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His work focused on the way cultures shape, and are shaped by, individuals — a framework he demonstrated through his passionate political activism.
Marshall D. Sahlins, a brilliant and witty anthropologist who, starting in the 1970s, explored how individuals shape and are shaped by their cultures — a point he had already put in practice a decade earlier as the inventor of the “teach-in” against the Vietnam War — died on April 5 at his home in Chicago. He was 90.
His son, Peter Sahlins, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, confirmed the death.
Professor Sahlins had not fully developed his ideas about culture when, in March 1965, he and several colleagues from the University of Michigan gathered in his living room to discuss what they could do to oppose President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war.
Some wanted to go on strike, a move that threatened to shut down the university and, Professor Sahlins worried, harm the students they were there to instruct. Instead, he said, taking a page from the sit-in protests of the civil rights movement, what if they set aside their syllabuses and gave lectures about America’s foreign policy, politics and history?
Professor Sahlins called friends at Columbia, where he had received his Ph.D., and other schools, and within weeks faculty at dozens of campuses were holding teach-ins. In May 1965, Professor Sahlins led a national teach-in in Washington that received worldwide news media coverage.
His activism didn’t stop the war, of course. But the teach-in created an intellectual bridge between older leftists like Professor Sahlins and the budding activists of the baby boom generation. And as one of the earliest high-profile protests against America’s intervention in Vietnam, it set a template for future antiwar activism.
It also signaled something of an intellectual turn for Professor Sahlins. Until then he had been a committed materialist, convinced that cultures evolved along with technological development. His undergraduate mentor at Michigan, Leslie A. White, was a leading figure in the effort to turn anthropology into something of a science; he even devised equations purporting to measure cultural evolution as a function of a society’s ability to produce energy.
But as the 1960s progressed, Professor Sahlins grew disenchanted with his mentor’s view, in part because it valorized America’s technologically advanced culture at a time when he was fiercely opposed to its military aggression in Vietnam.
A Guggenheim fellowship in 1967 took him to France, where he encountered both the revolutionary activism of the French student movement and the work of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Mr. Lévi-Strauss was famous for his theory of structuralism, the idea that culture — not biology — was the central fact of human society, and that it could be analyzed by examining its symbolic structures. He also argued that so-called primitive societies were every bit as sophisticated as supposedly more advanced ones.
Professor Sahlins agreed, and he remained a devotee of Mr. Lévi-Strauss for the rest of his career. He had one big problem with Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s approach, though: As the students demonstrating in the streets made clear, structures changed as they collided with reality, and the Lévi-Strauss framework had no way to account for that — it was, Professor Sahlins believed, fundamentally ahistorical.
He joined the University of Chicago in 1973, and over the next two decades he worked out a form of structuralism that accounted for historical contingency and the actions of individuals. He summed up his ideas in his 1985 book, “Islands of History,” which includes a lengthy examination of Capt. James Cook’s last visit to the Hawaiian Islands, in 1779.
Professor Sahlins argued that the warm reception Captain Cook initially received, and his later death, coincided with the islanders’ belief in a banished god who would one day return, only to be defeated by their chief — in other words, that Cook’s demise, inexplicable to Western eyes, made perfect sense within the islanders’ culture.
Professor Sahlins’s argument did not go unanswered. In what became a closely watched intellectual dispute, Gananath Obeyesekere, an anthropologist at Princeton, accused Professor Sahlins of creating “a myth of conquest, imperialism and civilization” by depicting the Hawaiians as naïve and gullible; instead, he insisted, they would have seen Cook as merely a man, just as Westerners would have.
Never one to shirk a fight, Professor Sahlins hit back with a book-length retort, “How ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, for Example” (1995). Professor Obeyesekere, he charged, was the real imperialist for denying the uniqueness of the islanders’ culture and insisting that they adhered to a universal rationality — one that just happened to be the Western view of the world.
“It is difficult for the nonspecialist to judge whether he or Mr. Obeyesekere is right about Captain Cook and the Hawaiians,” Richard Bernstein wrote in The New York Times. “But at least until Mr. Obeyesekere replies, Mr. Sahlins appears to have won a decisive round in an academic boxing match.”
Professor Sahlins wrote prodigiously — 15 books and dozens of articles in academic journals — but he never dropped his political activism. He was instrumental in forcing the University of Chicago to close its branch of the Confucius Institute, a China studies program that he said was little more than a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.
In 2013 he took the rare step of resigning from the National Academy of Sciences, because of both its support of military research and its offer of membership to Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist whose work Professor Sahlins found reductive and dangerous.
Those reasons were two faces of the same demon he had been fighting in both his political work and his academic career.
“Chagnon’s view of self-aggrandizing human nature is the sociobiological equivalent of the neocon premise of the virtues of American imperialism: making the world safe for self-interest,” Professor Sahlins said in an interview with Dissent magazine. “A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.”
Marshall David Sahlins was born on Dec. 27, 1930, in Chicago and grew up on the city’s West Side. His father, Paul, was a doctor, and his mother, Bertha (Scud) Sahlins, was a homemaker.
He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in anthropology in 1951, the same year he married Barbara Vollen. She and their son survive him, as do two daughters, Julie and Elaine Sahlins, and three grandchildren.
He received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1954 and became an assistant professor at Michigan in 1957. Despite later moving to the University of Chicago, he never abandoned his love for Michigan, or its football team: When he received an honorary degree from the university in 2001, he asked that the ceremony take place on the 50-yard line of its football stadium.
Though his writing could be extremely dense, Professor Sahlins was famously quick-witted, a quality he shared with his brother, Bernard Sahlins, a founder of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.
In 1993, the two wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times mock-protesting a recent column in which Russell Baker had claimed that his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, was the least fun college in the country — even though a recent poll had given that unwanted accolade to the University of Chicago, where Marshall taught and Bernard had studied.
“We are unmoved to tears by his reminiscences,” they wrote, “of watching only second-rate striptease acts in Baltimore bars or getting kicks from a parody of a mathematics professor demonstrating the solution of a calculus problem.”
Such antics, they added, “testify to a degree of Philistine frivolity inconceivable at Chicago.”
Professor Sahlins could be equally cutting about his own achievements. During an interview at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2013, he was introduced as the greatest living anthropologist.
“If I’m the greatest living anthropologist,” he said, “then longevity must be a good career move.”