Obituary: Eric Wolf

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The Independent Culture
ERIC WOLF was an anthropologist, but not, he insisted, a theorist. "My primary interest," he said, "is to explain something out there that impinges upon me, and I would sell my soul to the Devil if I thought it would help." He avoided abstract debates and was never dogmatic. Nevertheless, he remained faithful to a conception of anthropology "that is not content merely to translate, interpret, or play with a kaleidoscope of cultural fragments, but that seeks explanations for cultural phenomena." And he was sure that any satisfactory explanation must grant central importance to material forces, as these operated historically.

Wolf always claimed that his background made him an anthropologist. Born into an assimilated Viennese Jewish family in 1923, a regular visitor to his mother's family home in Manchuria, he grew up in a cosmopolitan world.

When his father moved the family to Sudetenland in 1933 to run a factory, they found themselves on the Czech-German language frontier, a hotbed of competing nationalisms and anti-Semitic agitation. "My chief fascination was for the extreme differences that made up my own social universe," he told an interviewer, "alien forms of life that belonged to the same society, carried the same passports, and interacted in a larger national context."

The most alien of these forms of life were the peasant villages of the region, but "these were all differences that were close to home", and he later specialised in the study of peasant societies. "So-called primitive or tribal societies never held the same interest for me because they seemed so totally alien to my own life."

His father foresaw the coming crisis and sent Eric to school in England, to the Forest School in Walthamstow, an experience he enjoyed. With the outbreak of the war the family was reunited in Britain, where they were interned as enemy aliens. (He was greatly inspired by lectures offered by a fellow detainee, Norbert Elias.) Eventually the family moved to the United States.

Wolf began studies in biochemistry before joining up with the mountain troops, with whom he served for three years and won a Silver Star. On demobilisation he switched to anthropology, and took his PhD in 1951 at Columbia University on the basis of research in Puerto Rico. He then began a long engagement with Mexican history and civilisation, drawing together materials from archaeology, history and ethnography in an attempt to grasp the continuities between pre-Hispanic and Hispanic Mexico. Later he undertook further ethnographic research, among Alpine communities, that again integrated historical and ethnographic perspectives, and emphasised ecological constraints on development.

American anthropology was divided in the 1950s. The established culturalist tradition was challenged by a group of radical ex-servicemen that formed around the "neo-evolutionists", Leslie White and Julian Steward. Eric Wolf became a notable figure in this circle, and although he remained open to other approaches he was drawn into the rivalry between these schools.

Tensions were exacerbated during the Vietnam War. Wolf was active in the anti-war movement, and published several influential studies of peasant revolutions. He was never an orthodox Marxist, however, perhaps because he had so keen a sense of the variety of situations that had been created by Western intrusion into what came to be called the Third World.

This historical confrontation was the subject of his masterpiece, Europe and the People without History (1982). He had taken sabbatical leave in London in 1974 to write the book, but when he began to assemble his materials in the School of Oriental and African Studies library he discovered to his chagrin that there were few monographs on which he could draw. He was forced to undertake much of the primary research from scratch, opening up fresh areas of historical research in the process.

His final project was a comparative study of the modes of power in different societies, essentially an attempt to discover an explanation for the Third Reich. It is no exaggeration to say that his whole life experience, and his whole research effort, was ultimately shaped by the need to understand this historical catastrophe.

He joined the faculty of the City University of New York in 1971, and for almost three decades taught undergraduates at Lehman College in the Bronx and graduate students at the Graduate Center. These were not prestigious venues, and his eminent colleagues at better endowed institutions tended to escape from undergraduate teaching at the first opportunity, but Wolf was a dedicated teacher. He developed special courses in culture and personality theory ("my bread and butter"), an intellectual tradition that he thought students should master although it had no obvious connections to historical materialism, or indeed to his own immediate research interests, and which had become unfashionable in American anthropology departments.

A man of wide culture and generous sympathies, Eric Wolf was completely without pomposity or self-importance, and engaged with students and younger colleagues without ever patronising them. Towards the end of his life he became one of the most revered elders of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, faithfully attending their conference together with his wife, Sydel Silverman, and accepting with a certain ironic pleasure the honours bestowed on him in Prague, Vienna and Frankfurt, while remarking on his good fortune that his family had left these places just in time.

Eric Robert Wolf, anthropologist: born Vienna 1 February 1923; Assistant Professor, University of Illinois 1952-55; Assistant Professor, University of Virginia 1955-58; Assistant Professor, University of Chicago 1959-61; Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 1965-71; Distinguished Professor, Herbert H. Lehman College and Graduate Center, City University of New York 1971-92 (Emeritus); married 1943 Kathleen Bakeman (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1972 Sydel Silverman (two stepdaughters); died Irvington, New York 7 March 1999.