2016 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee: Richard Shweder

Byron Good and I have known each other for fifty years. So there was something seamless, intimate, affectionate and even life-affirming about our SPA breakfast conversation in which we interviewed each other about our biographies, intellectual passions and perspectives on the future of psychological anthropology. And there was a noticeable complementarity in our academic careers and self-described biographies—he, Mennonite farm boy from Illinois and once a graduate student at the University of Chicago who went on to become a faculty member at Harvard and I, secular Jewish kid from New York City and once a graduate student at Harvard who went on to become a faculty member at the University of Chicago.

Picture of 2016 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee Rick Shweder. Tom Weisner.

The SPA dinner the next night took on the shape of an academy awards presentation, or at least it was introduced that way by Carol Worthman, the SPA President. Upon being presented with a Life Time Achievement award, I couldn’t resist just following her cue.

So my comments began something like this:

I want to thank my fifth grade elementary school teacher Mr. Herzberg for convincing me not to hate school, since I had spent the four previous years playing hooky as much as possible. I want to thank my seventh grade science teacher Mr. Barry for giving me the first real thought I ever had—he had the class stand 10 feet from a wall and go half way there, and then half way again, and again and again until it dawned on me that we would never reach that wall, thereby boggling my mind with intimations of the concept of infinity.

I went on to thank my 11th grade English teacher Mr. Biel. At the beginning of every week during the 1961 school year, Mr. Biel (whom I much later realized was only 26 years old at the time) read out newspaper clippings suggesting that the country was moving closer and closer to George Orwell’s predictions in his novel “1984,” which we read. Orwell’s book has recently gotten popular again. I recounted that I first heard the word “anthropology” from Mr. Biel. Out of the blue one day he said to the students in his class, “If any of you don’t know what you want to do with your life there is this field of study called ‘anthropology.’”

It is a great tribe and that evening in New Orleans, looking back and looking forward, I was trying to convey that sense of ancestry, attachment and promise to the many young scholars and rising stars who made this biannual SPA meeting so memorable for Byron and for me.

And I thanked Arthur Tuden for sealing that deal. He was a brilliant young charismatic Marxist anthropologist of African political systems who first introduced me to anthropology during my freshman year in college. And then there was George Peter Murdock and his grand lineage of cultural anthropologists stretching from William Graham Sumner (who turned Murdock into a comparativist) to Murdock’s many students at Yale University (for example John Whiting), and their students (for example, Roy D’Andrade and Bob LeVine) and their students and so on, including so many eminences in psychological anthropology. In my senior year in college Murdock allowed me to register for his graduate seminar on the history of anthropology, where we wrote intellectual biographies every two weeks of famous social scientists on a reading list that started with Herodotus and ended with George Peter Murdock. Anthropology from Herodotus to Murdock! His main contribution was to tell lots of gripping stories about famous anthropologists he had known (Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir and others), pass on the gossip of the tribe and thereby induct you into the profession. I told some of those stories, and other tales from my years at Harvard and Chicago at the SPA dinner—about Cora DuBois who drew frowning faces and wrote the word “Jargon!” in the columns of my graduate school essays and handed me the New Yorker as a model for writing; about Bob LeVine and how thanks to Bob I ended up at Chicago. One always “stands on the shoulders of giants.” My mentor at Harvard was John Whiting. He was the first President of SPA back in the late 1970s, and believe it or not I was the first Secretary of this great tribe. It is a great tribe and that evening in New Orleans, looking back and looking forward, I was trying to convey that sense of ancestry, attachment and promise to the many young scholars and rising stars who made this biannual SPA meeting so memorable for Byron and for me.

Richard Shweder is a Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

Cite as: Shweder, Richard. 2017. “2016 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee: Richard Shweder.” Anthropology News website, May 25, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.451

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