Sidney W. Mintz, 1922-2015

I first met Sid, as he preferred everyone, including students, to call him, as a postgraduate at the Oxford Institute of Social Anthropology in the early 1970s. The Institute had a bizarre rule about when smoking was allowed, which depended on the distinction between a lecture and a seminar. Manifesting his typical attention to local detail, Sid prefaced his talk with a declaration that allowed us to light up. But as I drew appreciatively on my cigarette, I became convinced within ten minutes that this was the kind of anthropology I wanted to do. Sid had that effect on most people.

Born of immigrant parents in the small town of Dover, New Jersey, Mintz, who died on December 27, 2015, at the age of 93 in Plainsboro, New Jersey, from injuries sustained in a fall, was the last to pass of a distinguished generation of Columbia postgraduates who came together following military service in the Second World War to form a group they named “The Mundial Upheaval Society”. Sid became Ruth Benedict’s student, always respecting her contributions despite their paradigmatic differences. But attending Alexander Lesser’s lectures while studying undergraduate psychology at Brooklyn College had already attracted him to an anthropology synthesising the Boasian and British paradigms. Nevertheless, Sid wanted to add a third element to the synthesis, historical materialism purged of Eurocentrism and reductionist views of culture. Methodologically, Sid was attracted by the cultural ecology of Julian Steward, who joined the Columbia department in 1947, cutting his ethnographic teeth working on Steward’s Puerto Rico project. This satisfied his commitment to extending anthropological enquiry to multi-class, multi-ethnic social formations, but Marxism produced a conceptual divide between Steward’s introduction and the conclusion that Sid and his friend Eric Wolf penned for the project’s main publication, The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology (1956).

Mintz’s also contributed his ethnography of a sugar plantation to that book, but the challenge to his earlier assumptions posed by news that his key informant had converted to Pentecostalism drew Sid into a life history project, subsequently translated into Spanish and French, Worker in the Cane (1960). Although Sid’s insistence on a broad and deep historical perspective is another hallmark of his contribution, ensuring him a wide readership amongst professional historians, he was a dedicated fieldworker who insisted that ethnographic research must remain the cornerstone of anthropological knowledge, repeatedly returning to the ethical and political issues that prompted him to write that book. Along with three periods in Puerto Rico, he also did extended fieldwork in Jamaica and Haiti. This provided him with the basis for comparative writing on “reconstituted” Caribbean peasantries and path-breaking analyses of the world-historical significance of the Caribbean region as a whole.

Caribbean Transformations, the last book he published while a faculty member at Yale, was a widely praised contribution in this area, complemented by many critical essays on the need to understanding how historical links with different European colonial powers contributed to the diversity found amongst the islands. These include his Huxley Lecture, published in JRAI in 1996 as “Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikoumene”, which provides a succinct statement of why a region forcibly re-populated by people brought from elsewhere and mixed together played a unique role in world history as the true birthplace of Western “modernity”. Mintz wrote brilliantly about how to theorise meaningfully about the Caribbean as a whole, arguing that current debates about globalization, transnationalism and creolization attributed too much historical novelty to these processes. But he also possessed the linguistic skills and ethnographic and historical knowledge needed to explain the different trajectories of societies and politics in the British, Dutch, French and Hispanic Caribbean. These contributions, the last of which was the book Three Ancient Colonies. Caribbean Themes and Variations (2010), reshaped scholarship across disciplines.

After moving to Johns Hopkins in 1975, Mintz published The Birth of African American Culture, co-authored with historian Richard Price, which injected power relations into debates about which elements of slave culture in the Americas might be rooted in Africa as distinct from products of New World adaptations and syncretism. He also edited a book on Slavery, Colonialism and Racism that brought together essays on the Americas and Africa, and in 1985 continued publication on diversity within the Caribbean itself with Caribbean Contours, co-edited with French Caribbean specialist Sally Price. The same year brought us one anthropology’s most widely read modern classics, Sweetness and Power.

This book reflects Sid’s longstanding interest in the anthropology of food, rooted in a childhood during which his father had worked his way up to become owner of a restaurant, only to lose it in the 1929 crisis. Sid was a wonderful cook and any meal out with him was an education in food culture. But part of that education depended on his memories of food insecurity in the USA during the Depression, as well as his knowledge of the blood, sweat and tears, as well as skill and cultural creativity, of workers and peasants in global food chains. Sweetness and Power is a classic because it covers all possible dimensions of the food problem (including the fact that consuming sucrose is bad for us), but power is absolutely central to it: the power of capital, the power (and weaknesses) of empires and nation states, and the power of class, gender and race. It is also about food as symbol and the production of meaning, but urges us to recognise the role of upper class power and profit in shaping the social meanings of food and patterns of lower class consumption. Mintz examined the connections between Caribbean plantations, slavery and other forms of unfree labour, and the formation of a British industrial working class that was “free” in the Marxist sense through the full story of the sugar that kept British workers going through an arduous day on an inadequate diet and in happier times came to figure in their moments of celebration. The story includes the rise and fall of Caribbean plantation owners’ influence within the imperial state. Yet all Sid’s work offers a complementary bottom-up perspective. The “agency” Sid ascribed to the exploited and oppressed was, nevertheless, not an unfettered agency: sympathy nurtured by personal experience did not lead him to romanticise, but to chart how power relations shaped the dialectics of resistance and accommodation, in social situations that fostered individualism as well as forms of solidarity and collective action.

Insisting on academic rigour without sacrificing kindness, Sid Mintz was a wonderful teacher adored by his students. Unassumingly, friendly, and eager to encourage others with a compliment, he evoked affection in all who had the privilege of knowing him. He leaves behind a widow, Jacqueline, and is survived by two children and two grandchildren. He was an RAI Fellow from 1966-2011.



To cite this article:

GLEDHILL, JOHN. 2016. ‘Sidney W. Mintz, 1922-2015’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, 8 July 2016. (available on-line: