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Olivia Harris (1948–2009)

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Olivia Harris (1948–2009)

378 American Anthropologist Vol. 113, No. 2 June 2011
Olivia Harris near the Russell Square underground station,
London, 2008. (Courtesy of Frank L. Salomon)
Olivia Harris (1948–2009)
Olivia Harris, a noted Andeanist and professor of anthro-
pology at the London School of Economics (LSE), died on
April 9, 2009, in London. Her sudden death has deprived
us of one of the most idiosyncratic and influential figures
in the close-knit and often intensely politicized world of
professional British anthropology and, more than anything
else, a powerful, almost mythical, participant-observer of
the peoples and institutions of the north of Bolivia’s Potos´
ı
Department, where stories of her various prowesses are still
told with that combination of reverence and zest for living
that characterized Olivia’s own life.
For those of us who were eager graduate students
in Frank Salomon’s shop at the University of Wisconsin–
Madison in the late 1990s, Olivia Harris’s work on gender,
complementarity, kinship, and the semiotics of production
were essential reading within a larger, but not too large,
canon of Andeanist scholarship. To encounter Olivia’s work
within that milieu was to confront a dilemma, one whose
sharpness could only really be felt much later. It was abun-
dantly clear that to fully understand her writings on differ-
ent vital aspects of life in highland Bolivia, one would have
to try to approximate her experiences of ethnography and
rumination. In contrast to much of the influential anthropo-
logical theory of the time, the force of her arguments was
unequivocally derived from an intimate, almost spiritual,
ethnographic engagement and journey among the Quechua-
and Aymara-speaking agropastoralists of the norte de
Potos´
ı, a region that she and her close colleague Tristan
Platt did much to make iconic within the anthropology, his-
tory, and ethnohistory of the Andes and Latin America more
generally. But because her writings by this time were the
product of a deep ethnography that had taken place during
different periods over 20 years, for an aspiring Andeanist
the task of approximation seemed daunting indeed and the
possibility of success remote, even impossible; the collective
work of the two legendary English norte de Potos´
ı ethnogra-
phers appeared like an intellectual galaxy that was receding
at the speed of light. And it is a testament to Olivia’s accom-
plishments and life that—even after years of trying to follow
in her footsteps, of struggling to approximate her mode of
understanding—Olivia’s sense of methodology, her Mali-
nowskian grasp of the hold life has for nortepotosinos, and her
courage in the field still seem to me inaccessible, remote,
inimitable.
Olivia Harris was born on August 26, 1948, the fourth
child of Ronald and Julia Harris, and spent her early years in
the bucolic environs of Stoke D’Abernon, an ancient village
in the Home County of Surrey outside of London. Her
mother died when Olivia was only seven, and her father,
who was a senior civil servant with service in India, Burma,
and Egypt, remarried a woman who brought two of her own
children into the Harris household. Olivia received her early
education at the Benenden School, a boarding school for
girls in the Kentish countryside, whose students included
Princess Anne (a younger classmate). It was during these
early years that Olivia was trained as a violinist, and her love
of music would come to be a lifelong source of meaning
and intercultural communication. As the Bolivian linguist,
anthropologist, and Jesuit Xavier Alb´
o—a dear friend and
longtime colleague of hers—recalled (Alb´
o 2009), Olivia
(then “a young English girl, lively and jovial”) was known to
startle people during her first fieldwork in rural Bolivia in
the early 1970s by appearing in the most unlikely of places
dressed in an indigenous poncho and accompanied only by
her violin.
Olivia went up to Oxford in 1965. Her years pur-
suing perhaps the most traditional of courses in the most
traditional of British universities had a profound, if subtle,
impact on the questions she would later come to consider
worth examining and the manner with which she would
examine them. She read the Oxford classics course, infor-
mally known as “Greats,” an arduous tutor-based study of
ancient languages, history, and philosophy (both ancient and
modern). The positive influence this had on Olivia was that
her critical immersion in primary sources engendered an
appreciation for the depth of historical resonance and the
importance of tracking this resonance wherever it led, even
if this demanded years of often-frustrating intellectual de-
tective work in archives and with oral-historical sources far
removed from the stacks of Bodley.
A counterinfluence that Oxford had on Olivia was in
the fact that her years there (1965–69) coincided with the
revolutions both within and against the kind of sociopolitical
ancien r´
egime that Oxford represented to a high degree. As
Obituaries 379
a later photograph of her suggests (Harris 2000:14), Olivia
must have found the vast expanses of the Bolivian altiplano
an emancipatory antithesis to the claustrophobic normativity
of English class privilege that she encountered at Oxford.
Her more immediate response to the impossibility of fully
nurturing a surging political consciousness at Oxford was a
radical change in discipline and institution. In 1969, Olivia
moved to London and enrolled in the anthropology graduate
program at the LSE, which—founded by the Webbs as a
kind of anti-Oxbridge—was by then a key center in Britain
for social and political activism, free thought, and moral
experimentation. Her first supervisor was James Woodburn,
a pioneering anthropologist of hunters and gatherers.
Olivia’s decision to pursue social anthropology at the
LSE was a double-edged sword. With the encouragement
of Tristan Platt, an anthropology student just back from the
field in the north of Potos´
ı Department in Bolivia, Olivia
agreed to conduct fieldwork in the same area. As Tristan has
written, “ethnographic fieldwork and the Aymara language
changed the direction of her life”—as did the affirmation of
what would turn out to be a decades-long friendship with
Platt himself, a collaboration that profoundly changed the
understanding of rural Bolivian culture and society, including
what might be called the “self-understanding.” On more
than one occasion I have entered an adobe hut far from
the provincial capitals to find a small bookshelf of some local
authority stocked with well-thumbed copies of Tristan’s and
Olivia’s influential books (e.g., Harris and Alb´
o 1986; Platt
1976, 1982).
But Olivia’s choice of field site among peasants in ru-
ral Latin America and her commitment to archival history,
ethnohistory, and diachronic framing put her at odds with
an important segment of establishment British anthropology
on her return from Bolivia in 1974. Thus began her vibrant
and ethically and politically inflected professional career,
which—with the exception of periods of later research and
visiting appointments in Latin America, Europe (at the Uni-
versity of Oslo), and the United States (at the University
of Chicago)—was spent almost entirely in London. After
teaching briefly at the University of Kent in Canterbury, in
1979 she joined Goldsmiths College, before it was formally
part of the University of London, and in 1986 became one of
the founders of Goldsmiths’s Department of Anthropology.
Along with colleagues Brian Morris, Sophie Day, and Josep
R. Llobera, Olivia would come to personify the institutional
character of Goldsmiths anthropology and, in some ways,
Goldsmiths itself—that south-of-the-Thames university fa-
mous for being a hotbed for innovation, antiestablishment
organizing, and interdisciplinarity.
It was at Goldsmiths that Olivia acquired her semimysti-
cal status as a mentor and teacher of anthropology students,
several of whom eventually made the reverse journey, as
it were, from Goldsmiths back into the bastions of British
anthropology. And, of course, by this time even mainstream
British anthropology had caught up with the broader vision
of a politically engaged historical anthropology that defined
Olivia’s professional and personal commitments and that had
emerged earlier as a disciplinary countermovement associ-
ated in particular with the journal Critique of Anthropology.
Olivia’s influence grew steadily throughout the 1980s and
1990s, during which time she maintained a steady output of
pioneering articles, book chapters, and edited volumes (e.g.,
1984, 1986, 1995a, 1995b, 1996). During this period, she
also conducted new field research in Bolivia (in 1981, 1983,
1985, 1986–87, 1991) and worked professionally within
anthropology and Latin American studies in several ways,
including serving on the editorial boards of Critique of Anthro-
pology, the Bulletin of Latin American Research, and the Journal
of Latin American Studies; as a key member of the board of
the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of
London; and as vice president of the Royal Anthropological
Institute.
Much of Olivia’s scholarship—especially on different
dimensions of cultural life and history in the Andes—will
remain essential, even definitive. The single most important
locus of her contributions is her collection To Make the Earth
Bear Fruit (2000), in which she selected and then synthe-
sized her most influential earlier writings on history, death,
economics, myth, semiotics, and, of course, gender. Like
that of others, my own ethnographic research on gender and
power in the north of Potos´
ı in the late 1990s and early
2000s was shaped primarily by Olivia’s writings on comple-
mentarity and confirmed her once-controversial thesis that
gender relations in rural Bolivia were “unpatriarchical ...
in contrast to peasant societies in many other parts of Latin
America and elsewhere” (2000:21–22).
To Make the Earth Bear Fruit was also symbolically impor-
tant in relation to Olivia’s broader intellectual trajectory.
She had chosen to make her scholarly contributions across a
slowly unfolding body of work as a kind of counterargument
to what she believed was the artificial conclusiveness of the
dissertation and the stand-alone monograph. (Despite her
personal conviction on this point, she nevertheless was a
tireless and creative Ph.D. thesis director, and some of her
students went on to write some of the best anthropology
theses of their generation.) The 2000 volume was a compro-
mise of sorts but one fully in keeping with a sense of time that
was more sympathetic to the cyclical rhythms of the rural
Andean ritual calendar than to the frenetic demands of the
audit culture that now looms over every British academic’s
head. (But even here Olivia was prepared to put her shoul-
der to the wheel for her students and colleagues. As chair of
Goldsmiths anthropology in the early 2000s, she oversaw its
submission for the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, and
under her administrative stewardship the department was
ranked third, above both Cambridge and Oxford.)
In 2005, after 26 years at Goldsmiths, Olivia moved
to the LSE, where she was appointed as professor (in the
chair first held by Malinowski) and head of the anthropol-
ogy department (2005–08). The following year she visited
Bolivia—as it turned out, for the last time—to participate
in the official launch of Qaraqara-Charka, an unprecedented
380 American Anthropologist Vol. 113, No. 2 June 2011
volume in the historical anthropology of precolonial and
colonial Bolivia that was the product of a decades-long col-
laboration among Olivia, Tristan Platt, Th´
er`
ese Bouysse-
Cassagne, and the late Thierry Saignes (Platt et al.
2006).
It was also during this time that I consulted with Olivia
about an article on sociopolitical change in Bolivia that was
forthcoming in American Ethnologist (Goodale 2006). Based
as it was in a different methodology and directed toward a
different set of theoretical problems than hers, Olivia had
little to say about the body of the article itself. But then
she turned my world upside down without even realizing it.
The article reproduces a popular image of the 18th-century
indigenous leader Tupaj Katari. I had not given much thought
to the source of the image (beyond attribution), but this was
how Olivia replied:
By the way, just for the record, the standard image of Tupaj
Katari which you reproduce ... is of recent origin. The original
was a poster commissioned from an Oruro artist by INDICEP
(Maryknoll NGO) in about 1971 during the Torres government,
and the model was Abel S´
anchez, whose father was a miner and
whose mother was from a patr´
on family in provincia Charcas.
Abel’s brother Froilan worked for INDICEP at the time, and was
killed in the early weeks after Banzer’s coup. As far as I know
Abel still works for one or another international NGO (Vecinos
Mundiales?) based in San Pedro or elsewhere. [correspondence
with author, February 2006]
And suddenly, there it was again, the intellectual galaxy still
receding as fast as ever and perhaps, for me at least, finally
disappearing from view.
Olivia Harris leaves behind her husband, historian Harry
Lubasz, her daughter Marina, and hundreds of former stu-
dents, colleagues, and friends around the world. The legacy
of her life will continue to bear fruit; it will always, as she
herself reminds us about all good things, produce well—taqi
kun sum puqu˜
npataki (2000:24).
Mark Goodale George Mason University, Arlington, VA 22201
NOTE
Acknowledgments. I thank Frank Salomon for providing the pho-
tograph of Olivia Harris and for sharing reflections on his last meeting
with his longtime friend and colleague. Tristan Platt corrected sev-
eral mistakes and offered advice on some matters of emphasis and
interpretation. For several biographical details, I was able to draw
from the published remembrances of Alb´
o (2009), Bouysse-Cassagne
and Platt (2009), Dunkerley (2009), and Lazar (2010).
REFERENCES CITED
Alb´
o, Xavier
2009 Recuerdos de Olivia Harris [Remembrances of Olivia Har-
ris]. La Raz´
on (La Paz), April 19.
Bouysse-Cassagne, Th´
er`
ese, and Tristan Platt
2009 Olivia Harris: An Appreciation. Anthropology Today
25(6):26–27.
Dunkerley, James
2009 Olivia Harris. The Guardian, April 20, http://
www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/apr/20/olivia-harris-
obituary, accessed January 3, 2011.
Goodale, Mark
2006 Reclaiming Modernity: Indigenous Cosmopolitanism and
the Coming of the Second Revolution in Bolivia. American
Ethnologist 33(4):634–649.
Harris, Olivia
1984 Comment on Urton. Revista Andina 3.
1986 From Asymmetry to Triangle: Symbolic Transformations
in Northern Potos´
ı. In Anthropological History of Andean
Polities. John V. Murra, Nathan Wachtel, and Jacques Revel,
eds. Pp. 260–281. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1995a Ethnic Identity and Market Relations: Indians and Mestizos
in the Andes. In Ethnicity, Markets and Migration in the Andes:
At the Crossroads of History and Anthropology. Brooke Larson
and Olivia Harris, eds. (with Enrique Tandeter). Pp. 351–390.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
1995b Knowing the Past: Antinomies of Loss in Highland Bo-
livia. In Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge.
Richard Fardon, ed. Pp. 101–117. London: Routledge.
2000 To Make the Earth Bear Fruit: Ethnographic Essays on Fer-
tility, Work and Gender in Highland Bolivia. London: Institute
of Latin American Studies, University of London.
Harris, Olivia, ed.
1996 Inside and Outside the Law: Anthropological Studies of
Authority and Ambiguity. London: Routledge.
Harris, Olivia, and Xavier Alb´
o
1986 Monteras y guardatojos: Campesinos y mineros en el norte
de Potos´
ı en 1974 [Monteras and guardatojos: Peasants and
miners in the north of Potos´
ı in 1974]. La Paz: CIPCA.
Lazar, Sian
2010 Olivia Harris. Anthropology News (51)5:35.
Platt, Tristan
1976 Espejos y ma´
ız: temas de la estructura simb´
olica andina
[Mirrors and maize: Themes from Andean symbolic structure].
La Paz: CIPCA.
1982 Estado boliviano y ayllu andino: tierra y tributo en el norte de
Potos´
ı [Bolivian state and Andean ayllu: Land and tribute in the
north of Potos´
ı]. Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.
Platt, Tristan, Th´
er`
ese Bouysse-Cassagne, and Olivia Harris
2006 Qaraqara-Charka: Mallku, Inka y rey en la provincia de
Charcas (siglos XV–XVII): Historia antropol´
ogica de una con-
federaci´
on aymara [Qaraqara-Charka: Mallku, Inka and king
in the province of Charcas (15th–17th centuries): Anthro-
pological history of an Aymara confederation]. La Paz: Insti-
tut Franc¸ais d´
Etudes Andines/Plural Editores/University of
St Andrews/University of London/Inter-American Founda-
tion/Cultural Foundation of the Bolivian Central Bank.
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