Dear colleagues,

I write to share the sad news that Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and in the College, passed away on April 5, 2021. As many of you know, Marshall was a singular force of nature, an original thinker, teacher, mentor, and spirited intellectual pugilist, one who will be equally remembered for his keen wit, constant humor, and generous humanity.

Marshall joined the Department of Anthropology as Professor in 1973 after receiving his doctorate in Anthropology at Columbia University in 1954 and teaching at the University of Michigan for over fifteen years. He retired in 1997, devoting himself to fulltime research and writing as well as serving as Executive Publisher of Prickly Paradigm Press, which revied the eighteenth-century pamphleteering tradition as a provocation to contemporary thought. 

A world-renowned scholar and teacher, Marshall made fundamental contributions to the anthropology of history, economy, and culture. His primary research was on indigenous Pacific Island communities during the European contact period, engaging Hawaiian and Fijian modes of kinship, political structures and concepts of nature as serious philosophical systems. His enduring interest was to show how cultural difference works in history and how history shapes culture, and to argue for the fundamental value and rigor of indigenous modes of thought. These concerns led him to major critiques of capitalist economics, of socio-biology, and of modernist concepts of nature.  Collectively, this body of work transformed the discipline of anthropology and moved it to the center of contemporary debates about capital, science, and imperialism. He was widely known for his lectures and love of intellectual debate. A fierce and fearless defender of intellectual and academic freedom, Marshall was a committed activist. He invented the “teach in” as a way to mobilize communities on campus to address U.S. wars, neoliberal reforms, and the homogenizing effects of economic globalization. In his teaching, lectures, and writing, he mobilized the integrity of cultural difference as a way of radically reorienting interdisciplinary debates on economy, society, authority, and subjectivity. 

A prolific and passionate writer, he authored nineteen books, produced over one hundred articles and essays, and his work has been translated into over twenty languages. Key publications include: Stone Age Economics (1972), Culture and Practical Reason (1976, which won the Gordon J. Laing Prize), Islands of History (1985), Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii (1992, written with Patrick Kirch, which won the J.I. Staley Prize), How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example (1995, which won a second the Gordon J. Laing Prize), Culture in Practice (2000), What Kinship is—and is Not (2012), and On Kings (2017, written with David Graeber). In recent years, Marshall was devoted to completing a projected three volume magnus opus on Oceanic cultures and thought. The first volume, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press in 2022.

Marshall was a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He lectured widely and internationally, including giving the Marc Bloch Lecture at the Sorbonne, the Sir James Frazer Lecture at the University of Liverpool, the Radcliffe Brown Lecture at the British Academy, the Sir Douglas Robb Lectures at the University of Auckland, and the Ryerson Lecture at the University of Chicago in 1992, to name but a few. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Université Libre de Bruxelles (1985), University of Paris X-Nanterre (1999), University of Michigan (2001), St. Andrews University, Scotland (2003), Universidad Federale de Minas Gerais, Brazil (2006), The London School of Economics (2011), University of Paris V (René Descartes) (2011), and McGill University (2017). In 2011, he was awarded Chevalier de l’Ordre de Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

The Sahlins family has generously established a fund for an annual Marshall Sahlins Memorial Lecture to be administered by the Department of Anthropology. If you would like to support that fund, more information is available here.

Information about a public memorial will be forthcoming as soon as pandemic protocols allow.


Joseph P. Masco
Professor and Chair
Department of Anthropology