May 23, 1923–June 15, 2017
David W. Brokensha, professor emeritus of anthropology and environment studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), died peacefully at home in Fish Hoek, South Africa, aged 94. He was an outstanding applied cultural anthropologist, an excellent and much beloved teacher and mentor, and an active correspondent and writer. His cogent and lively memoir, Brokie’s Way (2007), documented how his “four main identities”—being a white South African, gay, a Catholic, and a social anthropologist—shaped his life. Brokensha developed a strong professional and personal interest in social justice and a deep respect for human dignity.
Born in 1923 to a prosperous family in Durban, South Africa, Brokensha served in World War II, spending 1942 to 1945 in prisoner of war camps. He earned his BA at Rhodes University in 1947, then moved to Britain, obtaining post-graduate degrees in social anthropology at Cambridge in 1949 and Oxford in 1950. His mentors included Monica Wilson and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. After service as a colonial administrator in Tanzania (1951–1956, where he met his life-long companion, geographer Bernard Riley in 1954) and Zimbabwe (1956–1959), Brokensha became a lecturer at University College of Ghana (1959–1963). He completed his PhD at Oxford in 1963 under Paul Baxter’s supervision, carrying out an urban ethnography published as Social Change at Larteh, Ghana (1966). The theme of social change was also emphasized in several volumes he edited, including Ecology and Economic Development in Tropical Africa (1965). Africa in the Wider World (1967), and Anthropology of Development and Change in East Africa (1988). Brokensha worked from 1963 to 1966 at UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies. Hired at UCSB in 1966, he chaired both the Anthropology Department and the Environmental Studies Program. Brokensha supervised numerous graduate students and taught popular undergraduate courses, often in collaboration with Riley. He received UCSB’s top teaching award in 1980. His retirement in 1989 was marked by a festschrift from colleagues and former students, Social Change & Applied Anthropology: Essays in Honor of David W. Brokensha.
As a consultant with international organizations, Brokensha promoted indigenous/local knowledge systems and participatory development long before such ideas became mainstream. His prolific publications included two seminal co-edited works on those key issues: Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Development (1980) and The Cultural Dimensions of Development (1995). Riley and Brokensha’s two-volume The Mbeere in Kenya (1988) documented local ethnobotanical knowledge within a context of rapid social and ecological change. Brokensha’s belief that anthropology could play a critical role in aid policy and interventions led him to establish, with Michael M. Horowitz and Thayer Scudder, the Institute for Development Anthropology (IDA) in 1976, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to rights-based, participatory, and interdisciplinary approaches.
David Brokensha’s motto was Carpe diem, and until the very end of his life he remained active, socially and intellectually. His final scholarly work was a co-edited volume, Climate Change and Threatened Communities, published when he was 89 years old. Brokensha’s last published works were personal memoirs, Guy’s Story (2016), about his brother’s mysterious disappearance during World War II, and an edited collection of poems by Riley (2017), who died in 2004. Brokensha is missed by his family and his wide circle of friends. (Miriam S. Chaiken and A. Peter Castro)
Cite as: Chaiken, Miriam S., and A. Peter Castro. 2017. “David Warwick Brokensha.” Anthropology News website, December 8, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.722