Professor David Parkin
Fifty years ago, David Parkin came to SOAS to study for a University of London undergraduate degree in Anthropology, and Bantu and Swahili linguistics. He was to remain here, almost uninterruptedly until 1996 when he moved from the Chair of African Anthropology to take up the Oxford Professorship of Anthropology, a position he held until his retirement last year. David Parkin's reputation was built on fieldwork carried out in three eastern African Commonwealth countries. After graduation, he spent two years in Uganada, arriving three months before Independence, to carry out research in the capital Kampala, the results of which appeared as (1969) Neighbours and Nationals in an African City Ward. In coastal Kenya, from 1966, he embarked on a defining relationship with speakers of Giriama. Two books were to result: the first described incipient class formation as young Giriama men gained cash through the sale of copra produced in their palm orchards (1972 Palms, Wine and Witnesses). Almost two decades later, a second monograph returned to images of work and ritual (1991 The Sacred Void). A third project, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi among Luo (speakers of a Nilotic language), produced an influential study of generational change (1978 The Politics of Lineal Destiny). At the end of the 1970s, Parkin turned to fieldwork among coastal Muslim communities in Tanzania. This was developed, with SOAS collaborators, into a major research project on the trans-national Indian Ocean world during which his fieldwork shifted from the mainland to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.
David Parkin's familiarity with Bantu linguistics, and facility in three African languages, provided the materials for his enduring interest in systems of meaning comparatively. His anthropological training persuaded him to embed this sensitivity to speech in political and economic contexts and, during the immediate post-colonial period, he was particularly drawn to the analysis of social change. Under David Parkin's intellectual leadership a distinctive international reputation for anthropology at SOAS was cemented, particularly thanks to widely-read edited books (including 1982 Semantic Anthropology and 1985 The Anthropology of Evil). The anatomization of evil in the latter, including explorations of illness and its causes, was one of several points of departure for Parkin's deepening concern with medical anthropology which he established as a specialism at SOAS, and this in turn led towards the holistic vision of anthropology, incorporating both biological anthropology and material culture, which he championed on moving from SOAS to Oxford.