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Sir Jack Goody, F.B.A. 

Sir John Rankine (Jack) Goody was born in London on 27th July 1919 and died on 16th July 2015, shortly before his ninety-sixth birthday. He was one of the great social anthropologists and comparative sociologists of the twentieth century. It is not easy to summarize his contribution in more than twenty-five published books and many articles, as well as the effect he had on academic life as an innovative administrator. 

Jack Goody’s father was a technical journalist and he grew up in Welwyn Garden City and then went to St Alban’s School. He went up to St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1938 to read English and was influenced by socialism and the literary criticism associated with F.R. Leavis.

Goody went to fight in North Africa where he was captured at Tobruq in 1942 and spent two and a half years in and out of prisoner of war camps, escaping twice and being recaptured. In Stalag 7B in Germany he read widely, including two books which shaped his life, James Frazer’s Golden Bough and V. Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History.

Goody returned to complete his degree and then went on to do a one-year diploma in anthropology in Oxford where, amongst others, he was influenced by Edward Evans-Pritchard. He then spent two years as an adult education officer with Hertford County Council before starting a doctorate in anthropology. He spent two periods of fieldwork in the Gold Coast and completed the doctorate in 1954.

In 1954 Goody returned to Cambridge as an assistant lecturer, later becoming Smuts Reader in Commonwealth Studies. He became a teaching Fellow of St John’s College in 1961 and succeeded Fortes as William Wyse Professor in 1973.

Between 1971 and his retirement in 1984 Jack expanded the Department in many ways – taking on many more students, devising a new Tripos, forming links with neighbouring Departments, encouraging new film and computer technologies. He was an excellent local politician and was determined to keep anthropology as an open subject, dealing with all human variation. 

When he took early retirement in 1984  he had already published seven single-authored works, and several important co-edited books. After retirement he entered his most productive writing period, publishing another fourteen books, some of them lengthy.

One way to approach this large corpus is to see it under four main themes. One is the area of kinship and marriage. He wrote seven books in this field, including Death, Property and the Ancestors (1962), Production and Reproduction (1976) and The European Family (2000). Kinship is the toughest and most technical part of anthropology and one where the discipline has contributed most profoundly. Goody’s work on descent, inheritance, bridewealth and dowry, incest and adultery, is a signal achievement.

A second theme was orality, writing and representation, covered in further books; among them are The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (1986), The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977) and The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (1987). His work in transcribing and editing The Myth of the Bagre (1972), was ground-breaking. He was one of the major figures in this field.

A third theme was material culture and technology on which he published half a dozen books, including Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa (1971), Cooking, Cuisine and Class (1982), Food and Love (1998) and his last book, written in his nineties, Metals, Culture and Capitalism (2012). Goody opened up an area which is often overlooked by social scientists, namely the intersection of material and cultural worlds. He showed how the technologies of production (hoe and plough), and of destruction (spear and gun), have shaped history and the contact of cultures, and how the technologies of food and flowers express and shape our world.

A fourth theme was an attempt to balance what he considered to be the Eurocentric vision concerning the differences between western Europe and Asia. There were another six books including The East in the West (1996), Islam in Europe (2004), The Theft of History (2006) and The Eurasian Miracle (2010). In an age when global history is expanding fast, the breadth of Goody’s knowledge, rooted in both history an anthropology, with a deep understanding of African and Islamic civilizations, and a keen interest in India and the Far East, made his contributions to the attack on Euro-centric bias and arrogance of western triumphalism in the Cold War years a major contribution.

As well as his enormous productivity as a writer and academic administrator, Goody lived life to the full, travelling, exploring, entertaining and forming many deep friendships. He was a warm and physical man, loyal to his friends, and deeply curious about everything. 

Given how much he achieved, it is worth considering what made this possible. One was finding a central problem; there was a core to all his work which gives it consistency and unity. This is the question as to why Eur-Asia had developed through the Neolithic and post-Neolithic revolutions while Africa had not done so. His originality arose out of the fact that he did not become constrained by a particular academic fashion. Goody was a materialist, but not a Marxist, interested in myth and communication, but not a structuralist. Because of his interests, in his later years he was more famous in France than in England. Likewise, his reputation was as great, in neighbouring disciplines, particularly history and literary studies, as it was in social anthropology. 

Goody had a very large library, and his rooms were knee-deep in paper. He worked on several books simultaneously, so if one stalled, he proceeded with another. He moved swiftly from one topic to another so that he did not become stale. He wrote fast and in an almost unreadable hand, using a memory stuffed with information and following his swift and connecting intuitions to bring together ideas from disparate fields. The result are books of great energy and insight, opening up new intellectual territories and refreshing old ones.

There are those who have felt that he wrote too much, too fast, and that some of the work is not easy to read because there has been too little attention to the final polishing. There are others who feel that his project to find deep similarities between East and West is partly flawed because he did not sufficiently distinguish between Renaissance and renaissance, Capitalism and capitalism, Industrialization and industrialization, Science and science, Enlightenment and enlightenment. 

Yet there can be no doubt that in a period of what he described as The Expansive Moment (1995), when a small group of anthropologists contributed more to our understanding of the world than many larger disciplines, he was one of the great figures. Great not only as a writer, but also through his unbounded curiosity, courage in trespassing on other’s fields, warmth and humanity. 

Goody received many honours, including a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1976, of the National Academy of Sciences (2004), a Knighthood in 2005, and Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2006).

Goody married three times and had five children. With Joan (Wright), he had Jeremy, Joanna and Jane, with Esther (Newcomb) Mary and Rachel and his third wife and widow Juliet Mitchell, and his step-daughter Polly. His younger brother Richard is a distinguished scientist.

Alan MacFarlane

To cite this article:

MACFARLANE, ALAN. 2015. ‘Sir Jack Goody, F.B.A.’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, 2015. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/jack-goody).

An excellent biographical resource by Alan Macfarlane featuring interviews and films of notable deceased and living anthropologists may be found via the following link http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/ancestors/anthropology.htm