Martin Orans, a distinguished cultural anthropologist and colleague at the University of California, Riverside, passed away on February 22, 2020. He is remembered as a rigorous scholar, supportive mentor, dedicated teacher, and wonderful friend.
Martin received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1962. His dissertation was based on 14 months of fieldwork beginning in 1957 among the Santal, a “tribal” culture being incorporated into the modern nation-state of India. His research focused on how different groups among the Santal engaged with and resisted the larger society of which they were a part. Martin’s committee was chaired by Milton Singer and included Fred Eggan and Manning Nash. Martin also credited assistance from Robert Redfield among others. The dissertation was revised and published as The Santal: A Tribe in Search of a Great Tradition (1965).
Martin began teaching at UC Riverside in 1964. In the 1970s, he changed his areal focus from South Asia to the South Pacific, deciding to work in Western Samoa (now Samoa). This transition required learning a new language, mastering a new literature, and conducting extensive fieldwork in a Samoan village. As Martin began writing up his research on Samoan status and exchange, he became deeply involved in the Mead-Freeman controversy that commenced in 1983. Well before the controversy began, Martin had engaged in a lengthy and cordial correspondence with Derek Freeman, hosting Freeman when he visited UC Riverside. Like Freeman, Martin was critical of Margaret’s Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), but unlike Freeman he did not believe that Mead’s portrayal of Samoa as a sexually permissive society was based on her alleged hoaxing by two Samoan women. This difference ultimately led Feeman to label Martin as one of his “enemies” and characterize him as a member of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a group of critics that Freeman regarded as particularly misinformed about Mead’s work. Martin’s book on the controversy, Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans (1996), is an important contribution to the controversy and is a testament to his commitment to empirical research. The chapter titled “Who Hoaxed Whom?” is especially noteworthy, as are Martin’s published exchanges with Freeman, which convincingly demonstrated that on this vital aspect of the Mead-Freeman controversy Freeman was incorrect.
Beyond his work on India and Samoa, Martin’s publications reflected his broad interest in theoretical debates within cultural anthropology including the argument about the concept of surplus (a rethinking of Marshall Sahlins’s early work) and the argument about functionalism and causal explanation. Martin also continued to work on a lengthy manuscript on Samoan exchange, demonstrating his deep knowledge of the culture; unfortunately, it remains unpublished.
In retirement, Martin and his family moved to Northern California, to the small town of Paradise, and established new relationships with colleagues at California State University, Chico. In 2018, a major fire destroyed most of the town of Paradise, including Martin’s home. Driving through flames and smoke, the family barely escaped. Having lost everything, they resettled in Chico where Martin passed away in 2020.
(William Loker, Paul Shankman, Carol Mukhopadhyay, David Kronenfeld, and Makoto Kowta)
Cite as: Loker, William, Paul Shankman, Carol Mukhopadhyay, David Kronenfeld, and Makoto Kowta. 2023. “Martin Orans.” Anthropology News website, March 9, 2023.