School of Social and Political Science

Alan Barnard FBA (1949-2022)



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His colleagues will remember him for his kindness, his endearing quirks, his utter lack of malice, his enthusiasm, and his friendship.


His many colleagues and friends in Social Anthropology, African Studies, and across the wider university have been shocked and saddened by the sudden passing away of Alan Barnard. Alan was an anthropologist who made major contributions to hunter-gatherer studies and to Southern African studies. His colleagues will remember him for his kindness, his endearing quirks, his utter lack of malice, his enthusiasm, and his friendship. His friend and some-time collaborator Tim Ingold has written, “Alan’s quiet intellectual diplomacy, and a readiness to see things from different points of view, worked wonders in keeping channels of communication open across approaches, and across disciplines, that would otherwise have been at each other’s throats.”

Professor Alan Barnard FBA joined the then Department of Social Anthropology in 1978 and was easily its longest serving member by the time of his retirement in 2015. He was promoted to Reader in 1994 and awarded a Personal Chair in the Anthropology of Southern Africa in 2001. In 2007 he was appointed Honorary Consul of the Republic of Namibia, and in 2010 was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

He was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1949, and after gaining a BA at George Washington University in DC and an MA at McMaster University in Ontario, he moved to University College, London where he obtained his PhD in 1976 under the supervision of Adam Kuper. In this early work on the Naro and Khoisan kinship more generally (the topic of his first ethnographic monograph and a theme to which he returned throughout his career) he developed the notion of regional structural comparison, which he applied to the broader ethnography of southern Africa. Though not in general a strongly political person, he was nonetheless endorsed as a speaker by the Union of Democratic University Staff Associations in Johannesburg in 1991, by virtue of his public opposition to apartheid.

Many of Alan’s inter-disciplinary connections were forged through his commitment to hunter-gatherer studies. He was a co-organizer of the 1986 Conference on Hunter-Gatherer Societies (CHAGS IV) in London in 1986, and chaired the ninth CHAGS gathering in Edinburgh in 2003. In 2018 his contribution was marked with a lifetime achievement award at CHAGS XII in Penang, Malaysia.

Alan was the author of dozens of books, edited volumes and articles, ranging from ethnographic monographs (for example, Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples, 1992) to co-edited research manuals (e.g., Research Practices in the Study of Kinship, 1984), and more theoretical works addressing the contribution social anthropology could make to explorations of the origins of human language and society (Social Anthropology and Human Origins, 2011; Language in Prehistory, 2016). He also wrote a children’s book (Kalahari Bushmen, 1993), and a number of books for use in teaching, which were translated into many other languages (most notably, History and Theory in Anthropology, 2000). He also co-edited, with his colleague Jonathan Spencer, a widely-praised Encyclopaedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, now in its second edition (1996, 2010).

Alongside this impressive body of work, Alan maintained his interest in teaching, and a level of cooperative willingness for which his colleagues were always grateful. Although he would have been the first to say that administration was not his favourite activity, he nonetheless took on his full share of responsibility, most notably as Head of Social Anthropology from 2004 to 2006. He played a full professional role outside the university too, serving on the committees of the Scottish Branch of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1979-1991) and the Association of Social Anthropologists (1983-1989).

Alan is survived by his wife Joy, an archaeologist by training and a lawyer by profession, who he married in 1990. As well as sharing Alan’s love of dogs and travel, Joy also collaborated with him on some of his southern African publications.