Along with his family and friends, the community of anthropologists mourns the passing of Marshall D. Sahlins, considered by many at the time of his death as the world’s most distinguished anthropologist. He died on April 5, 2021, at the age of 90. Sahlins was Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. The author of more than 15 influential books and dozens of journal articles, Sahlins’s work helped shape late twentieth-century anthropology, influencing most of the essential theoretical paradigms of his time, ranging from the Marxist materialism of his early training to his later contributions to structuralism, culture theory, exchange theory, interpretive anthropology, and praxis theory.
Sahlins’s striking intellectual range was the product of a fearless intellect rather than any sort of dilettantism, always aiming for a synthesis or refinement of diverse analytical approaches. In the best tradition of cultural anthropology, Sahlins was also a superb ethnographer, grounding his theoretical explorations in the details of the Pacific island societies he studied, notably Fiji and Hawaii. His first book, Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958), is still a model of controlled comparison, demonstrating the rich counterpoint of theory and ethnographic detail.
While personally charming and famously witty (his brother Bernard founded Chicago’s Second City comedy club!), Sahlins could also be a daunting adversary. Never one to back away from confrontation, Sahlins was repeatedly drawn into conflicts, both academic and political. He thrived on debate, both academic and political, and often courted controversy. In a series of dueling books starting in the mid-1980s, he fiercely debated Gananath Obeyesekere over the political implications of Sahlins’s portrayal of eighteenth century Hawaiians in their relations with Captain Cook.
In his 1976 book, The Use and Abuse of Biology, Sahlins had argued against the reductive materialism of sociobiology. Starting in the 1980s, he repeatedly clashed with Napoleon Chagnon, whose sociobiologically grounded characterizations of the Amazonian Ya̧nomamö people eventually contributed to Sahlins resigning from the National Academy of Science, where Chagnon had been offered membership.
Sahlins’s devotion to human ideas was always tied to his devotion to humane ideals and underwrote a lifetime of progressive political activism, starting with his role as organizer of a national anti-war teach-in in Washington in 1965. Most recently he successfully argued that the presence of the Confucius Society at the University of Chicago had given the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party dangerous leverage in university hiring. Even as times and issues changed, his political activism never waned. Much like Noam Chomsky, Sahlins’s political passions were always wedded to his intellectual commitments as much as to his moral sensibility.
Sahlins’s soaring intellect and passionate commitments mark him as a true giant in the history of anthropology; the remarkable scope and brilliance of his contributions and the moral passion he bought to his work have inspired generations of students and scholars. We will likely not see his equal in our discipline for a very long time.
Cite as: Shore, Bradd. 2021. “Marshall D. Sahlins.” Anthropology News website, May 21, 2021.