Studs Terkel’s legacy for anthropology

As we all know by now, “Studs Terkel passed away a few weeks ago”:,0,2321576.story. Terkel is remembered for many things — an entertainer, a historian, an intellectual, someone whose history is intimately tied to the city of Chicago. Although few people discussed Terkel as an anthropologist it is clear that his work and vision of the world strikes very close to the center of many of our intuitions of what the discipline is about. Terkel found all people interesting, regardless of whether they were ‘interesting people’ or not. He felt that their lives were worth remembering, and respected the importance of his job — which was to remember them. His interviews are extraordinary for their candor, intimacy, and plainness. When people had stories to tell — for instance in Mamie Mobley’s “breathtaking story of the death of her son, Emmett Till”: — he got out of the way. At other times he found a way to coax people into expressing thoughts and feelings they perhaps didn’t know they had or could articulate. He got people to wax philosophical and made them thoughtful.

Terkel became such a fixture on left-populist scene that many of us have forgotten — or perhaps never realized — the power of his example as an empathetic interviewer. But he deserves to be remembered for epitomizing a central anthropological intuition: that our experience as human living our lives with one another are precious and amazing and extraordinarily fleeting. He remembered ours — may we remember his.


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 “Studs Terkel’s legacy for anthropology

  1. Thanks, Rex. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful man.

    I wonder, though, what else an anthropologist needs to be besides an empathetic interviewer with a sense of the fleetingness of human life. Are we, after all, only what Orson Scott Card beautifully describes as “Speakers for the Dead”?

  2. Studs was an amazing person. Nice post. My favorite book was “Working.” That one has been very influential, and one that I like to look through every once in a while. There was this great photo of him that I once saw where he was walking around with his big 1970s voice recorder and microphone…I saw that several years ago and I thought to myself, ya, I want to be more like him. Terkel’s work was part of what lead me to study anthropology.

    Great man. He will be missed.

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