Vale Jack Goody

Keith Hart recently announced on social media that Jack Goody passed away. He was just a few days before his 96th birthday. Goody had a long and productive life and was a model of the successful anthropologist: Born in England at the end of the one world war, he spent much of the second as a prisoner of war. After the war he joined the anthropology program at Cambridge, where he was a junior partner to Edmund Leach and Meyer Fortes. He ended up becoming the William Wyse Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge, taking up the mantle from Fortes, who was the first person to capture Cambridge for social anthropology. Given his institutional centrality, it’s not surprising that Goody is remembered by British anthropologists. But he deserves to be remembered by American ones — and by everyone, really — both for being a role model of successful scholarship and an indirect influence on authors we read today, such as David Grabber and Tanya Li.

Goody had a long and prolific career. I remember reading his Culture of Flowers in 1993 and thinking “well, even the author of the driest studies of inheritance should get to pretend to be Mary Douglas in his final book.” How little I knew then! Although he was seventy four at the time, Goody would go on to write thirteen more books. The total count as of today is just over thirty. The sheer volume of Goody’s output demonstrates a healthy relationship to work that most academics envy. But it also speaks to an intellectual project which deserves to be remembered far more than I fear it will be.

When Goody became a faculty member in 1954, social anthropology had finally taken over the British academy, replacing the Victorian anthropology that Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski had (a bit unfairly) derided as old-fashioned. But what was social anthropology? Both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski had argued that it was a generalizing science, and comparative: Part of a larger sort of sociology  but not (for some vague but extremely important reason) something to be merged into a sociology department.

Different people had different answers regarding the future of anthropology, many of them unjustly forgotten today. By the time Goody became professor in 1973, anthropology was well into the ‘Arjun Appadurai’ era of theory — that is, one in which you wrote programmatic statements about what anthropologists should do, and then never carried out the program.

Goody was a bit like J. Clyde Mitchell, in that he had an answer to “what is social anthropology” and then actually implemented the program, even though it moved him far from mainstream anthropology. Mitchell ended up becoming a founding figure in formal modeling and social network analysis, and his festschrift hardly looks anthropological at all. Goody, on the other hand, took the idea of a comparative, generalizing account of kinship systems, and then historicized and super-sized it.

Goody’s overarching project was a comparison of kinship and social reproduction that had time-depth and was global in scope. It was, in many ways, an example of the sort of work that Jared Diamond might have done if he had bothered to seriously read about human society. There were lots of pieces to Goody’s puzzle: Actually comparing East and West, rather than assuming that the West was unique (a powerful assumption in the first world during the cold war), examining the differences between literate and non-literate societies, and studying patterns of material culture tied to everyday reproduction like cooking and (yes) flowers. In the end, it was interdisciplinary and perhaps more like Annales school history than Radcliffe-Brown. But Goody needs to be given credit for finding the project and then Just. Doing. It.

I never found Goody easy to read. There were good and bad reasons for this. Like a lot of hyper-prolific people, not all of his work was ruthlessly polished. Yes, Goody always wrote clearly and with a minimum of jargon, but I sometimes found signposting missing. His book on the comparative study of renaissances, for instance, really fails to give up its secrets until you read all of it — there’s no skeleton key to the book in the first couple of chapters as (imho) there should be.

And then of course, when you’re dealing with technical issues like inheritance there will be jargon. One of the reasons why Goody’s earlier work won’t be read is that it is actually about something. It concretely engages ethnography and abstract problems of social organization. It limits one’s readership to fellow specialists. Which, I suppose, is the point.

Goody was probably the last living anthropologist whose intellectual horizons were formed by the 20s triad of Marx, Freud, and James Frazer. He also took Weber seriously. Indeed, his comparative work far more successful than Weber’s, and not just because he had better sources to work with. It seems to me (and I could be wrong here) that Goody’s initial, genius, move was to see that Marx’s focus on mode of production grew out of the same Victorian jurido-legal scholarship that produced Radcliffe-Brown. I’m hardly a Goody scholar, but it seems to me that he read Marx as a descendant of Henry Buckle and Henry Maine as much as Hegel. Goody was materialist. Perhaps he got that from Pul Eliya as much as Marx. But he got it.

While the French would spend the seventies trying to figure out how structural marxism could make sense of ‘primitive’ societies, Goody’s Marx-inflected lens focused on how different regimes of inheritance and ownership (modes of reproduction) affected kinship systems. It is interesting to compare him to Eric Wolf (only five years younger than Goody), who also went macro using Marx. Both produced big-picture syntheses, relished ethnographic detail, and managed to talk in macro terms without falling back on essentialized and reified concepts of Cultural Wholes and Essences the way that, for instance, Toynbee did. Wolf, like other American Marxists of his time, also connected Marx to anthropology via the nineteenth century, typically by focusing on Engels’s use of Morgan.

But Wolf was a Marxist, while Goody described himself as “not a non-Marxist”. Wolf really genuinely participated in political struggles and actively identified as a leftist. Goody was a contrarian with a populist streak and a commitment to decolonization, but he was an insider and academic politician. True, those roles can be combined (for instance, in the career of Goody’s contemporary at Oxford, Chris Hill), but Goody’s real contribution to the sort of political anthropology I do comes more from the influence he had on his students. Keith Hart came of age in Goody’s Cambridge and went on to influence David Graeber’s Debt. It wouldn’t even be too much to see Tanya Li’s work as existing in Goody’s wake, since Li worked with Alan Macfarlane, who worked with Goody. That big-picture, inequality -focused flavor of British economic anthropology was influenced by Goody.

But maybe those who knew Goody well will tell me I’m getting some of these details wrong. I don’t want to speculate too much, and I’m hardly an expert in this area, and haven’t read much of Goody’s work (let’s face it, with thirty books, who can say that?) All I’m saying is: Vale. He deserves to be remembered.

If you’d like to learn more, here are some open access sources on Goody:

An interview with Jack Goody about his life and career

Alan Macfarlane’s remembrance of Jack Goody

Jack Goody’s autobiographical essay in Annual Review of Anthropology

An article from History and Anthropology where Goody summarizes his views of the differences between Europe and Asia. 

Alan Macfarlane’s video of Jack Goody:

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “Vale Jack Goody

  1. Both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski had argued that it was a generalizing science, and comparative: Part of a larger sort of sociology but not (for some vague but extremely important reason) something to be merged into a sociology department.

    I don’t think the reasoning was all that vague. The idea was that non-industrial, non-literate, and non-state societies are different to industrial/literate/state societies – different enough that conclusions that might be valid for understanding the latter might not apply to the former, and vice versa, or at the very least different enough that different methods need to be employed in making sense of them.

    I don’t think this is such a bad idea. It actually seems pretty sensible, in terms of the division of labour. The trouble with it is more the terminology earlier anthropologists used to describe it: ‘savage’ vs ‘modern’, etc.

    This was really good stuff, Rex. And I really liked your review of Eriksen’s book on Barth.

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