Obituary: Professor Paul Stirling

Click to follow
PAUL STIRLING was a social anthropologist of distinction whose career exemplifies central changes in the discipline over the last half- century. He pioneered research in rural Turkey and into "peasants" (a word he disliked, for he felt it slighted the dignity of the villagers he knew and loved). He promoted important extensions of applied anthropology in Britain and innovative research technologies.

When the University of Kent was established in 1965, he was recruited from the London School of Economics to head a joint department of sociology and social anthropology. At Kent he stimulated great intellectual creativity, without ever losing sight of the moral and practical purposes of the social sciences and obligations to students. Outstanding scholars matured in both wings of his creation, but it was typical of Stirling that he claimed only that it was "perhaps the happiest department in the country".

Paul Stirling studied Classics and Philosophy at Oxford before switching to Social Anthropology for his DPhil. British social anthropology was then at a turning point. Victorian evolutionism, fascination with the exotic and "armchair" research of the sort practised by Sir James Frazer had been definitively rejected in the inter-war decades. Under Bronislaw Malinowski at the LSE anthropologists came instead to study tribal societies as they functioned in the present, and to emphasise the methods of intensive fieldwork.

When Stirling was initiated into what was still a very small professional community his supervisor Edward Evans-Pritchard was already trying to shift the discipline away from synchronic functionalism and applied social science in the colonies. Instead he called for a serious engagement with history, and encouraged his research student to undertake fieldwork not in a tribal colony but in a village in the heart of Anatolia. The work which resulted, including the classic monograph Turkish Village (1965), though not dealing systematically with the Ottoman past, more than matched up to Malinowski's high standards for fieldwork and offered rich insights into the transformations begun by Kemal Ataturk. Most unusually in the discipline, it proved a landmark in not one but two regional traditions: the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Stirling also influenced work on agrarian communities elsewhere in the world and became well known outside his discipline. Although he carried out further projects in south Italy, it is primarily on the Turkish village work that his academic reputation rests.

Stirling revisited "his" village (in fact two settlements in the vicinity of Kayseri) many times and made careful studies of the dramatic changes experienced by villagers as they migrated to the cities, including cities in West Germany. He made films with them and made all his rich materials, including his original fieldwork diaries, available to other researchers electronically. He worked closely with many Turks, including young researchers that he himself trained. These contacts brought endless debates, sometimes heated, about the meaning of terms such as modernisation and development.

He saw the transformation of his village as emblematic of the incorporation of the rural masses into the new nation-state, and this Turkish case was in turn an instance of the forces that were transforming the whole of the "developing world". Stirling recognised that these processes brought massive injustices and cultural losses. But he also saw the many opportunities and benefits that rapid social engineering could bring to a desperately poor society. He therefore spent a lot of energy arguing against condemnations of modernisation processes from the Marxist left, and also against idealised representations of tradition and cultural difference.

His own intellectual position was close to that of his longtime friend and LSE colleague Ernest Gellner, whom he admired not only for his clarity and originality but also for his self-confidence and prolific output. Stirling by contrast was notoriously slow to publish and prone to self- doubt, even public self-abasement. Yet, though he regularly dismissed the value of his own contributions, he tackled head-on complex issues of causality in the explanation of social change, and was ahead of his time in his calls for anthropologists to pay more attention to cognition and to the distribution of knowledge in society.

His practical legacy to the discipline in Britain is substantial, for he was the tireless force behind a series of initiatives from the end of the 1970s which have helped anthropologists to become increasingly active outside the universities, in organisations, in policymaking, in overseas development.

Stirling followed up these concerns outside his academic life. His motivation was deeply moral, even religious. Christianity played an important role in his family background. He rejected it intellectually, and Islam is the most conspicuous omission in his writings on Turkey; but he never lost his religious sensibility and took a pastor's humane interest in the welfare of his colleagues and his research students.

The Stirling presence continued to dominate anthropology at Kent long after his formal retirement. He held on to his office, and to a unique ability to make the most devastating contributions to seminars after seemingly sleeping through the greater part of the talk. When, last spring, the Association of Social Anthropologists held its annual conference in Canterbury, his presentation was a tour de force.

Occasional hitches in his efforts to master computing technologies seldom affected his good-humour and active will to help those around him, especially students. The only group excluded from this basic generosity was the university administration: he had no sympathy with attempts to introduce modern management methods into the academic world.

There were many facets to Paul Stirling. From some angles you saw a rigorous scholar pursuing truth and precision, from others a tormented Puritan; from some a feisty English radical, from others a genial conservative, even a patriarch. But no one who knew his wife Margaret and how much he put into their family life would endorse this last simplistic label. She shared with him that original fieldwork in Turkey, and everything else for more than 50 years.

Chris Hann

Arthur Paul Stirling, social anthropologist: born Coulsdon, Surrey 13 October 1920; Lecturer in Social Anthropology, London School of Economics 1952-65; Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology, University of Kent 1965-84 (Emeritus); married 1948 Margaret Urwin (two sons, two daughters); died Gillingham, Kent 17 June 1998.