. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1982 and appointed Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology in 1984. He remained at York until his official retirement in 1992 (as Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus), delivering the Plenary Address at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Anthropology Society held there in 1993.  He continued to do some teaching as well as to carry out further research and to extensively publish.

After his arrival at York, Gulliver continued with his primary interest in disputes, but now shifted his emphasis to the collection of comparative materials on the processes of industrial disputes and negotiations in Western societies. This led to one of his best-known works, Disputes and Negotiations: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (1979). In it he deployed a masterful inter-disciplinary synthesis of models of disputes and negotiations from the social psychological, game theoretic, labour relations, and legal literatures to develop a theoretical, comparative model of dispute and negotiation processes from an anthropological perspective. In the same period, he edited a symposium, Cross-examinations: Essays in Memory of Max Gluckman (1978), in honour of Max Gluckman, whose work in the anthropology of law he much admired.

Following this, Gulliver decided that he wanted to undertake further field research and to pursue his research interests in a Western society and to develop the kind of historical study that had been difficult to research in some of the East African societies he had previously worked in. In co-operation with his fellow York University anthropologist and partner Marilyn Silverman, he began to carry out ethnographic and archival research in the Republic of Ireland, focusing on a small town and its rural hinterland in County Kilkenny. Together they engaged in a cumulative total of over three years of field and archival research in Ireland through two decades (1980-2000), accumulating some 40,000 pages of field and archival materials. In addition to a number of articles, Gulliver and Silverman published a social history of their locale, entitled In the Valley of the Nore: A Social History of Thomastown, County Kilkenny, 1840-1983 (1986), edited a collection of essays in historical anthropology (Approaching the Past: Historical Anthropology through Irish Case Studies (1992), and completed another book entitled Merchants and Shopkeepers: An Historical Anthropology of an Irish Market Town, 1200-1986 (1995).

If one were to attempt to summarize the key theme of Gulliver’s overall approach to anthropology, it would be to emphasize his position that the final purpose of the discipline was to pursue comparative analysis in the form of generalizations (theory) through the particulars of field research (ethnography).  For him, that link was indissoluble. In pursuing this ideal, he always brought to bear a concern to work through certain key conceptual and empirical dualities that have long informed and troubled the discipline and its practitioners: social relations and material interests; change and history; small-scale and wider context. With his passing, we have lost a superb exemplar and “senior elder” of this tradition.

He is survived by his long-time partner Marilyn, his former wife Pamela, his four sons (Paul, Clive, Simon, and Aidan), eight grandchildren, and one great-grandson.

His East African fieldnotes and photos are archived at SOAS, University of London; those from his and Silverman’s fieldwork in Ireland are held at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.

[Acknowledgements: This obituary draws on information and extracts from “A Dedication to Philip Gulliver” by Marilyn Silverman with Pat Caplan, in Pat Caplan (ed.), Understanding Disputes: The Politics of Argument (London: Berg, 1995), pp. vii-xvi, and from Malcolm Blincow, “A Tribute to Philip Gulliver”, in Culture: XIII (2), 1993, pp. 75-76.]

Malcolm Blincow, Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, York University.

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