Rosemary Harris

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Rosemary Lois Harris, 1930- 2015

Rosemary Harris’ death on 31 March 2015 deprived Anthropology of a fine, robustly innovative scholar, society of a concerned and productively active member and those who had the privilege of a great friend. A quintessential English lady, Rosemary was a most generous woman, a stimulating teacher and a masterful supervisor. As a classic anthropologist blessed with an inquisitive mind and intellectual acumen, she pioneered much fundamental research which she wrote up in a jargon-free style; her prose was linear, simple and elegant. Her production might have been opposed, sometimes heavily, by mediocre minds but, in time, it carved a deep, ever expanding furrow in the history of our discipline; a furrow that continues to be much traversed by many. Her publications, her research and the tributes paid by her ex-students collectively testify to her great intellectual and academic legacy. Here, I will have to be brief but I warmly encourage the interested reader to peruse her comprehensive Commemoration in the journal Urbanities.(1) 

Encouraged by Daryll Forde at University College London, in 1952-53 Rosemary carried out fieldwork in Northern Ireland. However, opposition to research in the West and at the time particularly in non-Mediterranean Europe, not only caused her book (Prejudice and Tolerance in Ulster) to be published only twenty years later, in 1972,(2)  but also caused Rosemary to do research in Africa in order to earn her Ph.D. in Social Anthropology. No matter, though; this understated, gutsy woman reacted to what would have nipped others’ careers in the bud by obtaining a Emslie Horniman Anthropological Scholarship, conducting field research among the Mbembe of Nigeria in 1956-57 (and in 1958 and 1959) and producing work of such high calibre that in 1965 her book (The Political Organization of the Mbembe, Nigeria) was awarded the prestigious Percy Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology. No mean feat, of course; particularly considering that Rosemary had meanwhile published seminal essays on her Irish research in Sociological journals.

Encapsulating a predicament much familiar to those of us who have encountered academic mediocrity and pettiness, or simply disciplinary obstinacy, Anthropology ‘at home’ still had a long way to go before being accepted in mainstream British Anthropology. Rosemary was, however, not yet finished with breaking new ground in the discipline. In the 1980s, she engaged in research in industry and industrial relations, a field that, until then, had been jealously guarded as a prerogative of Sociologists, particularly Marxist Sociologists. In 1986, Routledge published what turned out to be Rosemary’s last book, Power and Powerlessness in Industry. Vastly significant far beyond Anthropology, this well-informed and theoretically astute study stands both as a powerful endorsement of the strength and essential value of ethnographically-based analysis, as opposed to superimposition of theory to reality, and as a damning indictment of fashionable but weak grand theories. This was certainly not Rosemary’s last word in Anthropology. In 1991-95, she conducted her last major research in Somers Town, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in central London, which she published in 1996 and 1999, respectively in the International Journal of Minority and Group Rights and in a volume on Ethnicities in Conflict. After retirement, Rosemary continued to publish and participate actively in anthropological endeavours.(3)  Unforgettable, for instance, her contributions to the conferences convened by the Commission on Urban Anthropology and to the planning that led to the establishment of the International Urban Symposium-IUS, which became a reality after her death.

Rosemary taught at the Queen’s University, Belfast and at the University of Sussex before moving to the Department of Anthropology at University College London, where she initiated a course in Wester Industrial Societies, among others, and where she retained the position of Emerita Reader after her retirement.

I end on the personal note with which I opened my contribution to the aforementioned Commemoration in Urbanities (2015: 116). There I wrote, ‘Integrity, kindness, compassion and intellectual acumen defined the Rosemary Harris I knew. Death hath deprived me of my dear friend and invaluable colleague, to whom I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude’.

Rosemary Harris. Photograph courtesy of RAI Archives: RAI no.44551

Rosemary Harris. Photograph courtesy of RAI Archives: RAI no.44551

University of Kent

(1)  I draw on the ‘Commemoration of Rosemary Harris’ published in Urbanities (Vol. 5, No 1, May 2015, pp. 107-126), and particularly on G. B. Prato’s detailed Obituary (107-112), available at:
(2)  And on Max Gluckman’s insistence, no less! Anthony Buckley, one of her reviewers, aptly saluted this book as a ‘paradigm change’ in the study of sectarian divide. It stimulated much substantial work on Northern Ireland.
(3)  See her contributions in Urbanities and her public interventions (for example, in Prospect in 1997).

To cite this article:
PARDO, ITALO. 2016. ‘Rosemary Harris’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, 1 March 2016. (available on-line:


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