Obituary: Professor M. G. Smith

Michael Garfield Smith, anthropologist, born Kingston Jamaica 18 August 1921, Professor of Anthropology University of California Los Angeles 1961-69, University College London 1969-75, Crosby Professor of Human Environment Yale University 1978-86, married Mary Morrison (three sons), died Bristol 5 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water