Laureation address: Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters 
Laureation by Professor Roy Dilley, School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies

Friday 13 September 2013

Dame Marilyn is pre-eminent as a Social Anthropologist and as a servant of academic institutions and public bodies in the UK. She has been described as ‘contemporary anthropology's sharpest and most original mind’. Her wide international acclaim is founded on her extensive field research that began almost 50 years ago in Papua New Guinea in Melanesia on, among other topics, issues of gender and exchange. In the UK, she has focused her studies on kinship, reproductive technologies, biomedical ethics, audit culture and on cross-cultural concepts of intellectual property. While her ethnographic focus is divided between the Pacific and the UK and Europe, her theoretical interests comprise a body of ideas that challenge a number of the most fundamental concepts in popular and analytical discourse: for example, the concepts of individual and society, of the person, and of the social relation, the method of comparison, and the notions of nature and culture, male and female.

Dame Marilyn has been awarded honours and distinctions from institutions of higher learning across the world. She has delivered prestigious public lectures in an astonishing range of universities. Alongside this glittering international renown, she remains committed to the people of Papua New Guinea, and is proud to have been recognised by the country's university; to have been awarded a medal to mark the country's 30th Anniversary of Independence; and to have represented it at the inauguration of the newly named 'Commonwealth of Nations'.

It is impossible to do justice to the institutional recognition that Dame Marilyn has received. A museum curator, a research fellow and a College Fellow at Girton in Cambridge, she went on to take up the Chair and Headship of the Social Anthropology Department at Manchester in 1985. She returned to Cambridge eight years later as the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology, a post she held until her retirement in 2008. In 1998 she was also elected Mistress of her Cambridge alma mater, Girton College, an office and an institution she very much enjoyed. Fellow of the British Academy, Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the first recipient in recent times of the American Viking Fund Medal for outstanding intellectual leadership, holder of the Huxley Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute for lifetime achievement, and Honorary Life President of the Association of Social Anthropologists, Dame Marilyn's status is cemented in the highest echelons of the academy. In 2001 Professor Strathern was made Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to Social Anthropology.

By what route did she scale such peaks of achievement? Born in North Wales, educated at Bromley High School in Kent, the young Marilyn went up to Girton College, Cambridge to read archaeology (an early childhood interest) and anthropology; but it was anthropology that was to dominate her intellectual horizons over the next eight years. She graduated with a BA in 1963, and continued on to take a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Cambridge in 1968.

For her doctoral studies, she struck out for the Highlands of New Guinea. The region had only been discovered (from a European perspective) by travellers in 1930s and was accessed little during and immediately after the Second World War. By the early 1960s it was slowly opening up, and the future Dr Strathern was one of the first of a new generation of anthropologists to study there.

Interested in what was then termed 'sex roles' or 'relations between the sexes', later referred to as 'gender relations', she was not only a geographical pioneer, but an intellectual one too. She produced an ethnography of social life in which women were included. This may sound unremarkable to our students today, but in a discipline in which women were then few in number, this was ground-breaking. She argued crucially that the prominence of men and their clans in so many areas of the social life of Mount Hagen actually depended on women.

What followed after her early ethnographies was a work that soon became a classic in social anthropology. Entitled Gender of the Gift, this book is a “gentle deconstruction”, as she put it, of anthropological theories of society and of gender relations with reference to Melanesia. While the deconstruction may have been gentle, its effect was seismic. Rather than taking her cue from Western feminist literature, she started by asking how people in New Guinea thought about gender relations. She also asked more generally about what Melanesian theories of social action might look like – how might they conceive of the person, of social relations, of cause, of exploitation – indeed was 'exploitation' an appropriate term at all? Their answers led her to far-reaching conclusions, and her book profoundly de-stabilized a number of preconceptions in the discipline.

Dame Marilyn's examination of Melanesian ideas simultaneously exposes aspects of our own thought. For example, the concept of the 'dividual', the idea that people in Melanesia are imagined to be composed of distinct qualities and multiple entities, stands in critical relation to the Western theory of the individual. That most powerful ideology of our own liberal society is, therefore, but one way of representing how people might imagine themselves to be. There is sensitivity in Dame Marilyn's work that is political, with a small 'p'. Whether discussing individuals, families and society in the UK of the 1980s and’90s, or in advocating the creation of partial points of connections with, rather than dominating representations of, those we study, her writing, always complex and multi-layered, is subtle and entertainingly subversive.

As a scholar, she does not place herself outside the frame of reference of the subjects she chooses to study. She lays bare the knowledge practices of Western scholarship and holds us all accountable for the way in which we come to know the world and our fellow human beings. She attempts to make us more sensitive to the task of describing human social experience, and of forging concepts that are more adequate to this task. This may make us feel uncomfortable at times; and it is after all the job of the anthropologist to do so: to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Dame Marilyn's expertise in productively unsettling our cherished categories of thought is without rival. The former Mistress of Girton is a Master of the Art. She has been at the forefront of some of the most radical shifts in thinking not just in anthropology, but in the arts and humanities in general. And furthermore, she extends her expertise to developments in science: plotting the moral and ethical implications of new techniques of human fertilization and embryology.

She has engaged with the world beyond the academy and with social policy and practice. Co-opted as a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and chair of one of its working parties, she has reported on, among other things, the donation of human body material for medicine and research. She has used her anthropological insights to understand institutional management and the human relations of college and university life. And her critique of 'good practice', that telling phrase at the heart of academic audit and the culture of accountability, speaks to many of us here.

In a field where we struggle with proportion and scale, where for the purposes of reliable comparison (as she has pointed out) “too much is known”, Dame Marilyn has taught us to see in new ways. Through a looking glass onto the world of Melanesia, we are able to take in the complexities of contemporary social life and the multiple layers of human experience both here and elsewhere in a new light.