Robert L. Munroe

July 1, 1932–May 14, 2018

Robert Leon “Lee” Munroe, 85, research professor of anthropology at Pitzer College and a major figure in psychological anthropology and cross-cultural human development, died after a short illness in Claremont, California.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Munroe was the eldest of five brothers. He earned his bachelor’s degree, with honors in anthropology, from the University of California, Berkeley and his PhD in social anthropology from Harvard, where he worked closely with John and Beatrice Whiting. At Harvard, he met his wife and long-time research partner, psychologist Ruth Hagsberg Munroe. In 1964 the Munroes moved to Claremont to help establish programs in anthropology and psychology at Pitzer College, the newest of the Claremont Colleges.

Known as a kind and gentle person, Munroe was passionate about research and continued to publish up to his death. A quintessential teacher-scholar over the course of 45 years, he engaged undergraduate students in a research apprenticeship program and was proud to have co-authored journal articles with more than 30 of them.

In his effort to understand human behavior and cultures, Munroe’s approach was rigorous and scientific. No topic was immune from analysis—from his early work on male pregnancy symptoms and cross-sex identity to recent papers on the sound structure of languages and the cross-cultural affective perceptions of owls. Much of his work, known as “four culture studies,” focused on the comparative examination of children’s behavior and development in East Africa, Belize, American Samoa, and Nepal, where he and Ruth Munroe had collected a wealth of ethnographic and psychological data. These data enabled him and his collaborators to systematically analyze how different sociocultural settings affect children’s development with respect to sex and gender roles, work, cognition, cooperation-competition, and much more.

A recent paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research with psychologist Mary Gauvain (2012), examines relations between children’s cognitive development and their exposure to open-fire cooking. “Lee was especially proud of this research,” Gauvain explained, “because of its relevance to current concerns in global health.”

Munroe regularly joined anthropology colleagues—Ralph Bolton, Susan Seymour, and Claudia Strauss—for research lunches. As a voracious reader across disciplines, he could always contribute new ideas to discussions and manuscripts. “The diversity of Lee’s interests was astounding. He read widely. It did not matter what we were discussing; he could suggest a relevant article, often from psychology or another field,” Strauss recalled.

Munroe will be remembered for his significant contributions to our cross-cultural understanding of human behavior and to research methods in anthropology and psychology.

His many honors include serving as president of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and the Society for Cross-Cultural Research. In 1993, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in 2017 he became a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.

Lee Munroe’s wife, Ruth Munroe, and son, Anthony Munroe, predeceased him. His surviving family includes his children, Jonathan Munroe (Elaine Munroe) and Julia Munroe Martin (Lee Martin); and three grandchildren, Ben Martin, Max Munroe, and Hannah Martin. (Susan Seymour)

Cite as: Seymour, Susan. 2018. “Robert L. Munroe.” Anthropology News website, June 12, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.887

Comments

Lee Munroe was a colleague and friend in Claremont throughout our careers. When I arrived at Pomona College in 1971, I was delighted to find a compatible colleague. As anthropologists, we shared theoretical and methodological perspectives and a dedication to scientific approaches to understanding human behaviors and cultures. Our respective mentors, Jack Roberts and John and Beatrice Whiting, had been friends in the previous generation.

I think a person is fortunate if he or she finds a passion in life, and in talks I give to students, I always stress the importance of finding something to be passionate about. Lee had two passions, in addition to his devotion to his family: anthropological research and baseball. I didn’t share with him the latter, but with the former we were on common ground. After I retired from teaching at Pomona, I didn’t get to see Lee as often as I would have liked. I did try to stop in each time I was in Claremont. Invariably Lee would have some new hypothesis he was testing and was eager to try out on me to get my feedback. And at the same time, he was always interested in hearing what I was working on.

From our very first days in Claremont in the 1970s, Lee was someone who was supportive. He and Ruth hosted monthly research gathering at their home for Susan Seymour, Charlene and me. We took turns presenting a discussion of the problems we were working on. These were memorable occasions. When anthropology colleagues from out of town were visiting, they were included in these gatherings. One of those gatherings included Jack Roberts. Usually we met for only an hour or two over lunch, but on this occasion the discussion went on until late afternoon.

Lee’s scientific contributions are legion, and they are testimony to a very creative mind, but one that was also rigorously disciplined when it came to efforts to falsify the hypothesis. Lee also excelled as someone who collaborated with others on research, both students and colleagues. It was my privilege to work with Lee and Ruth on one such project, a comparison of the impact of mode of subsistence (herding vs farming) on childrearing in the Andes.

Professional aspects of his life aside, it was his friendship that was so important to me and to many others. I will never forget the many occasions when we got together to watch the 4th of July parade from the lawn of the house on Harvard Avenue, nor the years when we all got together on or around Christmas. Lee was one of the kindest persons I have ever known. He was always calm. I never once saw him angry or upset.

Just before he died, I had sent an email to Lee, which I suppose he never got. It was typical of the emails we exchanged, in which one of us would mention some research we’d heard about and wanted to share. In my final message to him, I asked if he had heard of a recent study of the differences in behavior of clients at Starbucks in two different locations in China with different subsistence bases. I think he would have enjoyed the quirkiness of that study, and I was curious for his reaction. May he rest in peace.

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