Obituary: Professor Ladislav Holy

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The Independent Online
During the Prague Spring in 1968 Ladislav Holy was on secondment from the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences to the Livingstone Museum in Zambia. In 1972 when his Zambian contract expired he disdained to return to his native country and proceeded to Britain. Much of the character of his subsequent illustrious career as a social anthropologist may be traced to the frustration with doctrinaire Marxism and totalitarianism which coloured his life as a young academic in 1950s and early 1960s Czechoslovakia and to the intellectual courage with which he combatted them.

Holy studied archaeology and anthropology at Charles University, Prague, where he also took his PhD. Fellow students were Alice Sucikova, whom he subsequently married and with whom he shared numerous field expeditions in Africa, and Milan Stuchlik, with whom he enjoyed a long collaboration until the latter's death in 1981.

The formative intellectual experience in Holy's early career was his embrace of British social anthropology coinciding with the visits to Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960 of several eminent exponents, notably Meyer Fortes, then professor at Cambridge University. This led to Holy's adopting broadly structural-functionalist methods of analysis, and to the eventual publication in Prague, in collaboration with Milan Stuchlik, of the edited volume, Social Stratification in Tribal Africa (1968), which aroused considerable curiosity in the West since it was courageously informed by social scientific thinking that was largely antithetical to Marxism.

In 1961 and 1965, Holy undertook two lengthy field expeditions to Sudan to study the Berti people of Darfur province, whom he eventually visited on no fewer than six separate occasions over a period of 25 years. The resulting monograph, Neighbours and Kinsmen (1973), reveals the beginnings of a move away from structural-functionalism, with its emphasis on social process, and with a concern to point up, in the analysis of an African society, the importance of social relationships other than those of kinship.

A lifelong theoretical interest in kinship studies was born out of this work, which over the years led Holy to reconsider the very ideas of both kinship and descent, and which culminated in the publication of the substantial text, Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship (1996). Further to this area of work was Holy's field research, during 1968-72, on the Toka people of Zambia whom he studied intermittently whilst director of the Livingstone Museum, and which was written up in his monograph Strategies and Norms in a Changing Matrilineal Society (1986). Moreover inspired by the research on the Berti, Holy published, in 1989, Kinship, Honour and Solidarity, a theoretical monograph on cousin marriage in the Middle East which reflected his growing interest in problems relating to the comparison of human societies.

Following his decision, in 1972, not to return to Czechoslovakia, where it was evident that the pursuit of an intellectual path far from Marxist materialism would be severely curtailed, Holy, upon Meyer Fortes' recommendation, joined the department of social anthropology at Queen's University, Belfast, which was then being developed by John Blacking, the eminent Africanist and ethnomusicologist. With the appointment of Milan Stuchlik to Queen's one year later, this department became witness to a formidable intellectual partnership which crystallised a distinctive theoretical approach whose primary emphasis was on the indigenous conceptualisations of the people under study, and on the question of how these related to the peoples' actions in everyday life. This led to the publication (after Stuchlik's death) of their joint work in the influential Actions, Norms and Representations (1983) and, with further refinement, to the analytical perspective on human social life which strongly informed all Holy's later work.

In 1979, the University of St Andrews appointed Holy to a readership in social anthropology, the university's first appointment in the discipline. Under Holy's guidance, and during a difficult period for British universities, this eventuated in a sizeable and successful department; Holy was promoted to a Chair in 1987. A notable feature of this period was the large number of scholars, from both Britain and abroad, whom Holy, in partnership with his colleagues, encouraged to visit St Andrews, in particular to participate in several thematic conferences (for example, on "power", "violence", "the market"). The subsequent publication of the work at these conferences now constitutes a significant corpus of anthropological work.

It was also during this period that Holy published his second monograph on the Berti people, Religion and Custom in a Muslim Society (1991), which sought to demonstrate a distinctively African form of Islam in practice. There were also important articles describing the impact of the mid-1980s drought in north-east Africa which Holy and his wife, themselves suffering considerable privations, had witnessed at first hand. On the strength of his field studies in Africa Holy was in 1992 honoured by the Royal Anthropological Institute with the award of the prestigious Rivers Memorial Medal.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Holy came full academic circle with the beginning of his study of Czech nationalism, the fruits of which were published shortly before his death in the monograph, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation (1996). The absolute importance of this work is that field study was begun, somewhat clandestinely, before the velvet revolution of 1989, so when the revolution occurred Holy was able to trace its progress in a theoretically informed way, focusing on the symbolic ideas in Czech culture which in his view were significant in precisely making the revolution a velvet one. Sadly, Holy's wife, with whom he had created a magnificent garden in the grounds of his Scottish home, died shortly after the revolution was secure.

Ladislav Holy had an imposing and charismatic personality which left its mark on all who met him. Born of his experiences in Czechoslovkia before the Prague Spring, he carried a rather obvious contempt for authoritarian leadership and bureaucracy, believing in its place that rational argument and achievement were the principal instruments for advancement. Whilst not arrogant he feared neither idea nor person, while he himself sometimes inspired considerable awe among both colleagues and students, particularly those of a more timid disposition. That said, students who persisted with him discovered an affable and helpful scholar who would inspire them to look at their material in an entirely fresh way. Over the last six years he found happiness with his second wife, Kate, whom he married just a few months before his death.

Ladislav Holy, social anthropologist: born Prague 4 April 1933; Assistant Keeper, Naprstek Museum, Prague 1954-56; Research Officer, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences 1956-65, Head of African Department 1965-68; Director, Livingstone Museum, Zambia 1968-72; Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Queen's University, Belfast 1973-75, Senior Lecturer 1975-79, Reader 1979; Reader in Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews 1979-87, Professor of Social Anthropology 1987-97; Visiting Professor, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo 1994-95; married 1956 Alice Sucikova (died 1990), 1996 Kate Mortimer (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Kingsbarns, Fife 13 April 1997.