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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

In remembrance of Dr Esther Goody

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    01 Feb

    Esther Goody (9th August 1932 - 18th January 2018)

    Esther Goody was a Fellow of New Hall from 1966 until she became an Emeritus Fellow of New Hall (later Murray Edwards) in 1999. During this lifelong association with the College, Esther was a College Lecturer in Social Anthropology; and the Director of Studies in Archaeology & Anthropology (1966-1972),  in Social & Political Sciences (1966 – 1971) and in Part II Social Anthropology (1975 – 1982); she was also a Tutor (1975 – 1978). Several generations of New Hall Arch and Anth and SPS students will remember Esther’s enthusiasm for anthropology, her intellectual fierceness and love for debate, her constant encouragement to challenge assumptions and think outside the box, but also her ability to make difficult concepts accessible, to use her formidable ethnographic knowledge to give life and relevance to abstract ideas, always reminding students that at the core of anthropology are real, live people who can and deserve to be understood. Esther also taught those of us who aspired to become anthropologists to approach both theory and ethnography with empathy, imagination and care for the people we worked with, and that nothing is uninteresting about people and their lives. All of us will also remember Esther’s personal warmth, her informality and directness, and her extraordinary commitment to supporting and encouraging students at all stages in their career, including by offering funds to help them with research. As a Fellow Emerita Esther remained committed to the College, joining into important discussions, attending events and always keen to meet with students and Fellows in Arch and Anth, SPS/PPS and HSPS and hear about the course and the latest ideas and debates.   

    Esther also inspired generations of students through her teaching in the Department of Social Anthropology, where she was a Lecturer and later a Reader in Social Cognition. As well as lecturing for many years on one of the core areas of anthropology, Kinship, Esther was one of the women who pioneered teaching on Gender as an innovative area of the discipline from the early 1970s. Esther also broke new ground by introducing and running for several years a course combining psychology and anthropology for students in Social Anthropology and Social and Political Sciences, pioneering the interdisciplinary approach that has recently led to the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos. 

    Esther’s teaching was fuelled by a very distinguished research career ethnographically centred on Africa, Northern Ghana in particular, but she also pioneered ethnography in the UK. Theoretically Esther’s research focused on human intelligence and on the interplay between its social and psychological aspects, publishing influential works on, among others, the role of language in society and social encounters, social intelligence and interaction, learning in the context of labour and apprenticeship, parenthood and parental strategies and the relationship between interest and emotion in kinship. All these works combine theoretical ambition and innovation with wonderfully detailed, sensitive and evocative ethnographic observation. Esther’s work broke new ground in anthropology and foreshadowed themes that have recently become central to the discipline such as the ethics of kinship, the relationship between anthropology and psychology and the anthropological study of intelligence and cognition. Esther continued to engage with these themes and to conduct research and fieldwork after retiring in 1997, and in 2009 completed a twenty-year longitudinal study in Ghanaian primary schools on the role of dialogue, teacher-pupil classroom communication and mother-tongue literacy, which also led her to train teachers to teach in local languages and lobby the Ghanaian government on education policy. Characteristically, when she recently gave a talk partly based on this work at a student-led Departmental seminar, Esther wrote in the abstract that ‘all this needs discussion, challenge, and debate’. These words encapsulate the passion for enquiry, debate and intellectual exchange that animated Esther throughout her life and which made her such an exceptional and valued scholar, teacher and colleague. She will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure and privilege of knowing her.

    Paola Filippucci, Fellow in Social Anthropology