Esther Goody, 1932 - 2018

Esther Goody who was an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall) and Emeritus Reader in Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, sadly died on 18 January 2018. My knowledge of the Goody family always had a male bias, since Jack was the supervisor of my PhD in the 1970s. Yet it is to Esther that I owe my first exposure to undergraduates in a Cambridge lecture room. She and Jerry Leach invited me to give a guest lecture in a series they organized. I think it was the Lent term 1978 and it probably had to do with non-industrial labour organization. I prepared carefully for a week and threw in tons of field data. My performance was feeble in every respect but Esther tried to salvage what she could by asking a few gentle questions, in order to draw out some links to the main themes of that series.

In the early 1980s when I was a Research Fellow, Esther and Jack invited my wife and I to supper on numerous occasions at their house, 8 Adams Road. Ildikó was new to Britain and found relaxed conversations with Esther a welcome tonic after the stuffiness she experienced in other quarters of Cambridge. It seemed to us that, in addition to the seminar room in Free School Lane and the student bar at King’s College, the living room and kitchen at Adams Road were a third vital locus for the exchange of anthropological ideas in those years.

I joined the Department as an Assistant Lecturer in 1984. Esther was an established member by then and we were colleagues until 1992. (Jack spent little time in Cambridge in this period.) She taught mainly kinship, cross-cultural psychology, and of course West African ethnography. Since our topics barely overlapped, we had relatively little to do with each other directly. I recall her dedication to students at every level, her quiet professionalism at meetings (including examiners’ meetings), and of course her unswerving commitment to Ghana and continuous cooperation with scholars there, including many former students.

Only much later, when returning to Cambridge to examine a PhD in the Faculty of Economics in 1997, did the magnitude of Esther’s achievement as an ethnographer of domestic organization become clear to me. Her data were so good that Renata Serra could use them to build and test her formal models of adoption and fostering. Esther generously provided ethnographic advice and inspired the career of this young development economist. Her pioneering work has been internationally influential, e.g. in Germany her work on adoption has been continued and extended above all by Erdmute Alber, and in the US by Cati Coe. Work on family and household in northern Ghana is continued to the present day in Germany by anthropologists such as Carola Lentz and Andrea Behrends.

Esther spent the year 1989-90 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin and developed her concept of “sexual Herrschaft” during this sojourn. By this time the range of her publications was extraordinary. My personal favourite (though it is hardly representative) is the collection she edited for the Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology series in 1982. From Craft to Industry; the ethnography of proto-industrial cloth production was one of the last volumes of its kind. To my mind its combination of general theory and ethnographic studies, written by senior staff as well as junior researchers, exemplified the spirit of the series. Esther contributed both the Introduction and an ethnographic chapter on Daboya weavers. The Cambridge Papers were highly influential in establishing the global reputation of the Department in the era of Meyer Fortes and Jack Goody. But which young scholar nowadays can afford to submit her work to an edited volume, let alone a collection confined to the precincts of a single Department? The creative synergies of the more intimate collegiality of that era are impossible in the climate of today’s audit culture and saturation publishing.

Following Jack’s passing in July 2015, I visited Esther at Adams Road in the following winter. The ostensible purpose was to check some details for the memoir I was writing about him, but it was time finally to overcome this patriarchal bias. It was wonderful to enter the big house again, and to appreciate a stream of her reminiscences. Before I left she printed out the draft of a new text and pressed it into my hands, implying that I should digest it on the way home and offer comments. It was about language and cognition, but after reading it I felt just as inadequate as I had on the occasion of that first university lecture forty years ago. I concluded that Esther’s curiosity and sharp intellect were alive and well. Now that she is no longer with us, the Department will celebrate her many original scholarly contributions, notably at the interfaces between social anthropology, language and behavioural psychology. We shall also remember the generous support and hospitality she extended to so many colleagues and students over decades.

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

This article first appeared as part of a tribute to Esther Goody published on the webpage of the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

HANN, CHRIS. 2018 'Esther Goody 1932-2018'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, February 2018. (available on-line:


HART, KEITH. 2018. Esther Newcomb Goody (1932-2018). Anthropology Today 34, 2: 25

STRATHERN, MARILYN. 2018 "Esther Newcomb Goody, 1932-2018". Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2018. (available on-line:


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online*&cw=OR&as_method=get&as_resultsmode=fullkeywords&f0=title&o0=CT&v0=Esther%20Goody&f1=author&o1=%3D%3D&v1=Esther%20Goody&f2=author&o2=%3D%3D&v2=E%20Goody