Bell Tower

Martin Orans (1928-2020)


Martin Orans, a distinguished cultural anthropologist and former faculty member of the UCR Anthropology Department, passed away on February 22, 2020. He is remembered as a rigorous scholar, supportive mentor, dedicated teacher, and wonderful friend.  For more details on his scholarly contributions,  see Anthropology Newsletter, March 9, 2023. For a brief, professionally-oriented version of these remembrances, see UCR, Department of Anthropology website, People/In Memoriam. 

Martin Orans received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1962. His dissertation, based on fieldwork among the Santal, a modernizing “tribal” culture of India, was later published as The Santal: A Tribe in Search of a Great Tradition (1965). In the 1970s, he changed his areal focus to the South Pacific, to Western Samoa (now Samoa).  He became deeply involved in the 1980s controversy over Margaret Mead’s Samoa work, publishing his own significant critique, Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans (1996), a testament to his commitment to empirical research.   Martin’s publications also addressed broader theoretical debates within cultural anthropology, including the concept of surplus, functionalism and causal explanation, and Galton’s problem.

In retirement, Martin and his family moved to Northern California, and established relationships with colleagues at California State University, Chico. In 2018, a major fire destroyed their  Paradise home and they resettled in Chico where Martin passed away.

Personal Remembrances: Martin Orans as Educator, Mentor, Colleague, Friend

Carol C. Mukhopadhyay (PhD, 1980, UCR), Professor Emerita, San José State University

Martin Orans was a major intellectual force in the UC Riverside Anthropology Department.  He was committed to anthropology as a social science, believing we should and could apply the rigorous theoretical and methodological standards that characterized the sciences generally.  This even applied to such complex concepts and emotional states as romantic love or happiness!  In 1974, Martin involved his graduate students in a pioneering attempt to create empirically based “indicators” of happiness, using ethnographic, ethnosemantic, and quantitative and statistical measures.  This was an ambitious undertaking and a significant student learning experience. It also preceded by decades other social scientists’ attempts to  study happiness in this way.  

Martin’s graduate seminar in “theory” introduced us to formulating and testing hypotheses, notions of reliability and replicability, and validity.   We learned to apply these standards to cross-cultural data, such as in the HRAF database, and to the theories of Ervin Goffman.   Martin also taught us “critical theory” before the term came into vogue, as we jointly unraveled questionable assumptions in many “functional” analyses  (cf. Orans, “Domesticating the Functionalist Dragon’ American Anthropologist, 1975) or critiqued simplistic binary paradigms, such as “emic” vs. “etic”,  “ideal” vs. “real” culture, or “materialistic” vs. “idealistic” theories of culture.  Some of us later extended these critical thinking skills to other domains, such as the family, gendered work, sexuality or traditional theories of male dominance.       

Martin embraced a multi-modal, multi-disciplinary approach to research and encouraged his students to do likewise, whether it be exploring linguistic approaches, or taking courses in microevolution, microeconomics, or statistics.   Along with other faculty, Martin created a graduate program that was unmatched in the rigor and breadth of its research training.

Martin Orans, as a mentor, supported students/scholars whose interests diverged from his own, such as my focus on gender inequality, especially if we shared his passion for scientific rigor.  Which, we agreed, was essential when studying politicized topics like gender or race!  He encouraged graduate students to publish worthy works, and helped me revise a seminar paper, resulting in my first publication.  His mentorship continued after I received my PhD, including support for my STEM research in India, a project which drew heavily on my graduate training from UCR and Martin Orans.  As we both aged, mentorship turned into friendship, even if at a distance.  His influence on my professional life and way of thinking has been profound.

David Kronenfeld, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, University of California, Riverside

Martin Orans was, on paper, my colleague, but, in fact, he was my teacher and a mentor--something I much needed on this, my first, position.  He was among a very small number of exceptional teachers that I had--because of his brilliance, his warmth, and his almost unique combination of modesty and rigor of thought.  He did not tell me what problems to pursue or how to work, but was always insistent that I explain clearly what I was doing, how I was doing it, what significant problem I was solving, and why my method was trustworthy.  He was predisposed toward statistical analysis (even though his other interests were serious), but was open to the linguistics-based approaches that I came to UCR with--as long as the logic and rigor of application held.  He was the best critic I ever had-- both for the analytic rigor he brought to the enterprise and for the positive, helpful, supportive way in which he offered his criticism.

As a departmental colleague he was active in shaping our curriculum--including our attempt at the time to include rigorous ethnographic and analytic methods, and he contributed mightily to students--both his own and advisees of others.

He taught the methods (mostly statistical) that he saw himself as best controlling.  But he was, as well, an insightful and astute qualitative ethnographer and analyst--and he much admired colleagues who were good at such work.  The seriousness of his engagement in the wider world of thought was driven home to me by his rich conversations with my Renaissance English scholar--and poet--wife!

He had high standards for his students and colleagues, and, even more, for himself.  Because of his rigorous self-standards, he was not a prolific publisher--even while being a well-read colleague who carefully thought out what he read, and thus could provide important insights and critiques into analytic work in areas far removed from his own.  Certainly he taught me much about approaches and work that I had thought I knew better than did he.

And, also importantly, he was a delightful and entertaining luncheon companion.

Mark Kowta, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology. California State University, Chico

Martin and I first met as colleagues in the Anthropology Department at UC in the early 1960s, but I did not get to know him at all well until we reunited much later in Chico. At Riverside I remember him as the good friend of Fred Gearing, a fellow University of Chicago cultural anthropologist of Priests and Warriors fame. As an archaeologist dealing with small-scale, non-literate hunting and gathering societies, my substantive interests did not overlap a great deal with theirs, but there was one connection that Martin and I shared: we had attended the same junior high school in east Los Angeles, though he was there some years ahead of me.

Much later after my relocation to California State University, Chico, Martin surprised me with a phone call informing me that now retired, he was searching for a place to resettle his family. They eventually chose Paradise, then a rustic enclave of about 25,000 nestled in the Sierra foothills about 18 miles northeast of Chico. The house they chose was a sprawling multi-level house with a large west-facing balcony overlooking the canyon of Big Chico Creek and enough acreage to invite deer, occasional bears, and other wildlife and space enough for several dogs to romp around in as well as a covered area for an outdoor kiln for his wife Ria’s ceramic art. The Town of Paradise was just a few miles away but separated from their home by a narrow road that wound its way up and around among tall conifers and scattered half-hidden neighbors - altogether an environment much different from their previous home in Dana Point.

So it was that we renewed our friendship. But it was not the same as it was in Riverside. The main difference was that we were interacting as two families rather than as individual academicians. Thus, whether in their home or ours or having dinner together at some restaurant (predictably, Indian was his favorite) conversation turned mainly to the stuff of day-to-day living - to matters of health, family, local friends and interest groups, though, truth be told, on occasion the changing face of anthropology was the dinner topic. It was the alteration in the social environment, I think, that mellowed Martin or perhaps simply exposed more of his non-professional side - especially noticeable was the tenderness that bound him to Ria and daughter Mei Le. But beyond family context, dealing more closely with individuals from a wider swatch of life meant moderating his tendency toward critical analysis and intensifying his appreciation of competency in the work of others.

If I might be allowed just one tiny illustration of Martin’s breadth and nature of interests, Martin was lukewarm about Francis Fukuyama’s magisterial End of History thesis, but he spoke admiringly of the author’s avocational woodworking skill as a maker of fine furniture. Of course, this appreciation of artistic skill in others encompassed that of Ria whose distinctive ceramic pieces attested to her unique love of nature.

In November, 2018, sadly, the Campfire conflagration incinerated most of Paradise, including the Orans’ home. Our phone call reached them just as they were herding their pets and packing a few belongings into two cars. They managed to exit just in time, driving through flames, smoke, and burning cinders. They spent the days after the Campfire in our home, days that were bittersweet; there was always the hope that their neighborhood had been spared, but eventually that hope was gone. They lost everything. Martin and Ria were incredibly stoic and level-headed through it all;  daughter Mei Le and the pets adjusted, and eventually they settled into a comfortable home they purchased in Chico.

Not long after that, both Martin and I developed health issues that restricted our traveling, but we kept in touch and visited when we could. The last time I saw Martin was when he arrived one day unannounced, via Uber, to bring me some books he thought I might enjoy reading.

William Loker, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Chico

After Martin’s retirement from UC-Riverside, he remained active in anthropological circles, participating through guest lectures and public presentations linked to the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Chico. Martin continued analyzing his Samoan materials, with particular emphasis on the symbolic dimensions of exchange, especially of fine mats or ie toga. A completed manuscript on this topic remains unpublished.  He also served as a sounding board for anthropologists at CSU, Chico. I benefitted enormously from his insight and advice on publications related to ethnopolitical movements and economic development topics in Central America. These are topics that resonated with Orans’ earlier work in India and his ongoing interests in world affairs.

In addition to being a brilliant anthropologist, generous with his time, my family and I found Martin to be among the most kind and ethical individuals we ever met. Martin exercised his ethical qualities in his daily life and through his two chosen faith traditions: Judaism and Quakerism.

After Martin and his family lost everything in the Campfire in 2018 they successfully relocated to Chico. He was deeply affected by the trauma of the fire. We continued our friendship as his health declined. He remained intellectually sharp and compassionate until the very end of his life. He passed away at home surrounded by family and friends.

Paul Shankman, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology, University of Colorado, Boulder

Note: Paul’s remembrance focused on Martin’s scholarly contributions and became  the Obituary in the Anthropology Newsletter, which is briefly summarized under Scholarly Contributions.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to William Loker and  Paul Shankman for initiating this collective memory.