Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Keesing, Roger (1935–1993)

by Nicholas Thomas

Roger Keesing, Professor of Anthropology in the Research School of Pacific Studies from 1974 until 1991, died suddenly in Canada on 7 May.

His anthropological career was marked above all by a long and deep engagement with the Kwaio people of Malaita, in the Solomon Islands. He worked there first in 1962, and obtained his PhD from Harvard in 1965 for a dissertation on marriage, but sustained and deepened his knowledge through many subsequent visits.

In its earlier phases his work dealt particularly with kinship, social structure, and language, but diversified to range across religion, politics, cognition, and gender. He became an historically sensitive anthropologist through research on the labour trade, on conflict in the colonial period, and on politico-religious cults in the aftermath of the Second World War.

His work had a strong linguistic dimension that culminated in a major study of Melanesian pidgin. His many books included Kwaio Religion (1982), Lightning Meets the West Wind (with Peter Corris, 1980), and Elota's Story (1978), one of several life histories of prominent Kwaio men. Custom and Confrontation (1992) consummately drew together the arguments on colonial history and resistance that he developed over the last decade.

He also published much of importance in over a hundred papers; many drew upon his Kwaio ethnography, yet were motivated by broad theoretical questions, and addressed a general anthropological audience rather than a narrow group of regional specialists. His writing was fluent and direct; he synthesised broad areas of research effectively, and some of his strongest essays distilled critiques that were being more widely developed — of colonial ideologies, of anthropologists' preoccupations with the exotic, of idealist tendencies in cultural and symbolic anthropology.

But while his expositions of the state of play in various fields were lucid and widely cited, there was much also that was powerful and original: for instance, in his effort to demystify the famous concept of mana in Oceanic cultures, which he insisted embodied more a practical idea of efficacy than the essence of spiritual power speculated about by ethnologists since the 19th century. His work on inventions of tradition in the Pacific was also path finding.

He was also the author of a textbook, Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective, which in its second edition (1981) was widely regarded as the best introduction to the subject, particularly for its incorporation of the more critical arguments concerning gender, power relations, and development that had emerged in the 1970s.

Personally and professionally Roger was always enormously active; he played tennis relentlessly, he enjoyed the company of friends and colleagues and cooked well; he could party, but drank very moderately and exercised a great deal. His style in debate was often polemical, but he was a good listener and was always reaching beyond the Pacific and beyond his discipline for new perspectives. He travelled frequently on fieldwork, to conferences, and to give invited lectures.

He was enormously generous and supportive of his graduate students, and put a great deal of energy into commenting on people's work, providing them with material or contacts he felt would be useful, and offering practical advice of all kinds to students, with whom he was warm and open rather than hierarchical or distant.

Although Roger was invariably prolific, his last few years in Canberra were not especially happy. His move to McGill University in Montreal marked both a personal and an intellectual rejuvenation. I saw him last at a conference in Hawaii in March, where he seemed more energetic than ever. His death was a particular shock to friends and colleagues because, at 58, he seemed more like 40.

While he accomplished a great deal, we all expected that he would be a productive figure in Pacific studies for a great deal longer. 

Original publication

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nicholas Thomas, 'Keesing, Roger (1935–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/keesing-roger-548/text549, accessed 26 August 2019.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2019