Obituary: Professor M. G. Smith
Saturday 09 January 1993
WITH the death of MG Smith, the discipline of social anthropology has lost one of its commanding figures of the post-war period - a scholar known both for his theoretical and his applied social research in the Caribbean and West Africa.
Born Michael Garfield Smith in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1921 of mixed English and Jamaican parentage, 'MG' won an Island Scholarship which took him to McGill University. In the war, he volunteered for the Canadian Army, serving in a front-line unit from Normandy through northern France, Holland and Germany. Much of this experience was grim and, when asked to recount his war stories, he preferred to say that he spent as much time as possible at the bottom of a foxhole composing poetry. It was through remarks like this that one occasionally caught a glimpse of other facets of a complex life - published poet, opera buff, amateur boxer - which usually remained hidden beneath a serious professional demeanour.
After demobilisation, he enrolled at University College London (UCL), switching from law to anthropology under the influence of Daryll Forde who had gathered around him an important group of Africanist lecturers and students. In contrast to his experience of legal studies, Smith was attracted by social anthropology's commitment to the empirical study of social situations, particularly those in the then-colonial territories. Not only was Smith's stay at UCL an intellectually formative one but it was also then that he met his wife Mary Morrison, a student at the London School of Economics. Together, they formed an enduring partnership that gained much from Mary's fundamental intellectual contribution. Mary also cheerfully coped with raising their family of three sons while actively participating in many of MG's field research projects, from the first in Northern Nigeria (1949-1950) to the last in Grenada (1990).
After his studies at UCL, Smith accepted a research fellowship at the Institute of Social and Economic Research of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and embarked upon a series of ethnographic studies throughout the Caribbean which together constitute a corpus of work unparalleled in the region. It was during the highly productive period in the 1950s and early 1960s that Smith laid the groundwork for some of his major contributions to social theory. On the one hand, there was his development of the theory of pluralism, elaborated in The Plural Society of the British West Indies (1965) and in subsequent works such as Pluralism, Politics and Ideology in the Creole Caribbean (1991), which he offered as a new mode of analysis of complex multi-cultural societies. On the other, there was his 1960 publication Government in Zazzau: 1800-1950, a study of the political development of the pre-colonial Nigerian state of Zaria, which broke new ground through its combination of historical and social anthropological perspectives as well as in novel use of the concept of the corporate group derived from the writings of Henry Maine and Max Weber.
His move from Jamaica to the University of California at Los Angeles in 1961 marked the beginning of a period of more active involvement in university teaching and in 1969, on Forde's retirement, Smith returned to UCL to assume the chair of social anthropology. Over the next six years, the department expanded under his dynamic leadership into one of the largest and most prestigious in the country. However, when Smith was offered the post of cabinet-level social policy advisor to the Jamaican government by his close friend Michael Manley, the prime minister, it was an offer that he couldn't refuse. Smith threw himself into this work with his customary energy, all the more heightened in this case by his personal commitment to improving Jamaican social conditions.
In 1972 he was awarded the Order of Merit, Jamaica's equivalent to a knighthood. He took great pride in this recognition and liked to point out that he and Bob Marley were the first two holders of the honour.
Smith's 's final academic post before his retirement in 1986 was as the Franklin M. Crosby Professor of the Human Environment at Yale University. His output of publications never diminished, totalling some 21 major books in all, including two substantial manuscripts still in press on the study of social structure and on education and society in the Creole Caribbean. His list of professional honours was also large: President of Section 11 of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Wellcome Medal for Anthropological Research, the Curl Bequest Essay Prize, and the Amaury Talbot Book Prize.
He remained committed to fieldwork right to the end. He undertook research projects and social advisory posts in Nigeria and the Caribbean throughout the 1980s, and the pace and intensity of his activity continually amazed his much younger colleagues. Over the years, much of his work was carried out with little regard for his personal comfort or health. During his early fieldwork he (like Mary) covered a geat deal of ground through the Nigerian bush on bicycle. Never one to worry about food, he asked his steward what menu could be procured in any village market and then told him to prepare that same meal every day during the whole stay.
But if single-minded commitment to work was one of MG Smith's prime characteristics, this did not prevent him from being a loyal friend to those who understood and sympathised with his commitment.
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