1924 - 2003

A psychiatrist by training, Robert Levy was lured into anthropology by Douglas Oliver as a participant in Oliver’s Tahitian project in the early 1960s. He did field work in the Society Islands for twenty-six months, first during a pilot study in July and August 1961, then for two years between July 1962 and June 1964. From 1964 to 1966 he was a Senior Scholar in the Institute of Advanced Projects at the East-West Center and Research Associate in Anthropology at Bishop Museum, Honolulu. In 1969 he took a faculty position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of California - San Diego, where he served until his retirement in 1991. Since then he has been appointed Research Professor of Anthropology at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, and Research Professor of Anthropology, Duke University.

It was apparent from the beginning that Levy had an ability to see beyond the obvious into the subtle intricacies of Polynesian culture. To some extent this was the result of his bringing to bear his psychiatric training, but the impressive thing was the degree to which he was able to integrate an in-depth understanding of individual experience with a developing knowledge of cultural systems. His early papers had a significant impact on those of us who had been grappling with the puzzles of Polynesian socialization and character development. For example, his papers on drinking patterns (1966), folk psychotherapy (1967), child management structure (1968), anger and its expressions (1968), adoption (1970), transvestism (1971) and the integration between personality and sociocultural systems (1971) served to reorient the directions of interpretation away from simplistic motivational analysis in the traditional culture and personality vein, toward a more complex, but far more satisfying communication framework. The culmination of his work in Polynesia was his book, Tahitians (1973), which was selected as a finalist for the National Book Awards in 1974.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Tahitians to Polynesian studies. It is one of the most frequently cited Polynesian ethnographies, and ranks with Firth’s We, the Tikopia as a measure of ethnographic sophistication in the region. Tahitians set new directions by opening up avenues of inquiry about concepts of personhood, the cultural management of emotions, and the nature of Polynesian world view. It set a new standard for evaluating evidence and provided a model for ethnographic inquiry that has been adopted by many subsequent scholars working in the region.

What is extraordinary about Levy’s work is that it takes full advantage of his psychiatric background (for example, by using intensive interviewing skills to penetrate the inner recesses of people’s experience) without succumbing to the inherent restrictions of the psychiatric paradigm, which is anathema to anthropologists because of its built-in implications of pathology. In fact, Levy, more than anyone else, helped to place mental health issues in the Pacific into a culturally appropriate framework (for example in his groundbreaking 1969 working paper on "Personality Studies in Polynesia and Micronesia: Stability and Change").

Levy’s career has been marked by an intellectual independence that has made him a leader, an initiator of trends, rather than a follower or mere synthesizer. During a period (1983-1985) when the emotional life of individuals was sacrificed to a predominant concern for cognition in the anthropological literature, he published several papers insisting on its importance for understanding cultural process. This was reflected in his ethnographic work and has been spelled out in subsequent papers on emotion and culture. The resurrection of emotion as a central topic in psychological anthropology was given impetus by the issues he raised.

Although he has spent the last two decades working on field material gathered in Nepal, his Polynesian research has remained central to his overall project, which focuses on the social patterning of mind and experience. In “The Quest for Mind in Different Times and Different Places,” published in a book on Social History and Issues in Human Consciousness (1989), and a paper on parental ideas about learners and teaching (1996), he explicitly contrasts Nepalese and Tahitian cultural patterns. A loyal member (and one of the original Fellows) of ASAO, Levy’s most recent contribution to our Association was as discussant for the sessions on spirits organized by Jeannette Mageo and myself. His critical analysis not only shaped the direction of the individual contributions, but formed the basis for a comparative framework that lent coherence to the published volume (Chapter 1 of Spirits in Culture, History and Mind [1996]).

In 1996 Levy was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Alan Howard, University of Hawai'i (April 1998 Newsletter)