Olivia Harris, 1948-2009

May 21, 2009

Olivia Harris, a leading anthropologist, has died.

She was born on 26 August 1948, grew up in Surrey, was educated in Kent and studied Classics at St Anne's College, Oxford. She then switched to postgraduate work in anthropology at the London School of Economics from 1970 to 1975. Her two years' fieldwork among war-torn peasantry in the Bolivian wilderness had a decisive impact on her subsequent thinking.

Along with a number of visiting positions in Norway, Latin America and the United States, Professor Harris built her career at what is now Goldsmiths, University of London, and co-founded its anthropology department in 1986. After a gap of 30 years, however, she returned to the LSE as professor of anthropology and head of the anthropology department in 2005.

Notably wide-ranging in her interests, Professor Harris edited a volume of "anthropological studies of authority and ambiguity", Inside and Outside the Law (1996), and was sole author of To Make the Earth Bear Fruit: Essays on Fertility, Work and Gender in Highland Bolivia (2000). She also co-authored a major study of Inca civilisation and the impact of the Spanish invasion, published in La Paz under the title Qaraqara-Charka: Mallku, Inka y Rey en la Provincia de Charcas (2006).

Even this broad-based research on the frontiers of anthropology and history branched off in a number of directions. At the time of her death, Professor Harris was completing a more general monograph on moments of major social rupture, how they are experienced at the time and remembered by later generations.

She also studied more recent developments in Latin America, such as changing notions of citizenship and the growth of indigenous movements. One of her final publications was a paper on "What makes people work?" (2007).

An enthusiastic and charismatic ambassador for her discipline, Professor Harris served as vice-president of the Royal Anthropological Society and co-edited the New Departures in Anthropology series for Cambridge University Press.

Deborah James, professor of anthropology at the LSE, remembers a woman who was "very highly placed within the profession", particularly lauded for her work on how colonial and even pre-colonial ideas and traditions are still manifest in today's Latin America. She was "very warm and approachable, and had an incredibly influential role in supervising students. There was standing-room only at her funeral in Southwark Cathedral."

Harris died of cancer on 9 April and is survived by her husband, historian Harry Lubasz, and daughter Marina.


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