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In Remembrance of Dr Esther Goody

last modified Feb 23, 2018 01:50 PM

Esther with Meyer Fortes

Esther Goody (third from the left) with Meyer Fortes (fourth from the right) and other attendees at the 1976 Lomé conference on the African family.


It is with the greatest sadness that we learn of the death of our former colleague, Dr Esther Goody, who taught in this department for many years, and will be remembered with great affection by former colleagues, students, and friends.

Tributes below are from Marilyn Strathern, Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, Chris Hann, and Barbara Bodenhorn.


Esther Newcomb Goody: a personal reflection Marilyn Strathern, 8 February 2018

At this moment of remembering the impact Esther Goody had on her students and colleagues, I contribute a small instance. Not because so much more couldn’t be said but because it remains one of the highlights of my life; expanding on it would only be diminishing. First week of teaching, Michaelmas Term, 1961. With my supervision partner from New Hall (as was), Anna Craven, I find my way to the cottages in Shelly Row where Esther and Jack lived. All I know is that my Girton Director of Studies, Doris Wheatley, was sending me to Mrs Goody (she completed her PhD that year) as my second year supervisor. This is the moment that Archaeology and Anthropology is to morph into Social Anthropology. Despite my loyalty to archaeology and teenage years of digging, I have always known that I want to specialize in anthropology, of the social kind. Over the following weeks the room where we sat was to become familiar, and Esther’s daughters (then toddler and baby) often kept us company. What I shall remember is what happens at the end of that first supervision. It was nothing unique – Barbara Bodenhorn, for example, recalls a similar experience more than 15 years later. For me, it was electrifying. Simple enough from her point of view, Esther set an essay topic for the following week (I think Anna and I may have had different topics). It was about the practice of research methods, methodology in the original sense of the term. The task she devised was to show my understanding of Durkheim’s method of demonstration [as in Suicide], not through describing what he advocated but using his method to work through an imagined example. (I made up a scenario about differential achievement in school in relation to what we would now call gender and postcodes, as well as class and other factors.) It was that moment of being set the topic that was galvanizing. I practically ran to the University Library filled with the eye-opening exhilaration about social anthropology that she had given me.

Stephen Levinson and Penelope Brown: My (Steve's) first contacts with Esther must actually be earlier than I remember, when I was an undergraduate in Cambridge Arch and Anth Tripos. There I remember Meyer Fortes rubbishing Erving Goffman and the American interactionists as “pingpong ball sociology”. Into this not necessarily friendly environment came Esther, daughter of the famous social psychologist Theodore Newcomb, and with interests in the conduct of social interaction. When we (my wife Penelope Brown and myself) moved to Cambridge in 1975, we must have seemed like kindred spirits, coming fresh from UC Berkeley with PhDs focusing on social interaction in ethnographic settings (Mayan Mexico and Tamil India, respectively). We developed jointly a theory of politeness expressed in language which claimed to have general application, and Esther was enthusiastic enough about it to arrange publication in a collection she was editing (“Questions and politeness”). We remember vividly the Friday evening seminars, followed by evening hospitality at the Goody’s house in Adams Road, where Esther would have hurried back to rapidly produce bangers and mash for distinguished visiting anthropologists. It was a level of hospitality we always aspired to emulate but never succeeded. There we met Godelier, Barth, Sperber, Woodburn, Turner, and scores of other famous names. Busy Cambridge lives precluded substantial collaboration, but in 1989 we found ourselves together again in Berlin, where Esther was at the Wissenschaftskolleg for the year. In discussion with us she organized a ground-breaking meeting that crystallized in her book Social Intelligence and Interaction which argues for the centrality of social interaction in the human constitution. We went on to mature careers in the Netherlands, following lines of work very congenial to Esther's preoccupations with dialogue as a tool with which socio-cultural worlds - e.g. roles and associated norms - are actually constructed. We didn’t actually overlap in space and time all that often but Esther came several times to our institute to engage in intense discussions on her ideas about dialogue. Her work on parental roles and socialization practices has also been an inspiration to me (Penny) in my study of child language socialization in different societies.

For Esther, with thanks.

Esther Goody was my MPhil supervisor. We were both newbies – it was the first year of the MPhil for the Deparment and it was my first serious introduction to Anthropology. Feelng our way. I was fortunate to have, in Esther, someone willing to help me learn how to navigate the subtle (and not so subtle) distinctions between English and American language usage and between American and Anglo academic conventions. But mostly I benefitted from Esther’s total lack of interest in maintaining what today would be called ‘silo thinking’; I emerged from every supervision with a list of potential readings – from social anthropology to philosophy, to linguistics, to cognitive sciences – which I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. Her ways of playing around with thinking about the performativity of kinship, of language, and of learning continue to influence my thinking. And her commitment to the ethics of her fieldwork – which only gained in intensity as she became ever more involved in literacy initiatives in Ghana in recent decades – continues to provide inspiration. She didn’t talk about ‘being engaged’; she just did it. But - despite moments when she could be irritated and impatient - my strongest sense of Esther is her great generosity of spirit – offered freely and with the informality that made it easy to accept: flowers from her splendid garden; bangers and mash at the end of an afternoon’s visit; books; chat; interest; warmth. My last visit with her was last summer when she was getting frail, but continued to be alert and vital. We talked about publications to be written; novels to be read; American politics and, I’m sure, the weather. She was a woman of – and ahead of – her time. We will all miss her terribly – even while we revel in times well spent together. Barbara Bodenhorn

Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

‘My knowledge of the Goody family always had a male bias, since Jack was the supervisor of my PhD in the 1970s. Yet it is to Esther that I owe my first exposure to undergraduates in a Cambridge lecture room. She and Jerry Leach invited me to give a guest lecture in a series they organized. I think it was the Lent term 1978 and it probably had to do with non-industrial labour organization. I prepared carefully for a week and threw in tons of field data. My performance was feeble in every respect but Esther tried to salvage what she could by asking a few gentle questions, in order to draw out some links to the main themes of that series. In the early 1980s when I was a Research Fellow, Esther and Jack invited my wife and me to supper on numerous occasions at their house, 8 Adams Road. Ildikó was new to Britain and found relaxed conversations with Esther a welcome tonic after the stuffiness she experienced in other quarters of Cambridge. It seemed to us that, in addition to the seminar room in Free School Lane and the student bar at King’s College, the living room and kitchen at Adams Road were a third vital locus for the exchange of anthropological ideas in those years. I joined the Department as an Assistant Lecturer in 1984. Esther was an established member by then and we were colleagues until 1992. (Jack spent little time in Cambridge in this period.) She taught mainly kinship, cross-cultural psychology, and of course West African ethnography. Since our topics barely overlapped, we had relatively little to do with each other directly. I recall her dedication to students at every level, her quiet professionalism at meetings (including examiners’ meetings), and of course her unswerving commitment to Ghana and continuous cooperation with scholars there, including many former students. Only much later, when returning to Cambridge to examine a PhD in the Faculty of Economics in 1997, did the magnitude of Esther’s achievement as an ethnographer of domestic organization become clear to me. Her data were so good that Renata Serra could use them to build and test her formal models of adoption and fostering. Esther generously provided ethnographic advice and inspired the career of this young development economist. Her pioneering work has been internationally influential, e.g. in Germany her work on adoption has been continued and extended above all by Erdmute Alber, and in the US by Cati Coe. Work on family and household in northern Ghana is continued to the present day in Germany by anthropologists such as Carola Lentz and Andrea Behrends. Esther spent the year 1989-90 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin and developed her concept of “sexual Herrschaft” during this sojourn. By this time the range of her publications was extraordinary. My personal favourite (though it is hardly representative) is the collection she edited for the Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology series in 1982. From Craft to Industry: the ethnography of proto-industrial cloth production was one of the last volumes of its kind. To my mind its combination of general theory and ethnographic studies, written by senior staff as well as junior researchers, exemplified the spirit of the series. Esther contributed both the Introduction and an ethnographic chapter on Daboya weavers. The Cambridge Papers were highly influential in establishing the global reputation of the Department in the era of Meyer Fortes and Jack Goody. But which young scholar nowadays can afford to submit her work to an edited volume, let alone a collection confined to the precincts of a single Department? The creative synergies of the more intimate collegiality of that era are impossible in the climate of today’s audit culture and saturation publishing. Following Jack’s passing in July 2015, I visited Esther at Adams Road in the following winter. The ostensible purpose was to check some details for the memoir I was writing about him, but it was time finally to overcome this patriarchal bias. It was wonderful to enter the big house again, and to appreciate a stream of her reminiscences. Before I left she printed out the draft of a new text and pressed it into my hands, implying that I should digest it on the way home and offer comments. It was about language and cognition, but after reading it I felt just as inadequate as I had on the occasion of that first university lecture forty years ago. I concluded that Esther’s curiosity and sharp intellect were alive and well. Now that she is no longer with us, the Department will celebrate her many original scholarly contributions, notably at the interfaces between social anthropology, language and behavioural psychology. We shall also remember the generous support and hospitality she extended to so many colleagues and students over decades.’