McKim Marriott’s 100th Birthday

McKim Marriott

Congratulations to McKim Marriott, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, on his 100th birthday! 

In that century, Professor Marriott made his career as a scholar of South Asia, a beloved advisor, an accomplished teacher and citizen of the University. As an introduction to this capacious life in the academy, John Kelly provides a sketch of Marriott’s contributions as a theorist and ethnographer. Many more personal tributes were delivered at a 90th birthday celebration a decade ago, including those from Ralph Nicholas, Wendy Doniger, Rick Shweder, and John Kelly and Martha Kaplan. To get a sense of McKim Marriott in conversation, take time with this interview from 2008.

With best wishes from the faculty, students, and alumni of the Department of Anthropology on this auspicious day!

John Kelly
Anthropology, University of Chicago

A note on the occasion of Kim’s 100th birthday

McKim Marriott from the perspective of Twenty-first Century Anthropology

Congratulations to Kim on the occasion of his 100th! It is remarkable to remember how much of the history of the department, and discipline, he has seen. But I write not only to congratulate Kim but to introduce his work to a new generation that, from the perspective of his heyday (first book published in 1955), has changed enough to make explanation necessary.

Ethnography in the twentieth century braided very different British, French and American premises; while the British and French persisted in work within their empires, largely resistant to the phenomena of decolonization raging around them, Kim was one of the first generation of Americans to work outside the United States and its territories. A student trained in the Talcott Parsons social relations paradigm, along with Clifford Geertz and David Schnieder, he was a leader in the ethnographic rebellion against the synthesis, and probably the most radical of the rebels. By relocating the constitution of caste relations to daily interactions, and demanding reconsideration of its epistemic fundamentals, Kim Marriott adamantly refused French universalism, and resituated South Asian ethnography from its placement as the great “before” picture of traditional society in modernist French Sociology.

As his own work developed, he moved from transactional critique of Parsonian action frames, to empirical approaches to transactional explanation, to the need to reconstitute the very categories of theory in South Asia for South Asia, ending his career in ongoing study of classic Sanskrit philosophical systems, all in the service of better description and analysis of caste, and presuming a world of plurality. The Anthropology Department of the University of Chicago dominated the study of South Asia for a generation, Kim’s work on village India joined by Milton Singer’s pioneering work on cities and urban life, Ralph Nicholas’ unparalleled ethnography of ritual, and Barney Cohn’s remarkably prescient interventions on colonial society and culture. Urgent postcolonial questions then decentered caste as South Asia’s “gatekeeping” problematic, apparently marginalizing Kim’s lifework. But when every new intellectual movement takes caste seriously, from Subaltern Studies to environmental ethnography to the newest efforts in critique of Hindutva, they find in Marriott the prolegomena to consideration of Indian sociology.

I am now one of the few among us who can still remember him as a teacher and scholar, the radical diligence of his ethnomethodology, his courses not only on South Asia but also on systems of rank and on transactional theory. I remember his quiet, urgent reform proposals for “Self, Culture and Society” in the Core (more non-Western material, less canon, Kim argued in 1980) and even his writing on postcolonial nationalism as a useful, deliberate fabrication, published twenty years before Ben Anderson. Kim Marriott wrote in and for an era in which cultural difference, not postcolonial awareness, was the beginning of wisdom, and he quested deeply into the fundamentals in the constitution of difference. A reader feeling the fierce urgency of postcolonial calls for justice, and the condescension of the present, can become impatient with his alpha and omega. But it is important to remember that difference and justice should not be found antagonists, if it is actually justice for all that you seek. No one can teach you more about discernment of difference than Kim Marriott.

John Kelly
Anthropology, University of Chicago

Martha Kaplan
Anthropology, Vassar College

We have known Kim Marriott for more than thirty years and have a remarkable range of memories. Kim has been a teacher and a colleague and a friend. Martha is particularly grateful for Kim's gracious and thoughtful guidance when she prepared to go to India for the first time, pursuing research on Mountstuart Elphinstone and British colonial ideology, not exactly Kim's favorite topics. John remembers spending intense and wonderful hours in Kim's office as a graduate student, with Bo Sax, Vish Pandya and of course Kim, comparing Sanskrit categories across a range of ritual and philosophical texts, Sankhya, Nyaya, Mimansa and Buddhist. We are sorry we cannot be with you tonight to share Kim's birthday. And above all we want to share one particular memory.

It comes from before Martha had ever heard of Kim Marriott, or of John Kelly for that matter, from when John was in his junior year of college. John's brother was due to begin graduate school in Arizona and John was driving with his brothers across the country for the first and only time. They came through Chicago and visiting family friends in Evanston, and then John convinced his brothers to come take a look at the University of Chicago before they went west.

John remembers several things very vividly about that trip. The first was the five miles south from the loop to Hyde Park. It was hard to believe that it was still Chicago. Second was the gothic shade of the run of buildings on 59th Street, and the dim interior light after the brilliant outdoor sun. Entirely by accident, John walked in to the Social Sciences building, given five minutes by his brothers, and changed his life. He had just begun studying anthropology as part of 'Social Studies" at Harvard, and there on the building directory were the names of several of the U of Chicago anthropologists. He didn't know that he was looking at less than half of them, that most were moved to Haskell Hall by then. Didn't recognize most of the names anyway, couldn't spot Marshall Sahlins' name.

But he remembers well seeing the name McKim Marriott. It fit the place, completely. John already knew who McKim Marriott was. He was the best anthropologist of India anywhere in the world. John had read some of Kim's debate with this eminent French guy Louis Dumont. Kim was right. Tambi said so. By the time John actually met McKim Marriott, Kim was already the teacher of a generation of extraordinary South Asia ethnographers, mentor of a network of outstanding field researchers whose collective contribution to South Asian studies may never be equaled. It has been an honor to be his student and colleague.

Wendy Doniger
Divinity School, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Social Thought, University of Chicago

It was truly exciting to hang out with Kim back in the 80's and 90's when he was revolutionizing the ways we tried to understand India. Time and again I'd write something, meet Kim for a cup of tea on purpose or even just bump into him by accident at some South Asian function, tell him what I was working on, and listen. He listened too, listened very well, and then thought, quietly, and came back with a few devastating questions, pointing out things I had not even considered at all, let alone considered and got wrong, and always suggesting an ingenious way to tackle the newly exposed problem. Of course we all read what he wrote, and he wrote a lot, but always in thoughtfully compact form, so that you could read it, get it, and start arguing about it right away. And he asked such big questions—challenging the ways in which we applied non-Indian categories to Indian thought, as well as the difficulty in choosing among the many Indian categories with which we might replace those still operative non-Indian categories. Nothing that any of us-and by "us" I mean not just those particularly privileged to work with him in Chicago, but the much larger network of people who communicated, long before the Internet, through channels like the SSRC and the AAS—nothing that any of us thought or wrote was untouched by Kim's ideas. Sometimes I disagreed with him—not often, but sometimes—but even then he had exposed a fault-line in my own thinking that I had to find some other way to mend. And then there were the evenings—whole nights, sometimes—when we played the Samsara game, which underwent almost continual revision as new possibilities opened up in the course of playing it, revealing new patterns in human interaction within the maze of caste and karma. Those were wonderful times, with Kim there, and Milton Singer and Cam Dimock and Ramanujan and so many others now gone from the game, and others still here—Dick Taub and Ralph Nicholas, and Clint Seely and Ron Inden, and others too numerous to name. But Kim was at the center of it all. How very very lucky we were that Chicago was the place where he played his great game.

Ralph W. Nicholas
Anthropology, University of Chicago

80 year-old Student Thanks 90 year-old Professor

When Village India was published, in 1955, I was an undergraduate in Detroit. I was studying anthropology and I wanted to go to India. This book, edited by an unknown person with an odd given name, landed on me--or I on it-at just the right moment. Here was what I aspired to do. So, in the Autumn of 1957 I entered the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago intending to fulfill my aspirations.

I did not have to wait long to meet Kim. All of the new graduate students were expected to take a course called "Anthropology 220: Social Anthropology." There were two lectures each week and one discussion class. The first lecture each week was given by Robert Redfield, who spoke about the theoretical topic of the week. The second lecture was by Kim, who put the theoretical topic into an ethnographic context ... in India, which was exactly what I wanted. And I was assigned to a small discussion class led by Kim, which seemed even better.

I don't remember now whether it was the first week or the second week of the quarter when The Elementary Forms of Religious Life was the text, and I confess that I also don't remember much about what Robert Redfield told us on Tuesday. But I will never forget Thursday, when Kim lectured. His lecture was the first incarnation of a paper for which he later became justly renowned, "The Feast of Love." Bear in mind that I was a new student thrust into a heady intellectual milieu quite different from anything I knew from Detroit. Always straight-faced and serious, Kim got further and further into the hilarious account of his experience of Holi in a North Indian village. There were others in the class who started laughing before I dared to, but in the end there was no one in the room who was not convulsed. Ethnography never seemed more interesting.

I am still very thankful for that experience. I was not so thankful at the time of the discussion class when Kim looked at the class and asked, "What is Durkheim trying to tell us?" I did not know where to begin: totems? clans? collective effervescence? I was not alone. The rest of the class was also silent. And so was Kim. He as a Socratic teacher who was prepared to wait for the students to begin the exploration.

I learned a great deal from Kim over the next couple of years, but I will skip ahead to my next moment of high anxiety, which was getting ready to go to India for the first time. For me it was not just India; it was the first time I had been anywhere outside the U.S., other than Canada. Kim's well-known kindness and generosity stood me in good stead in 1959. He helped me enormously with my research proposal, of course, but I have not forgotten the guidance he gave me when I was trying to decide whether to include what seemed to me at the time to be an expensive camera in my grant budget request. Kim told me, "They don't judge you on your greed."

When I returned from India in 1962 Kim was at the Center for the Advanced Study of the Social Sciences in Palo Alto. When he came back to Chicago he had a new armamentarium: nonparametric statistics. I am not going to tell you about that subject or about the caste-ranking study that we undertook making use of this new statistical method. I think we, and our other collaborators, learned a lot from that work, although it proved to be wrong-headed. And, much as I regret that it did not pay off, I think we have been headed in the right direction since then. Kirn, it's been 57 years, but I think I am ready to answer the question about what Durkheim is trying to tell us. 

Richard Shweder
Comparative Human Development, University of Chicago

McKim Marriott: More Native than the Native (and a Cubist Too)

Kim Marriott was the chair of the Department of Anthropology when I first arrived at the University in 1973. Despite the fact that my appointment was in the Department of Comparative Human Development he generously extended to me an invitation to attend the initial Monday lunch for Anthropology Department faculty held in that private room at the top of the stairs in the Quadrangle Club. Before coming to Chicago I had read Kim's work on village India and especially his seminal essay on food exchanges and status hierarchies, all in preparation for my own PhD thesis research in the temple town of Bhubaneswar. Even while in graduate school at Harvard one was aware of and impressed by the eminence of the Chicago school of anthropology.

But I was not fully prepared for the daunting experience of being seated at that table in the Quad Club, along with Kim Marrioll and a veritable "who's who" of the anthropologists of that era. I walked in the room and there were Sol Tax, Fred Eggan, Bob Adams, Victor Turner, David Schneider, Norman McQuown, Milton Singer, Judith Shapiro, Michael Silverstein, George Stocking, Marshall Sahlins and Stanley Tambiah - Sahlins and Tambiah too had just arrived in 1973.

So did Ed Laumann, our colleague in sociology, who later became Dean of the Social Sciences and Provost of the University. I vividly recall meeting Marshall, Stanley, and Ed at the 1973 reception for new faculty hosted by the Edward Levi, who was President of the University at that time. I believe Kim Marriott might have been there as well in his capacity as department chair. Or at least I hope he was because Kim Marriott exemplifies something that Edward Levi said that day. The President not only welcomed the new faculty members but projected his vision of the University of Chicago as a maverick contentious enclave where the aims of the faculty were intellectual not moral, where the brain was an erogenous zone, provocation a virtue and blasphemy a foreign concept. I have it on good authority that during that time Edward Levi was approached by a distinguished member of our faculty with an offer of a gift of ten million dollars from a generous patron of the University to endow a school of public policy. Levi's response as reported by that faculty member went like this: "There will be a school of public policy at the University of Chicago over my dead body."

And that indeed is what happened. Those of you who attended the recent Quad club reception for our new Provost might have noticed that Edward Levi and his Socratic conception of academic values at the University of Chicago was invoked by each of our administrative leaders on that occasion - we all talk the talk- but it is Kim Marriott at age 49 (when I first met him) and at 90 (when we are all privileged to honor him) who walks the walk and exemplifies the spirit of free thinking and an undaunted life of the mind.

Our colleague and my fellow "Great Necker" Wendy Doniger (four members of the University of Chicago faculty who study India graduated from Great Neck High School on the North Shore of Long Island) has recently proved to the world that globalization has made blasphemy profitable. Kim's writings (and his ubiquitous reduction of the philosophical and conceptual foundations of South Asian customs and thought to the structure of a cube) have been thought to be blasphemous too, although perhaps in a rather different sort of way. Kim's great offense is to reject Western theoretical frameworks for understanding India and to go more native or indigenous than the native herself, or at least more indigenous than the cosmopolitan elites of India for whom the very idea of native modes of thought seems doubtful, or if not doubtful then simply alien. To quote Kim directly," ... the social sciences used in Indian today have developed from thought about Western, rather than Indian cultural realities. As a result although they pretend to universal applicability, the Western sciences often do not recognize and therefore cannot deal with the questions to which many Indian institutions are answers." He goes on to argue that "All social sciences develop from thought about what is known in particular cultures and are thus 'cultural' or 'ethno-"social sciences in their origins. All are initially parochial in scope."

The affront in Kim Marriott's approach, the transgression which has not gone unnoticed in India, is that he is an outsider who seems more appreciative of the indigenous perspective than are many so-called insiders who are members of the Westernized elite and are thus somewhat distanced from the cultural realities that Kim has tried to understand much as a linguist tries to explicate the implicit (although only intuitively grasped) grammar of a native speaker.

On the one hand there is a view shared by many members of the English speaking elite in India (who are Thomas Macaulay's children and evidence of the success of his 19th century colonial educational program) who continue to engage in a type of discourse stunningly and candidly expressed by a senior government official who said to me when I was last in New Delhi" "If it were not for the British India would still be a land of barbarians."

On the other hand there is Kim Marriott, whose goal has been to accurately describe "difference" rather than judge it and who might well find comfort in the observation by the ancients that there are some things about which even the Gods and Goddesses disagree. Kim - Thank you for so meticulously, persistently and effectively carrying forward the pluralistic tradition in American cultural anthropology and applying it to the details of customary life in South Asian communities. Thank you for being our colleague. Thank you for being here with us this evening. Thank you for embodying and hence reminding us of our academic ideals.