Michael G. Swift

Home Archives & Manuscripts Obituaries Michael G. Swift


Michael G. Swift, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Monash University, Victoria, since 1968, died in Kuala Lumpur on 5 May, 1984, aged 54. His death at this age is a heavy blow for Southeast Asian studies, which has thus lost four scholars in the British tradition working in this field in the last seven years or so, all of them in the prime of life. Swift had worked with Maurice Freedman, Chandra Jayawardena and Barbara E. Ward, and the two men in particular were his close friends whose early deaths had affected him profoundly. In some ways a very private man, whose critical intelligence often seemed to drive him athwart his colleagues, he had an abiding love of Malay culture and society, and was held in the highest respect by his Malaysian colleagues. He became a Muslim on his marriage to Enchik Zainab, and appropriately he was buried with full Muslim rites, attended by his wife and his two children, and a large gathering of Malaysian scholars and students.

Swift was a product of both the Economics and the Anthropology departments of the London School of Economics. His first monograph, Malay Peasant Society in Jelebu (1965) illustrated his lifelong concern with changes in small-scale societies. But as well as the general theory of peasant society and the basic economics, he was interested in the position of women, changes in marriage, political organization and medicine, for in some ways he typified what may be regarded as the best in ‘applied anthropology’ with no loss of theoretical rigour. ‘No longer concerned primarily with primitive society’ anthropology was characterised by Swift as ‘a research method or research style which was originally developed in the study of such societies’. And he recognised that there were limitations on generalizations to be set against the very valuable deep insights that such small scale research could provide. He also wrote that ‘since almost any interest can be related to the study of man, it can be the concern of anthropology’. He wrote simply and directly, as he taught, giving his theories practical application for his local audience where he could. In his contribution to Barbara Ward’s Women in the New Asia Swift noted that ‘for the vast majority of Malay women a discussion of their place in the family exhausts the topic of their place in society’. Since 1963 when this was published, very great changes have taken place in openings for educated Malay women. His own wife had always been an exception; an able social worker, she, like many other educated Malay wives, has been leading a professional life of her own as well as undertaking her family responsibilities. Now, it would have been interesting to have had from Michael Swift a study of the new conflicts facing women in Malaysia today owing to recent developments in politico-religious doctrine.

Rosemary Firth

This obituary first appeared as: Firth, Rosemary. 1984. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 63, p. 18 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

FIRTH, ROSEMARY. 1984. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 63, p. 18 (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/michael-g-swift).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doadvancedsearch&filter=*&cw=OR&as_method=get&as_resultsmode=fullkeywords&f0=author&o0=%3D%3D&v0=M%20Swift&f1=author&o1=%3D%3D&v1=Michael%20Swift&f2=author&o2=CT&v2=M%20J%20Swift