In Memoriam: Harry F. Wolcott, 1929-2012

By Allan F. Burns
University of Florida

24-1-20_wolcott.pngHarry F. Wolcott, one of the world’s premier educational anthropologists and longtime SfAA member died at the age of 83 on October 31, 2012 from complications of Parkinson’s disease and esophageal cancer. He served on the SfAA board from 1983-1986, and he and his students have kept educational anthropology central to the Society. Harry majored in science at Berkeley and went on to his Ph.D. in educational anthropology at Stanford in 1964 with George and Louise Spindler. He joined the faculty at the University of Oregon in 1964, where he taught, did research, and mentored students in both education and anthropology throughout his career. He was an active member of SfAA, served as president of the Council of Anthropology and Education (1972-1973), and thoroughly enjoyed writing, travel, and uncovering insights and creativity with everyone he met. His sly humor was legendary: I recall once he referred to a well-known but rather unremarkable Anthropology Department as being absent when elan was being handed out to new programs during the time of Boas. Another time Harry and his partner Norman Delue declined to visit a local museum with me. “I have a rule that you should not engage in culture for more than two hours a day,” Harry said, “and we’ve already done that, so now it is time for something else!”

Harry’s books and articles are full of insight and inspiration. One of the themes that runs through his work is that ordinary people are often caught up in institutions that then shape their behavior, much like the characters in the BBC series “Downton Abbey,” or those in the HBO drama “The Wire.” By focusing on real people in these workplaces, Wolcott puts school and community social structures in sharp perspective. A teacher from outside of Kwakiutl society ends up teaching in a school, and in spite of a calling to help young children and to do good, the teacher becomes assigned the role as “the enemy,” a surprising cultural category that the teacher had never contemplated (“The Teacher as Enemy” in Education and Cultural Process, George Spindler, ed., 1974). A perfectly nice man becomes employed as a principal of a school, and finds himself “The Man In The Principal’s Office” (1973). Innovations are brought to a school, and the school suddenly becomes a moiety system despite best efforts of participants to cross these unexpected borders to the other side (Teachers vs. Technocrats, 1977).

A second theme of Harry’s work was fieldwork. He enjoyed, contemplated, and wrote about the work of doing anthropology. In The Art of Fieldwork, he explores ethnography, from developing a project, entering a field setting, interviewing and taking notes, developing a robust analysis, to struggling through the days of writing an article, a dissertation, or a book. This was quickly followed by Ethnography: A Way of Seeing (1999), and Ethnography Lessons: A Primer (2010). His many articles and books on doing ethnography within and without schools made him a champion of qualitative methods. Harry was never averse to quantitative approaches, and later he and one of the champions of positivist ethnography, H. Russell Bernard, became great friends. Typically, Harry humorously once mentioned that he thought of Russ as his twin who was raised by different parents. When asked if a project was “good anthropology,” Harry invariably replied that it didn’t matter; what mattered was whether it was good research. Tom May, Executive Director of SfAA, noted that Harry’s wit was part of his skill as an “intellectual prankster,” which, as Tom noted, “we could all learn from.”

Harry was quick to see the value of anthropology applied to new situations. A trip to Zimbabwe in 1973 found Harry on a Fulbright in Zimbabwe, where he figured out how he could spend time in the beer gardens of that city. His consummate professional eye caught the importance of places where blacks and whites met in a segregated country, and so in 1974 he published The African Beer Gardens of Bulawayo: Integrated Drinking in a Segregated Society. Harry gave form to educational anthropology through his work on U.S. school systems, but he was quick to accumulate cross-cultural experiences in other places. He gained two Fulbright awards to Bangkok, and was invited for visiting positions in Sweden, the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, and McGill University. Harry’s personal life also became a topic for his ethnographer’s pen. His frightening and dramatic encounters with a runaway who had left home and school for a dangerous life on the street led to Sneaky Kid and Its Aftermath: Ethics and Intimacy in Fieldwork(2002).

Harry’s easy going manner and engaging conversations made him an enjoyable interlocutor with whomever he met and an influential mentor to students and colleagues. In his final book, Ethnography Lessons: a Primer, Harry reviewed five of his major studies to explore his adventures in thinking ethnographically, enjoying metaphors and serendipity, and becoming friends with publishers and colleagues like Mitch Allen, whose guidance at Alta Mira and Left Coast Press led to this and other books. Much of his sparkle and wisdom is found in his writings, but much more remains in the memories of applied anthropologists, educational researchers, administrators, and many others whose paths crossed his. Harry is survived Norman Delue, his long time partner since 1968, as well as a brother Roy, a niece and several nephews and their families. Donations for a new University of Oregon scholarship in his name can be made to the UO Foundation, 1720 E. 13th Ave., Ste. 410, Eugene, OR 97403-1905 (; please designate to the Harry Wolcott Memorial Fund.

Photo copyright by Steven M Bialostok, University of Wyoming, used with permission.