Marc J. SwartzMarc J. Swartz

Marc J. Swartz, a leading American anthropologist, died Wednesday, December 14th 2011, at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. He was 80 years old.

Swartz earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1958 where he studied under leading social scientists of the time, including Clyde Kluckhohn and Talcott Parsons. He was a founding member of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, where he served as a member of the faculty for 36 years. During his career, Swartz was a founding member of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, former chairman of the American Society for Political Anthropology, a life member of the American Anthropological Association, a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and a member of the National Geographic Research board of editors.

As a fellow of the Guggenheim and Wenner Gren Foundations and with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, among others, Swartz spent years conducting field research among indigenous peoples in highland Tanzania, in Kenya and on Romonum, a small island in the Chuuk atoll in the southwestern part of the Pacific Ocean. In each case he was accompanied and assisted by his wife of 58 years, Audrey. Swartz’s insistence upon living among the villagers he studied took them far from the comforts of university life, requiring them to sleep in huts and subsist on food that he hunted or fished with the villagers. The couple always conducted their research in the languages of the peoples they studied.

“In a world of staid professors and dull conversation, it was a novelty and an honor knowing a man who hunted big game in Africa, endured malaria and could discuss politics, philosophy and culture with an unrestrained wit and decisive clarity,” observed Jack Weatherford, a friend and former student.

Swartz dedicated his career to the study of the influence of culture over various aspects of human interaction, including the sources and maintenance of political power, social status, aggression, sexuality and medical beliefs. “He believed that human cultures were defined by common understandings that were shared, transmitted, prescriptive and morally forceful. He disputed the casual use of the word ‘culture’ to refer to artifacts or behaviors. To him, culture was what’s in your head,” said David K. Jordan, UC San Diego professor emeritus of anthropology and a longtime friend and colleague to Swartz. 

In addition to many scholarly papers, he wrote and edited a number of books, including “The Way the World Is,” “Local Level Politics,” “Political Anthropology” (with Victor Turner and Arthur Tuden) and, with David K. Jordan, “Culture, the anthropological perspective,” “Personality and the Cultural Construction of Society” and a textbook, “Anthropology: Perspective on Humanity.” 

Swartz was born October 31st, 1931 in Omaha, Nebraska. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Audrey; his brother, Steve; his sons William, of San Francisco, Matthew, of McLean, Virginia and Robert, of Arlington, Virginia; and four grandchildren.