Michael Banton, 1926-2018

An Appreciation

Although probably best known for his theoretical work on the concept of ‘race’, and on ethnic relations in Britain, it should be recalled that Michael Banton’s doctorate, awarded by Edinburgh in the 1950s, was an empirical study of migrant workers of African origin living in London. Published in 1955 as The Coloured Quarter: Negro Immigrants in an English City, this was pioneering research, one of only a handful of ethnographic studies of any community in Britain before the 1960s. It was inspired by Michael’s supervisor at Edinburgh, Kenneth Little, who had undertaken fieldwork in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff in 1940-41, where there was a significant migrant population principally from Sierra Leone and Somalia, many of whom had arrived as merchant seamen. This had the distinction of being probably the earliest academic study of the contemporary situation of Africans in Britain, indeed in Europe. Michael’s study, which followed on from his, focused on the black population of Stepney in East London, and recorded that many of the migrants at that time looked to return to Africa, providing an early illustration of the pattern of transnational migration which has since become a staple of research in the field.

For the record, if Little’s study was the first anthropological account of African migrants in Britain, and Michael’s the second, the third was probably that of the late Esther Goody on Ghanaian students and their families. Colonial and post-colonial West Africa, and the West African connection with Britain, figured prominently in each of their research. In Michael’s case this led him to Sierra Leone and fieldwork with rural-urban migrants in Freetown, published in 1957 as West African City. This was another pioneering study since at the time there had been little urban research in Africa outside of South Africa and the Copper Belt. A reviewer for the American Journal of Sociology described it as a ‘significant contribution to the literature of urbanization and its problems’, as much concerned with the practical issues of administering a city with a diverse immigrant population as it was with theory. Indeed, this dual focus on theory and practice was typical of all of Michael’s work, notably at Bristol where he was Professor of Sociology from 1965-92, and where colleagues included Roger Ballard, Rohit Barot and Sandra Wallman in the Research Unit on Ethnic Relations, funded by what was then the Social Science Research Council.

Michael’s theoretical work has received much attention over the years, and was central to an important ongoing debate with other British scholars, including John Rex and Robert Miles. His Bristol colleague, Rohit Barot, has written a valuable overview of the various controversies in ‘Reflections on Michael Banton's contribution to race and ethnic studies’, published in 2006 (Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29(5):785-96). Michael’s life-long concern with policy and practice and with human rights was equally important. There was, for example, his contribution to the claim (in the mid-1970s) that a school’s refusal to allow a Sikh boy to wear a turban infringed the 1976 Race Relations Act. The case (Mandla v. Dowell Lee) was pursued through the courts and eventually resulted in a landmark judgement which affected the way in which the Act’s definition of ‘race’ was interpreted - Michael’s commentary on the case may be found in his paper ‘Are Rastafarians an ethnic group?’ (New Community, 16(1), 153-164). In the 1990s he collaborated with anthropologists and lawyers in the development of the Judicial Studies Board’s Equal Treatment Benchbook, intended for the training of judges, to enhance their understanding of, and sensitivity towards, ethnic and other sources of conscious and unconscious discrimination. He was active internationally, too; from 1986-2001 he was a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which he chaired in 1996-8.

In his academic and related work Michael stood on the boundary between anthropology and sociology – he was founding editor of the journal Sociology – and between theory and practice, a difficult stance which perhaps left him somewhat under-appreciated by those who thought of themselves as in the mainstream. Nonetheless, his anthropological credentials were solid. In the 1960s, for example, he was Hon. Sec. of the Association of Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, and in that capacity organised, in 1963, the First Decennial Conference of the Association which brought together leading scholars from across the Atlantic. He then took on the responsibility of editing the four volumes of the conference proceedings - perhaps the most important set of books which the Association ever published. He was also, as others will have recorded, President of the RAI (1987-9), as well as serving in senior positions in the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Although I was familiar with Michael’s writing on ‘race’ and ethnicity, certainly from when I was a postgraduate in the late 1960s, I only met him personally in the mid-2000s, when we were both involved with IMISCOE, the EU-funded network on International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion, and attended their annual conferences. He was a keen participant in the workshops, ever likely to pop-up from the back of the room with an incisive comment on the discussion, based on his extensive knowledge of the field. I was honoured when, aged nearly ninety, he travelled across London for the launch of my monograph Muslim Families, Politics and the Law (2015), of which he later wrote a generous review.

Thank you, Michael, for your life-long contribution to our understanding of some of the most important and difficult issues of our era.

University of Sussex

To cite this article:

GRILLO, RALPH. 2018 'Michael Banton, 1926-2018'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, May 2018. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/michael-banton)


BAROT, ROHIT. 2018 'Professor Michael Parker Banton 1926-2018'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2018. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/professor-michael-parker-banton)

BENTHALL, JONATHAN. 2018 'Michael Banton'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2018. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/michael-banton-2)

WALLMAN, SANDRA. 2018 'Prof Michael Banton: A Short Thought'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2018. (available on-line: https://therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/prof-michael-banton)