Michael H. Agar

May 7, 1945–May 20, 2017

Michael H. Agar died on May 20, 2017, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although Agar was the ultimate craftsman with words, it is difficult to put labels on the life he lived. He was a linguistic anthropologist, a cultural anthropologist, almost an South Asianist, a drug expert, a medical anthropologist, an applied anthropologist, a practicing anthropologist, a public anthropologist, a professional anthropologist, a professional stranger, a theoretical anthropologist, an academic anthropologist, an independent consultant, a cross cultural consultant, a computer modeler, an agent-based modeler, a complexity theorist, an environmentalist, a water expert, a teacher, a storyteller, an advocate, a mentor, a brother, a husband, and a friend.

Agar began his life on the day Germany surrendered to the allies on May 7, 1945. He grew up in Chicago until he was 11 when his parents moved him to Livermore, California, for his dad’s job at Lawrence Radiation Lab. He considered Livermore his hometown and his AB from Stanford and PhD from Berkeley cemented his life as a California kid.

Agar studied aboard in Austria as a high schooler, starting his internationalist perspective and fascination and gift for languages. At Stanford, he arranged with his anthropology professor, Alan Beals, for a year of fieldwork in a small village in South India. He had all intentions of continuing this career at the Language-Behavior Research Lab at Berkeley when, in the midst of the Vietnam War, he became a commissioned officer in the Corps of the US Public Health Service. With the vision and latitude of his graduate advisor, Paul Kay, Agar brought an anthropologist’s lens to the drug field and forever changed the trajectory of the field.

Agar taught at universities around the world. In the United States, he was a professor at the University of Hawaii, the University of Houston, and he retired as a professor emeritus from the University of Maryland College Park where he developed the Master of Applied Anthropology (MAA) program with Erve Chambers. His most extensive international professorships were in linguistics at University of Vienna and at the Institute for International Management in Linz, Austria. In the mid-1990s, Agar formally left academia and worked on his own terms through Ethknoworks.

Professional Stranger (1980, 1996) was probably his best known book, as one of the few texts that dared to guide graduate students through the morass of fieldwork. Agar is most known for making people think, and he did just that in Independents Declared (1986), Language Shock (1994), Dope Double Agent (2006), and The Lively Science (2013). His first book, Ripping and Running (1973), helped start the field of cognitive science and was among the early anthropological ethnographies on contemporary issues in the US.

He continued to challenge the status quo of international drug policy up until his death, and left behind a manuscript that shifts the problem of “culture” to “Culture” as a solution. True to Agar, it is a philosophical masterpiece written as if you are having your last drink with him at the bar.

Mike Agar will be deeply missed by his wife, Ellen Taylor; sister, Mary Elizabeth Agar; brother and his wife, Tom Agar and Helene Diament-Agar; and his nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews, as well as by his many friends and colleagues around the world.

Now it is time to go to your local jazz club, order a Jameson, and have that conversation with Mike. (Michael Agar, Heather Schacht Reisinger, Ellen Taylor, and Erve Chambers)

Cite as: Agar, Michael, Heather Schacht Reisinger, Ellen Taylor, and Erve Chambers. 2017. “Michael H. Agar.” Anthropology News website, May 25, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.463

Comments

We were fortunate enough to have Mike serve as a juror for the WAPA Praxis Award four years ago. Naturally, his wisdom and insights helped us refine for the better the process by which jurors evaluate the award applications. He was a role model.

Just a few short years ago (two? three?) Mike provided an amazing review of a book manuscript I co-wrote with a colleague and graduate students — incisive, insightful, supportive, he really really got it. It triggered one more round of virtual barstool chat; I am so grateful for that. And for showing my students what a professional mensch is.

Judith Okely June 6th
Michael Agar’s book The Professional Stranger was utterly brilliant for my teaching methods courses and for my own research perspectives. His superb concept of The Funnel Method challenged all the scientistic pretentious ways which others claimed to be doing research. He demonstrated that anthropologists could and should not go into the field with prearranged hypothesis which would ignore crucial and unpredictable aspects there. I listened to him in awe at an AAA conference. I recalled my Egyptian student returning from fieldwork in the Sinae desert and saying sweetly, “I used the funnel method.” I said, “All that sand.” Agar saw and argued long before others the way we have to do fieldwork: being open to ALL things until we gradually focus and concentrate on themes and concerns that gradually emerge. I was inspired by this intellectual courage and found that in dialogues with over 20 anthropologists in my Anthropological Practice that sure enough they all changed their focus once in the field i.e. they were open to everything that was there, in effect using the funnel method.

Thank you for this memorial to an incredible anthropologist. There is so much to say. I’ve used this commentary to update some ideas on how to escape from the idea of “Gang Culture.” I’m particularly intrigued by that unfinished manuscript.

The manuscript is up on Mike’s website, Ethknoworks.com., in the upper left column. It really is a nice way to continue the conversation with him. And thank you for your comment. It continues to amaze me all the different ways Mike’s work on an impact.

I had the good fortune to work with Mike in the area of drug abuse research, although for far too brief a time. I was at the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the time, and mostly had the good sense to support Mike’s activity and stay out of his way. It is now widely recognized that his extraordinarily inventive way of conceptualizing and attacking drug abuse problems has added immeasurably to our understanding of drug abuse issues. It is equally well known that his infectious good humor and positive outlook added immeasurably to the lives of those he touched. I am thankful that mine was one of those lives.

Barry S. Brown

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