Friday, February 3, 2012

Robert Lawless

One of my favorite anthropology professors and friends, Robert Lawless, passed away yesterday.    I first encountered Robert when he was at the University of Florida.  In the fall of 1980 I was his teaching assistant for Anthropology and Modern Life (ANT 2410 as I recall).  As an assistant in that course, I learned most of what I needed to know to pass the masters-level comprehensive exams.  I also learned two really important concepts for the study of culture that I have continued to use and teach for over 30 years now: the distinction between folk and analytic models, and the concept of cynical knowledge.  More about these in a later post.  Right now, a story Robert posted on the Anthro-L listserve from field-notes of his research among the Kalinga, former headhunters of Luzon, The Philippines.

Usually a group of young men would decide that they needed a late afternoon or early evening snack. They would then surreptitiously grab a dog (black preferred) and sneak it out of the village into some wooded area, kill it, roast it, and eat it along with some alcoholic beverage (made from rice or sugarcane).  This event was usually done with a strong sense of camaraderie.  After several months in a Middle Pasil, I had the honor of being invited to one of these events.  Of course, between bites of dog meat and sweetbreads I asked them what they called this event.  They replied (much to my anthropological satisfaction) that it had no name.  Then they asked me (much to my disconcertedness) what it was called in my culture when a group of guys grabbed a dog and went off to roast and eat it.  Trying to think fast, since I knew that I already had a growing reputation for being stupid about things in my culture [you are all invited to read an article on this issue by me published in Anthropology Vol. 10, No. 1 (May 1986), pp. 55-74, and titled "Ethnoethnographers and the Anthropologist"], I replied that we called it "picnic" (using the English word). 
A few months later I was in another village quite a distance from the aforementioned one when after several weeks a group of young guys that I had been establishing rapport with came to me and whispered in my ear (in Kalinga), "Would you like to come with us on a piknik," using a word that clearly sounded like the English work picnic.  I responded (in Kalinga), "Sure, but what's a piknik?"  They said, "You know, that's where we grab a dog, take it out in the woods, roast it, and eat it." "Where did you get the word 'piknik'?" "Oh, that an old Kalinga word for this event." "But have you always used that word." "I guess so." "Did you know that word last season?" "Oh, no, just a few weeks ago, some guy from the village over the mountain came here, we took him out for a dog feast, and he told us that 'piknik' was the ancient Kalinga word for what we were doing."
RIP, Robert. You will be missed by many.

13 comments:

  1. We all share your loss, Ron. Robert was a strong voice over the net for many many years, so much that I often felt he was in the same room looking over my shoulder. He will be missed.

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  2. Thank you, Ron. I loved that story. Robert excelled at making a point, making you think, with his beautiful, eloquent, and subtle stories. He never clobbered you with his intentions but discreetly managed to shine a broad spotlight beam at the issue. He certainly will be miss by many. I'll also miss anticipating your comments and discussions with Robert on the Anthro-L listserv.

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  3. I was a student of his, and am still at Wichita State. I had not heard that particular story, but it's very Lawless-esce. He was a very good story teller and that is what we loved most about his teaching style. His humorous antidotes always left us thinking more deeply than we even realized, it was as if it was a sneak attack to get us to think more broadly. We thought we were just listening to a funny story.

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  4. I remember that story fondly. It was Dr. Lawless's teaching that cause me to change my major to Anthropology and continue my studies through my M.A. He always said that "Magic, Witchcraft, & Religion" was the sexy name that WSU gave his class on comparative belief. I have felt lost that last few years without his guidance, now I know more will accompany me in that feeling.
    Maggie, WSU 2009

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  5. Thank you for sharing this story. I had Dr. Lawless for my Advanced Cultural class and he told many stories of his time with the Kalinga, but I hadn't heard this one.

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  6. I also wanted to thank you too. Robert Lawless was on my graduate committee at the University of Florida before he moved to Kansas. I took my anthropology theory from him and we have remained in touch all these years. He is much missed.
    Rosina Hassoun

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  7. Doc Lawless certainly empowered me with much of my critical thinking skills about the human animal. Now, he's standing in that shallow pool with the water gently lapping at his legs.

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  8. My favorite Robert Lawless quote: "That's a bunch of mind-fuck!"

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  9. Very sad to hear this. I was his student and he was one of my grad school advisor and thesis committee member in 2000 at WSU. He was my teacher and my role-model. I loved his stories of the Kalingas and Voodoo of Haiti. I remembered his Analytic and Folk model theories, Manifest and Latent functions. I enjoyed his classes the most when I was an Anthropology student at WSU. Thank You and RIP Dr. Lawless. - Sunny Ng, Singapore.

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  10. I took Robert's class back in 1987 at UF, I then had the wonder of being his Son-in-Law for the past 22 years as I married his Daughter. One of my favorite stories he told me was when the two of us were driving from Gainesville to Columbia, SC where his daughter was in graduate school a year before I joined her there. He told me of his time when he was with the Kalingas and each day he would join them on their outings and each day he would take notes in these little spiral notebooks that he used for notetaking back in the 60's. Of course to get lots of notes he needed to ask lots of questions. One day he woke up and found his bag with all his notes gone and the Kalingas had already left for the day. Robert went frantically looking for them and finally found them. Upon finding them taking a break he saw that they all had a small notebook and pen in hand and were all writing notes for him as they had become really tired of having him ask questions, therefore they thought they would just write down what they were doing in the notebooks for him. Thinking that all he was doing was thinking about what he was doing and it then came out of his hand and onto the paper. Man was that a great car trip! We actually took 10 hours to make a 5.5 hour drive because we took the back roads and found a little diner in Georgia where we had some of the best catfish I can remember. Boy did he love to eat good food. I will miss all the stories he told me but I have shared all his stories with whoever will listen to me.

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  11. I felt so bad when I learned of Robert Lawless's death. I only met him once, when we had a meal together at an AAA meeting a dozen or so years ago. But we began corresponding in 1974 over Philippine issues--we both did major fieldwork in the Philippines, overlapping, but never meeting there. But we corresponded a few times a year from 1974 up to his last email to me in June of last year. Robert published reviews of four of my books, three positive and one negative which was defending missionaries. But the negative review was professional, and attacked my position, not my personality, and I thanked him after because I learned from what he said. I wish I could have known him better. I honor his memory and pray God's blessing on his widow and children. Tom Headland (4-5-2012)

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  12. i'm very deeply saddened to learn, now months later, that robert lawless has passed away. robert was a major influence on me as an undergraduate and master's student at florida in the late 70s/early 80s, defining what anthropology/ists should be. his influence remains with me. if i have an anthropology mentor, it is robert lawless. he was my master's thesis advisor (i was did research in jamaica). he taught me respect for good, thorough, critical scholarship and the need to know the literature. he seemed to have read everything! two memories: in the ecological anthropology class i took from him in '78 or '79, he would write the references used in his lecture on the board (way before power point) so we, undergraduates, would know his sources....and in '82 or so, while doing an independent reading course with him, he'd sometimes comment that what i'd written was "good shit." with thanks and respect. james e. roberson (tokyo, japan)

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  13. James, I remember you! Good to hear from you...

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