Obituary: Robert Rapoport

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The Independent Online
In 1994, at a symposium in Budapest on "Families as Educators for Global Citizenship", Robert Rapoport presented a keynote paper which another participant provocatively described as a "profoundly political document". Rapoport's reaction was revealing:

As I have always thought of myself as relatively apolitical, in a vaguely liberal way of many social scientists, this came as a surprise with a bit of distress mixed with a large amount of pleasure. After reflection I felt pleased that I was able to overcome my natural trained-in neutrality and take a stand on something important. It was a mark of maturity.

Rapoport knew that his approach, like that of an increasing number of contemporary social scientists, had been based on his own personal values and was therefore biased. Nevertheless he felt strongly that social scientists who did not react to something considered a matter of human rights or human concern were liable to find their integrity, even their humanity, questioned.

Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, Rapoport received an MA in Social Anthropology from the University of Chicago, and a PhD at the Department of Social Relations of Harvard University for his thesis on the changing values of Navaho Indians. After studying mental illness in a Canadian county, he held several positions from Assistant to Professor in the United States.

In 1954 he accepted an appointment as Research Director in the Social Rehabilitation Unit of Belmont Hospital, in Surrey, where the psychiatrist Maxwell Jones was developing the concept of a therapeutic community. The concept assumed that, in addition to the therapeutic efforts of the trained staff, an important potential for the support and cure of each patient existed in the sorts of relationships and attitudes of other patients in the hospital.

It was a daring concept, dependent for its success upon changes in ward culture and hospital organisation, and Rapoport found himself leading a multidisciplinary team of social scientists in a challenging situation. However it proved highly productive for him and he generated more than a dozen papers from it, four written in collaboration with his wife, Rhona Sofer, a South African sociologist and psychoanalyst. From this work emerged an influential Rapoport book, Community as Doctor: new perspectives on a therapeutic community (1960), which nevertheless stopped short of recommending the concept for the patient outside the hospital in the general community.

In 1957 Rapoport returned to the US to resume an academic career, first at Harvard and then at Boston College and North-eastern, whilst his wife took a post on the staff of the Harvard Medical School.

In 1965 he accepted a post as Senior Social Scientist at the Tavistock Institute in London and they moved back to England. With collaboration from an economist, Michael Fogarty, Bob and Rhona Rapoport were soon involved with work on gender and family issues, and especially on the opportunities for talented women to fill top-level posts, later explored in Women and Top Jobs (1972) and still a contentious issue today.

They then investigated dual-career families where husband and wife were each pursuing a career as well as being parents. Although the resulting Pelican book, Dual Career Families (1971), concentrated primarily upon case studies of only five families, its conclusions on "contemporary issues" remain startlingly pertinent. On the strength of further research and a growing reputation, Bob and Rhona Rapoport in 1973 established the Institute for Family and Environmental Research with a distinguished body of trustees.

Whilst the family studies were in progress, Rapoport was asked by the Administrative Staff College at Henley-on-Thames to evaluate its general management programme. The college wanted to discover whether members sent on the course had benefited at all in terms of development as a manager or as a person. Using sophisticated survey techniques, Rapoport found that a manager might develop in one of four ways. This was an important discovery, perversely neglected, because it revealed the development process to be complex. He also recommended a number of desirable changes at Henley which were subsequently implemented.

In the Eighties, Rapoport returned to the field of mental health in New York, helping to develop innovative work on children's difficulties. Then, in the Nineties, he resumed research into the issue of values while a Visiting Professor at Surrey University, and with the encouragement of Unesco started a series of symposia on Global Values. Although deeply sensitive to the current turbulence in the world, he remained optimistic, believing that from it "a new world order will arise, a new level and type of civilisation embracing the whole world", towards which families will be able to make a powerful contribution.

Robert Norman Rapoport, social anthropologist: born Brockton, Massachusetts 1 November 1924; married 1957 Rhona Sofer (one son, one daughter); died London 4 November 1996.