The death has just been announced of John Davis, on 15 January. John was on the anthropology staff of the University of Kent from 1966 to 1990, and Professor of Social Anthropology from 1982. In 1990 he moved to Oxford as head of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, became Warden of All Souls College in 1995, where he remained until his retirement in 2008.
Between 1958 and 1961, John read history as an undergraduate at University College Oxford, after which he moved to the London School of Economics for postgraduate studies. It was here that he first met three individuals who were to shape his enduring preoccupations. The first was Paul Stirling, who was at the time undertaking pioneer work in Mediterranean ethnography; the second was Raymond Firth, who influenced his thought in the area of economic anthropology; and the third Lucy Mair, whose sharp mind and no-nonsense concise writing style he much approved of and actively emulated. Under Stirling’s supervision he undertook fieldwork in southern Italy, completing his PhD in 1969, a study published as Land and Family in Pisticci, 1973. His debt to Mair was later to be reflected in his editing of a festschrift (Choice and Change, 1974) and by christening the first Kent Anthropology server with the name ‘Lucy’.
In 1966 John moved to Kent, part of a group of other LSE staff and students who were to form the nucleus of a board of studies later to become the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. John often said that he was ‘made at Kent’, and certainly this was where his best work was undertaken: his influential essays on exchange, his synthesis of Mediterranean ethnography (People of the Mediterranean, 1977), and his ground-breaking work on long-distance traders in Gaddafi’s Libya (Libyan politics: tribe and revolution, 1987). In the early days at Kent, John both benefited from and contributed to the intellectual synergy between his own work and that of his colleagues in sociology, such as Ray Pahl (with whom he shared an interest in the informal economy) and Derek Allcorn (whose theoretical acumen and sense of humour he much admired). This synergy played an important role in integrating John’s Mediterranean interests into mainstream social theory, in developing a distinctive economic anthropology of complex industrial societies through ground-breaking analysis of gift-giving, sub-economies and exchange (Exchange, 1992), as well in his pioneering ethnography of Libya, which explored the interconnections between a modern ‘hydrocarbon society’ and a pre-existing segmentary lineage system.
As a teacher, John will be remembered for his innovations to the curriculum, such as ‘Understanding other cultures’ (a joint course with philosophy), and perhaps less so for ‘L’Année Sociologique‘ (an attempt to bring analytical rigour to the writings of Durkheim and allied thinkers associated with this early twentieth century French periodical). ‘L’Année Sociologique‘ was disappointingly short-lived and recruited few students, not only because of the intellectual rigour expected, but because a condition of registration was complete fluency in reading French. More popular, instructively entertaining several cohorts of students during the 1980s, was his creation of ‘Potlatch’, a simulation game that sought to capture the dynamic properties of the eponymous Kwakiutl institution of competitive exchange. It was also John Davis who founded the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing in 1985, which was to place Kent at the forefront of innovations in computing applications that have now become standard throughout academia. John liked good wine and fine dining, and would seldom be seen without his pipe. He was a raconteur of the first order, eminently clubbable, and with a self-conscious ‘donnish’ wit. Entertaining and amusing both as guest and host, during the 1980s he would invite the Tuesday anthropology research seminar back to his spacious kitchen in St Thomas Hill, where discussion would often continue over pasta and salad, even after John himself had discretely withdrawn to his bed. During his period at Kent, John married Dymphna Hermans (later separated) with whom he had three children.
John made an important contribution to the professional life of anthropology, being Chairman of the European Association of Social Anthropologists from 1993 to 1994 and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute between 1997 and 2001. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1988. On moving to Oxford he spent five years as head of ISCA before becoming Warden of All Souls, a position he relinquished in 2008.
At All Souls John enthusiastically embraced the role of Warden, researching and writing the history of the college fellowship, from an inevitably anthropological perspective and in his inimitable style. With Scott Mandelbrote (2013) he produced The Warden’s Punishment Book of All Souls College, Oxford, 1601-1850, for the Oxford Historical Society. His retirement was unfortunately plagued by ill-health and a premature withdrawal from mainstream academic life. He will be remembered as a clever man, by turns charming, funny, intellectually incisive, and always supportive of students, friends and colleagues.