Sidney Mintz Passes Away

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I was very saddened to hear from our friend Pablo Delano that anthropologist Sidney Mintz has passed away. As of this moment, no obituaries have been posted yet, but here are excerpts from a biography by Erika Kuever (Indiana University):

Sidney Mintz has been called our “foremost scholar on sweetness” for his landmark work on the role of sugar in the world system. He is also, we must not forget, a great scholar of power; of the way it has operated historically and dialectically in shaping world history and human experience. Sweetness and Power, his best known work, represents not so much an apex, but a useful mid-point in Mintz’ distinguished career. It embodies many of the ideas he sought to advance in his early career while serving as a fulcrum in directing his later work. Over more than half a century as an anthropologist, Mintz’ work has covered multiple interests and regions. He has been influenced by other anthropologists as well as by scholars outside of the field, and his influence has been widely felt.

Mintz received his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1943 and continued his graduate work at Columbia University under the supervision of Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict. He was one of the founding members of the Mundial Upheaval Society, a Columbia graduate student group that included Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond, Elman Service and Morton Fried, all of whom would have large impacts on the discipline (Brittanica [sic] online). Mintz’ first fieldwork was in Puerto Rico in 1948, working as part of a team headed by Julian Steward on a large-scale project on modernization. The work was published as The People of Puerto Rico in 1956, and was co-authored by Steward, Robert Manners, and Eric Wolf, among others. One reviewer of the book at the time of its publication singled out Mintz’ contribution and praised his conclusion that the “plantation economy” and its consequences “be studied profitably across cultural boundaries” (Opler 1957: 125).

Mintz’ challenge to the geographical and intellectual boundedness of traditional anthropological research was to become a theme throughout his work. His involvement in the Puerto Rico study also proved a fertile ground for sharing intellectual reflections with his classmate and co-author Eric Wolf. In the bibliographic notes for his book Europe and the People Without History (1985), Wolf credits much in his discussion of plantations to an interest shared with Mintz on “the dialectic between plantations and peasantries” originating more than thirty years before. Wolf’s approach has much in common with Mintz’, who, throughout his long career has attempted to “wed the anthropological concepts of culture to historical materialist scholarship” (Johns Hopkins University 2006). How successful has he been in this attempt? What influences has Mintz’ had on the discipline of anthropology and in the wider realm of both academic and popular studies of culture and history?

Having had an auspicious career as a graduate student, Mintz joined the faculty at Yale University in 1951, remaining there until 1974. During this time he published a book on the Puerto Rican rural proletariat (1951), a Puerto Rican life history (1960) and several texts on the Caribbean peasantry. Mintz also did extensive fieldwork in Puerto Rico (1948-9, 1953, 1956), Jamaica (1952, 1954), and Haiti (1958-1959, 1961), enabling him to develop a framework which sought to account for the broad historical processes of European colonial expansion and the development of the Caribbean peasantry. Approaching ethnography with a historical perspective, Mintz’ work highlighted the unique character of the Caribbean region.

His 1974 book Caribbean Transformations received very positive reviews which praised his vast experience in and knowledge of the region. Owing to his extensive fieldwork and study, one reviewer suggested that Mintz was “particularly well-equipped to provide in this volume what no one else has attempted to do so far: to deal with the region as a whole, to delineate its special, distinctive features, and to set it within the larger framework of the Americas, of Afro-America, and of the Third world” (Bourguignon 1975: 790). Mintz’ usage of the comparative perspective was seen as a “major contribution by a distinguished anthropologist to our understanding of one significant area of the modern world” (Bourguignon 1975: 791). While Julian Steward may have influenced Mintz’ strong grounding in the comparative perspective, Mintz’ own contribution was to use a historical materialist approach which held in tension the dialectical interaction between large processes of capitalist expansion and their local cultural responses. [. . .]

For full biography, see http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/Mintz.htm

Also see “Anthropology and Caribbean History: A Conversation with Sidney Mintz” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2O-oY_psmKk 

Photo above: Sidney Mintz at the University of Puerto Rico; see http://www.iinasupr.org/fotogaleria_view.html?archivo=7

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