skip to content

Department of Social Anthropology


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 Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Marilyn Strathern, Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, Chris Hann, Barbara Bodenhorn, David Zeitlyn and Susan Drucker Brown and Keith Hart.


Honouring Esther Goody

In 1975, armed with my BA in Sociology from Tehran University, I came to Cambridge hoping to pursue a PhD. I had no clue what I wanted to do apart from the fact that I was interested in studying women and the family. A friend who was teaching Persian at what was then the Faculty of Oriental Studies suggested that I should talk to Dr Esther Goody, and made an appointment for me. I went to Adams Road, with my PhD proposal in hand. I’ll never forget my first meeting with Esther. I said I was interested in changing family patterns in Iran, but I added (as many new graduate students coming from very different academic cultures such as that of Iran still do), ‘I will do research on whatever you want me to.’ Esther said something to the effect that, ‘There’s no need to apologize for your interest, you should do what you want to do.’ Somehow, I must have convinced her that I was ‘PhD material’, capable of carrying out an independent research project. She took me under her wing at a time when I was quite lost. She gave me books to read and assigned essays for me to write. After that, I came back to Adams Road every month to see her. In this way, Esther began teaching me anthropology and guided me for a year before my formal enrolment as her PhD student. This was what Esther was as a teacher – immensely kind and generous; she went out of her way to support her students and enable them to develop their potential.  

In 1984, five years after the Iranian revolution, I returned to Cambridge. As I began looking for a place to rent, Esther invited me to stay at Adams Road, telling me – ‘Ziba, stay here; if you go, Jack will bring another student, and I’d rather have you here than anyone else’. But she knew my situation. I ended up staying with Esther and Jack for 6 years. They both made me feel at home, but it was Esther’s support and mentoring that enabled me to continue my post-doc research and set me on the path I have followed ever since. She continued guiding me in my new areas of research … I treasure the memories of so many ad hoc conversations over dinner and in the kitchen while cooking. Although we never shared a research interest in West Africa, I learned a great deal from her comments on my work in both Iran and Morocco.

I feel so privileged to have known Esther. She gave me a home when I needed it most; she introduced me to social anthropology and was an important influence on my ideas, showing me new ways of seeing things. She was not only a supervisor, but a mentor and a friend.

Ziba Mir-Hosseini, SOAS, University of London.


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.’

David Zeitlyn, University of Oxford

I’ve known Esther for a long time since I was born in Cambridge and knew Mary and Rachel when we were at school. So it seemed natural for me to ask her for some readings when I started to get interested in anthropology. I remember her dictating a reading list to me despite being in bed with flu. Being ill wasn’t going to stop her making some useful suggestions…

Later, much later, she became my doctoral supervisor and we had long discussions about how to combine detailed accounts of action, transcripts of naturally occurring speech and conventional ethnography.We then had only intermittent contact but I was able to visit her in December last year when we had a characteristically incisive (and yet incredibly wide ranging) discussion about the connections between interaction, its cognitive implications in things such as conversational structure and evolution!


Susan Drucker Brown,

In the winter of 1962 I arrived in Cambridge having been accepted as a Phd student in the faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology. In my first visit to Prof Meyer Fortes he recommended that I introduce myself to Jack and Esther Goody. Esther, he said, was an American like me, and she had come here as a graduate student and married her supervisor. I was not, he said, to follow her example in that respect.

I did got to see the Goodys, who were living in a tiny house on Shelley Row. I think that during my first year in Cambridge, though I was officially living in Newnham, in fact I spent more time in Shelley Row. Jack was a charismatic person. Shelley Row was the scene of an almost permanent party of students and faculty invited by Jack. How Esther managed two small children (Mary around three and Rachel a year old), and a demand job teaching anthropology as well as a house full of partying guests I cannot imagine. The household was warmly welcoming and it was an informal refuge from the elaborate formalities of Cambridge in the 1960s.

Esther was a tremendous support to me in that first year. Cambridge was almost as different from the New York I grew up in as was Mexico, where I had lived for ten years before coming to England.  The cold wet climate was probably the greatest shock but is Shelley Row it was always warm.

When I remarked to my husband that Esther's work on fostering was a major contribution to the anthropology of kinship, he said, "well, she fostered you, didn't she?"

That was very true. Also I think that fostering element accounts for why we rarely discussed work, despite the fact that our fieldwork was done in adjacent areas of northern Ghana.  However, I did find her published work inspiring.

Esther's place in Anthropology is assured, but my love for her and my memories of her depend on her extraordinary warm and sensitive person.


Keith Hart

Esther Newcomb Goody ScD (9 August 1932 – 18 January 2018)

Esther Goody was born in 1932 to Theodore (‘Ted’) and Mary Newcomb, in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the oldest of three children. The family moved around as her father took on a number of teaching posts in psychology. She attended half a dozen schools by the age of eleven, before settling in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, where Ted Newcomb founded the doctoral programme in social psychology. 

Ann Arbor likes to call itself “the Athens of the Midwest”. It was the first institution in the nineteenth century to introduce to the United States a democratic version of the German seminar teaching method and today is a centre of excellence in a wide range of disciplines. Esther obtained her BA in Sociology and Psychology at a liberal arts school, Antioch College (Clifford Geertz’s alma mater), with a mandatory cooperative education work programme.  It would be hard to imagine an educational background further removed from that provided by Cambridge University. 

Esther had attended lectures in social anthropology in London when her father spent a year at the Tavistock Institute and now she ditched her plans for a PhD at Harvard, choosing to use a year-abroad grant to enrol in Meyer Fortes’ Department of Social Anthropology. Jack Goody was her supervisor and they were married in 1956 during her doctoral fieldwork in Northern Ghana. Two daughters, Mary (b. 1959) and Rachel (b.1961), soon followed. Esther completed her doctorate in  1961 (Kinship, marriage and the developmental cycle among the Gonja of Northern Ghana) and taught in Cambridge until her retirement as a Reader in 1999 and maintained active research in Ghana throughout her life.

# # # # #

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois claimed that America’s most beautiful gift to the world -- actually he said it was the only beautiful thing -- was their music, which he called “the sorrow songs”, a transcendence born of suffering. In my view, the United States’ most distinctive intellectual gift to the rest of us has been social psychology, born in Chicago around 1900 in the migrations of the last age of globalization. Its question was “How do we make society where there was none before and when we have so little in common?” Its pioneers were G.H. Mead (symbolic interactionism) and W.I. Thomas (cultural history of races, classes etc. and personality development), both at the University of Chicago, and Charles Cooley (“the looking glass self”) who spent his entire life in Ann Arbor.

As an academic discipline, of which Esther Goody’s father was one of the leaders in the post-war period, social psychology became the study of “how people's thoughts, feelings and behaviour are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others”. Human behaviour is to be explained as a result of the interaction of mental states and social situations, since all human beings are individual subjects in objective social worlds. 

Society is not out there, as the national societies of modernity were supposed to be; we each have to learn it as we make it. So social psychologists focused on child development, education and socialization, on how we become human, individually and collectively. In the 1970s I befriended John Dollard, a social psychologist who moved from Chicago to Yale with Edward Sapir in the 1930s, when he published his famous monograph, Caste and Class in a Southern Town. He told me that he was excited to join anthropologists since they studied culture and must therefore be interested in how people get it.  But they weren’t and he had to teach a course on acculturation himself. Ever since, the anthropologists have neglected social interaction and education, while the social psychologists still know nothing of the comparative study of kinship and marriage. It was Esther Goody’s life work to synthesize the two. 

# # # # #

The field of kinship studies was founded by William Rivers, once president of the British associations for both anthropology and psychology. It was continued by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and revived by Meyer Fortes with Jack Goody after the Second World War – all of them, at least for a time, were at Cambridge University. Esther and Jack Goody became a true partnership, making many field trips to Northern Ghana, especially in the first decade after Ghana’s independence. Their work together and separately culminated in their classical article on cross-cousin marriage in the mid-1960s. Then he took off into history and she turned to synthesizing social anthropology and social psychology. 

Apart from her almost 50 years of intermittent research in Gonja, Northern Ghana, Esther Goody also worked in England (London and Leicester) and India (Gujarat). In her five books (two authored and three edited), she explored family sociology, parent-child relations, fostering, early commodity production and apprenticeship, socio-linguistic strategies of interaction and the interactive sources of intelligence (see sidebar). 

Her last extensive project in Northern Ghana was on social variations affecting school performance, in particular the classical distinction between traditional states and stateless societies highlighted in Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s African Political Systems(1940). This work is so far incomplete; but it deserves to be made public, since it formed a suitable climax of her romance with the two disciplines to which she devoted her life.

# # # # #

Esther Goody excelled as a teacher, unsurprisingly in small-scale social interaction. Her intelligence was sharp, tough and interrogative, but profoundly sympathetic. Everyone noted her remarkable ability to give herself to others without imposing herself on them. She did not excel in projecting her work to a wider audience, as Jack Goody did. But I believe her approach will find a growing reception in the century to come through the work of followers inspired by her. For our national societies are in disarray and, if humanity is to discover social forms conducive to our survival as a species, anthropologists must learn to merge an ethnographic tradition rooted in twentieth-century nationalism with a romantic methodology focusing on how human beings learn to live together on a global scale. Esther Goody was a pioneer of that movement. 

I would end by noting Esther’s secondary interest in economic anthropology, manifested especially in her two books published in 1982. This was a lively continuing topic of conversation between us. But her place in my world goes far beyond intellectual interests. I have lived in Cambridge for almost a third of my life and Esther was the kindest person I met here. Kindness and kinship share a linguistic root. In my darkest years, she gave me an unconditional refuge and self-effacing care when I needed them most. My love for her, like her reputation, can only grow in retrospect.

Esther Goody’s books

(Author) Contexts of Kinship: An essay in the family sociology of the Gonja of Northern Ghana, Cambridge University Press, 1973 (published version of her PhD thesis).

(Editor) Questions and politeness: Strategies in social interaction, Cambridge University Press, 1978. 

(Author) Parenthood and Social Reproduction: Fostering and occupational roles in West Africa,Cambridge University Press, 1982.

(Editor) From Craft to Industry: The ethnography of proto-industrial cloth production, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

(Editor) Social intelligence and interaction: Expressions and implications of the social bias in human intelligence, Cambridge University Press, 1995.