Passing of Professor Raymond T. Smith

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In Memorium

Raymond T. Smith, retired Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, passed away on October 1, 2015. He will be sadly missed by colleagues and former students across several continents and not least in the Caribbean, the region to which he devoted much of his research in the course of a long and distinguished career.

Born in 1925, Raymond Smith entered Cambridge University where he pursued anthropology and graduated with a doctorate in 1954. Subsequently he worked at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the Jamaican campus of the University of West Indies (UWI). There followed appoints at the University of California (Berkeley), the University of Ghana, McGill University in Montreal and then, from 1966 until his retirement in 1995, at the University of Chicago. At Chicago he distinguished himself in all three areas of research, teaching and administration. In particular, he made important and lasting contributions to the development of social science at the UWI and, in the 1980s and 1990s, to the orientation of the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. Eminent colleagues with whom he worked are many, both in the Caribbean and at Chicago.

Raymond Smith’s initial research focused on kinship, race and politics in British Guiana (now Guyana). Later he pursued these interests both with reference to the wider Caribbean and the Americas. While his field research most often concerned issues of kinship and family organisation, he pursued these matters in the context of class, race, poverty and gender. Broad themes of colonial relations, regional social change, and regional configurations of both race and class informed his work. Thereby he was able to demonstrate a role in anthropology for kinship studies as a vehicle for interpreting larger historical milieus. Raymond Smith had a particular gift both for ethnographic and historical writing. His first two monographs demonstrate these skills in turn, brought together with considerable effect in his later essay collection, The Matrifocal Family (1996).

Throughout his career, a major concern was to debunk the naturalisation of various types of social relation. In turn, Smith took aim at a supposedly universal nuclear family, race relations, and the norms of different social classes. He was especially interested in the issue of race, the naturalisation of so-called colour classifications, and the usefulness of ‘ethnicity’ as a term to describe forms of socio-cultural difference. This focus led him to embrace a cultural-symbolic anthropology able to reveal how these phenomena could be constructed in ways that served one or another order, among them the colonial state and gender and class relations.

Consistent with these interests, Max Weber was probably Raymond Smith’s central intellectual influence paired with the mid-twentieth century structural functionalism of Meyer Fortes (social anthropologist of West Africa) and Talcott Parsons (theoretical sociologist). These influences underline that Raymond Smith came to symbolic anthropology not principally through semiotics but rather through a sophisticated and systematic sociology. As a consequence, he was less interested in cultural relativism as an over-arching theme. Rather he wrote about the particular ways in which systematic forms of inequality became manifest in social life and politics.

Though ostensibly diffident as a teacher, Raymond Smith was a true educator; always wonderfully prepared, lucid, and mildly humorous from time to time. He was a hard task-master who nonetheless guided students deftly and productively through vast fields of literature. His own most lucid writing style set the standard for those he taught; a style that students struggled to match. In more general terms of intellectual and academic endeavour, he was a model of principled commitment. Raymond Smith’s constructive support for students and for junior colleagues especially, brought together his intellectual skills with his administrative ones. He was insightful, practical and compassionate.
Raymond Smith is survived by his wife Flora, three children, six grandchildren and three great-grand children.

Diane Austin-Broos
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
University of Sydney
Ph.D. 1974 University of Chicago

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Raymond T. Smith's personal webpage

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