John Davis

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John (Horsley Russell) Davis, 1938 – 2017

John Davis died on 15 January 2017. John was on the anthropology staff of the University of Kent from 1966 to 1990, his longest continuous period at any UK university. Although anthropology at Kent had been established by Paul Stirling, Stirling had been appointed as Professor of Sociology. John was Kent’s first Professor of Social Anthropology, a personal chair to which he was appointed in 1982. In 1990 he moved to Oxford as Head of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, and thereafter he became Warden of All Souls College.

Between 1958 and 1961 John read history as an undergraduate at University College Oxford, after which he moved to the London School of Economics for postgraduate studies. It was here that he first met three individuals who were to shape his enduring preoccupations. The first was Paul Stirling, who was at the time undertaking pioneer work in Mediterranean ethnography; the second was Raymond Firth, who influenced his thought in the area of economic anthropology; and the third Lucy Mair, whose sharp mind and non-nonsense concise writing style he much approved of and actively emulated. Under Stirling’s supervision he undertook fieldwork in southern Italy, completing his PhD in 1969 (a study published as Land and Family in Pisticci, 1973). He completed his PhD in 1969 with Mair, a debt that was later to be repaid in his editing of a festschrift (Choice and Change, 1974).

In 1966 John moved to Kent, as part of a group of other LSE staff and students who were to form the nucleus of a board of studies, later to become the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. John often said that he was ‘made at Kent’, and certainly this was where his best work was undertaken: his influential essays on exchange, his synthesis of Mediterranean ethnography (People of the Mediterranean, 1977), and his ground-breaking work on long-distance traders in Gaddafi’s Libya (Libyan politics: tribe and revolution, 1987). The move into the anthropological study of societies with written historical records posed methodological issues to which John, with his historical training, brought particular orientations and insights. Being among mainly sociologists at the beginning further stretched these boundaries, pushing towards a broader social anthropology – making it, perhaps, the heyday of Mediterraneanist anthropology.

In the early days at Kent John both benefitted from and contributed to the intellectual synergy between his work that of colleagues in sociology, such as Ray Pahl (with whom he shared an interest in the informal economy) and Derek Allcorn (whose theoretical acumen and sense of humour he much admired), and Frank Parkin. It was for Parkin that John managed to persuade Ernest Gellner to hold the press deadline of the European Journal of Sociology to accommodate a faux-Marxisante analysis of Beatrix Potter’s ‘Peter Rabbit and the Grundrisse’, for which it was claimed there could be no such thing as ‘an innocent reading’. This synergy played an important role in integrating John’s Mediterranean interests into mainstream social theory, in developing a distinctive economic anthropology of complex industrial societies through ground-breaking analysis of gift-giving, sub-economies and exchange (Exchange, 1992), as well in his pioneering ethnography of Libya exploring the interconnections between a modern ‘hydrocarbon society’ and a pre-existing segmentary lineage system.

As a teacher, John will be remembered for his innovations to the curriculum, such as ‘Understanding other cultures’ (a joint course with philosophy), and perhaps less so for ‘L’Année Sociologique‘ (an attempt to bring analytical rigor to the writings of Durkheim and allied thinkers associated with this early twentieth century French periodical). ‘L’Année Sociologique‘ was disappointingly short-lived and recruited few students, not only because of the intellectual rigor expected, but because a condition of registration was complete fluency in reading French. More popular, instructively entertaining several cohorts of students during the 1980s, was his creation of ‘Potlatch’, a simulation game that sought to capture the dynamic properties of the eponymous Kwakiutl institution of competitive exchange.

It was John who founded the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing, and placed Kent at the forefront of innovations in computing applications that have now become standard throughout academia. Although Kent colleagues Marie Corbin and Paul Stirling had as early as 1969 used the Didcot Atlas Computer Centre to reconstruct family and kinship data from census records, it was John who routinized computer use. John had spent a year in Berkeley where he had been much impressed by the work of the Language Behavior Laboratory under Brent Berlin. During the following decade he introduced applications that we now take for granted (bibliographic databases, email communication, text production) as well as specialist applications for handling kinship data. The first Kent internet service began in November 1986 (three years before Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web), and the anthropology website was among the first 400 in the world. Characteristically, John christened the Kent Anthropology server ‘Lucy’, not to memorialise the famous Ethiopian fossil hominid – as many thought – but to yet again honour Lucy Mair. It was deliberate and mischievous ambiguity on John’s part

John was not only clever and intellectually quick-witted, but charming, funny and supportive of students, friends and colleagues. He liked good wine, fine dining and would seldom be seen without his pipe. He was a raconteur of the first order, eminently clubbable, and with a self-conscious ‘donnish’ sense of humour.  Entertaining and amusing both as guest and host, during the 1980s he would invite the Tuesday anthropology research seminar back to his spacious kitchen in St Thomas Hill, where discussion would often continue over pasta and salad, even after John himself had discretely withdrawn to his bed. During his period at Kent John married Dymphna Hermans (though technically the wedding was in Berkeley, and they had first met in Amsterdam), with whom he was to have three children – Peter, Michael and Henry.

John made an important contribution to the professional life of anthropology, being Chairman of the European Association of Social Anthropologists from 1993 to 1994, and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 1997 and 2001. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1988. On moving to Oxford he spent five years as head of ISCA before becoming Warden of All Souls, a position he relinquished in 2008.

At All Souls John enthusiastically embraced the role of Warden, researching and writing the history of the college fellowship, from an inevitably anthropological perspective and in his inimitable style. With Scott Mandelbrote (2013) he produced The Warden’s Punishment Book of All Souls College, Oxford, 1601-1850, for the Oxford Historical Society. His retirement was unfortunately plagued by ill-health and a premature withdrawal from mainstream academic life.

Having been a close colleague of John’s for over twenty years I would like to think that something of his conceptual incisiveness rubbed-off. In working in Brunei on forestry and conservation issues I was able to use his notion of ‘hydrocarbon’ society in the context of an oil-rich Muslim state very different from those that had served as his model in Libya, and the enduring insights of his work on the informal non-monetary sub-economies found an unexpected application in understanding the circulation of germ-plasm amongst UK gardeners and allotment keepers. But John was more than a professional colleague and intellectual stimulus, he was a companion. I learned from John to enjoy the Diary of Samuel Pepys (the Latham and Matthews edition, of course), Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance to Music of time’, and to share his chuckles that progressively evolved into belly-laughs when reading the ‘Flashman’ novels of George Macdonald Fraser. I regret to say that I have never got round to the collected works of Ivy Compton-Burnett, which used to stare down accusingly at me from his book shelves, but if I ever do I just know that I will find something of John within them.


[A version of the present obituary first appeared on the website of the School of Anthropology and Conservation of the University of Kent in January 2017. I have also drawn on words spoken at a memorial service for John held 24 June 2017 in the Codrington Library of All Souls College Oxford, and on conversations with John and Marie Corbin, to whom I am grateful. The photograph is reproduced courtesy of the British Academy.]

To cite this article:

ELLEN, ROY. 2017 ‘John (Horsley Russell) Davis, 1938-2017’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2017. (available on-line: