Anthropologist Terence Turner dies at 79


Visiting Professor of Anthropology Terence Sheldon Turner, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, died Nov. 7 at Cayuga Medical Center of a brain hemorrhage. He was 79.

“Terry was a truly eminent anthropologist and one of the most insightful thinkers of his generation,” said Adam Smith, chair and professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Terry’s contributions to anthropology were breathtaking in their scope and inspiring in the new vistas that they opened for critical analysis. Few anthropologists have had more impact on more domains of our discipline than Terry Turner.”

Known best for his ethnographic and activist work with the Kayapo communities of central Brazil, Turner’s work addressed topics from social organization and kinship, to myth, ritual and history, from the construction of personhood to the ontology and epistemology of representation, from political organization and mobilization, to values and inter-ethnic relations.

“Terry Turner’s legacy to anthropology is one of the most consequential bodies of work to have emerged during the past 40 or 50 years,” said P. Steven Sangren, professor of anthropology. “Both as an ethnographer of Brazil’s Kayapo and as an astonishingly acute and innovative theoretical thinker, Terry has changed how we think about culture.”

Turner was born Dec. 30, 1935, in Philadelphia. He graduated cum laude with a B.A. from Harvard College in 1957, received an M.A. in 1959 from the University of California, Berkeley, in modern European history, and received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1965 from the Department of Social Relations (Social Anthropology). He was a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Cornell from 1966-68. He began as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1968 and retired as an emeritus professor in 1999, when he became an adjunct professor of anthropology at Cornell; he has served as a visiting professor of anthropology since he retired as an adjunct in 2004.

In addition to his scholarship, Turner was deeply involved in advocacy and human rights work and was interested in indigenous peoples’ political struggles and associated ecological, cultural and rights issues. In 1998 he received the Solon T. Kimball Award from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for outstanding contributions to the application of anthropology to human rights and development issues. He was also a founding member of the AAA’s Ethic and Human Rights committees and president of Survival International, U.S.A.

“He was an indefatigable warrior in defense of indigenous people’s rights, an inspiring teacher, and a generous colleague. Cornell has benefited immeasurably from his presence and example; he will be sorely missed,” said Sangren.

Instituto Raoni, a Kayapo community organization with which Turner worked for the past 18 years, will be honored in December with the United Nations Equator Prize in recognition of their efforts to fight deforestation of the Amazon and its impact on indigenous communities in the rainforest. “Their efforts in this fight are one of Terry’s most powerful legacies,” said Smith.

Turner is survived by his wife, Jane Fajans, Cornell professor of anthropology; two daughters, Allison and Vanessa; and a sister, Allison Turner.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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