Reginald Byron, 1944-2017

Professor Reginald Byron, henceforth Reg, who died at the age of 72 on 8 August 2017, was a Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Wales. He will be remembered for his important research on the Anthropology of northern Europe and of Marginal Regions, in particular maritime communities and nineteenth-century migration to the United States and Canada.

Reg Byron was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1944. He completed his B.A. in Anthropology at the University of Southern California in 1970, and encouraged by Sally Falk Moore at USC who became a life-long friend, he moved to Britain to research fishing communities in the Shetland islands in the Department of Anthropology, University College, University of London under the supervision of Rosemary Harris. After he gained his Ph.D. in Social Anthropology in 1974 he was appointed Lecturer at UCL (1974-75) and Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Southern California (1975-76). He then took up a lectureship at the Department of Social Anthropology, the Queen's University of Belfast, and eventually became Head of Department (1987-91). He was appointed Professor of Sociology and Anthropology in the University College of Swansea (later the University of Wales, Swansea) where he was Head of Department (1991-2006) and also Head of the School of Social Sciences and International Development) (1992-2002). He held honorary appointments at Union College, Schenectady, New York (1997-2009), the Institute for European Ethnology at the University of Vienna (2002) and the State University of New York at Stony Brook (1990-96). Among his many professional roles he served on the ASA Committee as Treasurer and Secretary (1983-87), the Committee of la Société Internationale d'Ethnologie et de Folklore (1998-2006), the Committee of the International Society for the Study of Marginal Regions, where he also served as Associate Secretary and Honorary Treasurer (1987-95) and President (1997-2001). He was also a Member of the European Association of Social Anthropologists where he was a regular panel organiser and presenter.

Hungary, October 1995. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Byron.

Although Reg remained a citizen of the United States and was a patrial in the United Kingdom, his anthropological framework drew on the British functionalist tradition, with an emphasis on material culture and historical anthropology, working extensively in museums and archives in all his research. He was unimpressed by the American-inspired interpretive turn in Anthropology, and indeed any of the subsequent turns, and retained a consistently grounded empirical theoretical foundation in his analyses of social life. He published widely on his varied research in Britain, Northern Europe, Canada, Scandinavia, and the United States. His Ph.D. thesis, 'Burra Fishermen: The Social Organisation of Work in a Shetland Community' was developed into his first monograph, Sea Change: A Shetland Society 1970-79 (St John's: ISER Books,1986). This was followed by Portraits of the Past: Bohuslän Society in the Twentieth Century (Göteborg: Etnologiska föreningen i Västsverige and the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1994) a study of Swedish maritime communities that made extensive use of archival photographs and which won an award from the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy for its contribution to Swedish folk life research and Swedish west coast culture. Reg's later research focused on migration, particularly 19th-century emigration from Ireland to the U.S.A., which formed the subject of his last anthropological monograph, Irish America (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1999). He edited ten books between 1988 and 2004. Many addressed on the regional economic and social development policy in north western Europe and the Canadian Atlantic provinces, but he also edited the unpublished papers on his former colleague at Belfast, Professor John Blacking, to produce Music, Culture and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). His last two edited Anthropology books were, with Ullrich Kockel, Negotiating Culture: Moving, Mixing, and Memory in Contemporary Europe (Münster, Berlin and London: LIT Verlag, 2006) and, with Barbara Waldis, Migration and Marriage: Heterogamy and Homogamy in a Changing World (Münster, Berlin and London: LIT Verlag, 2006). Reg also published many articles, mostly in edited books, and a number in academic journals. His contribution to the field of marginal communities and migration was pioneering and substantial, and will continue to provide students and scholars in years to come with a rich source of data and analysis.

Reg was a man of strong principle who will also be remembered for his modesty, his kindness and supportiveness as a colleague and as a friend. He suffered greatly to see the disinvestment of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Swansea in 2004, along with Development Studies, Philosophy, and Chemistry, despite vigorous international campaigns to save them. It is typical of Reg's commitment and unending curiosity that after his retirement he combined his love of history and museums by volunteering at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in West Sussex where, among other activities, he edited (and reinvented) the biannual 'Tangmere Logbook', and he co-wrote a history of RAF Tangmere. It is fitting that his last paper, 'Tangmere and Hollywood' presented posthumously at Chichester University in September, concerned Bogart Rogers, an American airman who flew from Tangmere in the first World War, and returned to California to become a script writer and inventor of the photo finish. Reg was always an American in Britain, working and researching at its margins, but his is a major contribution to the expansion and development of the Anthropology of his adopted home. He is survived by his wife Caroline, his sons Jack and Hugo, and four grandchildren.


To cite this article:

HUGHES-FREELAND, FELICIA. 2017 'Reginald Byron, 1944-2017'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, November 2017. (available on-line:


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online