George Saunders, professor of anthropology at Lawrence University, passed away on September 17, 2020. He retired in 2001, following surgery for a brain tumor that left him with impaired memory and vision, but retained a strong continuing interest in the discipline supported by faculty colleagues.
Saunders was born on February 14, 1946, in Perris, California. After completing his undergraduate degree in economics at Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) he served in the Peace Corps in Venezuela and worked for two years as a Spanish-speaking social worker in Los Angeles. He entered the anthropology doctoral program at the University of California, San Diego, in 1971 with the intention of working in Latin America, but soon switched to Italy after an initial summer of fieldwork there in 1972. Saunders’s engagement with European studies was evident in his involvement with the Society for the Anthropology of Europe, an American Anthropological Association (AAA) section that he helped found in 1986, serving on its first executive committee and then as treasurer, 1996–2000.
Saunders’s generosity and accessibility always resonated well with students and colleagues. At Lawrence University his contributions to teaching and mentoring were recognized with numerous honors and awards. He was given the university’s Young Teacher Award shortly after arriving at Lawrence and went on to chair his department and be appointed to an endowed position as the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor of the Social Sciences.
Reflecting the interests of his University of California, San Diego, mentors Melford Spiro and F. G. Bailey, Saunders brought an original synthesis of person-centered ethnography and language study to his research on religion, specifically Protestant Pentecostal movements in northern Italy. He edited the volume Culture and Christianity: The Dialectics of Transformation (1988) at a time when the anthropology of local Christianities was in its early stages. His book manuscript, The Language of the Spirit: Heart and Mind in Italian Evangelical Protestantism, was nearly completed in 2001 at the time of his surgery, and was taken up by colleagues in Italy who arranged for translation and publication as Il Linguaggio dello Spirito: Il Cuore e la Mente nel Protestantesimo Evangelico (2010). Saunders also published on the history of Italian anthropology, particularly the work of Italian anthropologist and historian Ernesto De Martino.
In addition to his research in Italy, Saunders did community-based work with Hmong refugees in Appleton, Wisconsin, from 1982 to 1985. At the end of his career, he was developing a new interest in India, having directed student programs there in 1995 and 1997 and participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the subject in 2000.
George Saunders’s papers and field notes are curated at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives.
Saunders is survived by his wife, Bickley Bauer-Saunders; former wife Carol Saunders and son Josh Saunders; grandchildren George Saunders and Eleanor Mosolf; sister Martha Saunders; and brothers Mark, Tim, and Alan. During the years of his limited mobility, George Saunders was fortunate to be surrounded by the supportive family of his wife Bickley, including son Matthew and daughter Amy.
(Geoffrey White and Paula Levin)
Cite as: White, Geoffrey and Paula Levin. 2020. “George R. Saunders.” Anthropology News website, November 5, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1529