Remembering Robert Rhoades


On March 25, Robert Rhoades, a founding member of the Culture and Agriculture section of AAA, succumbed to pancreatic cancer in Athens, Georgia, where he had worked as a professor of anthropology since 1991. Even beyond his immediate family and friends, his passing has been felt deeply—crossing communities of anthropologists, indigenous rights activists, technical agricultural researchers, and development practitioners—reflecting the scope of his influence, both as a researcher and as a person.

I first met Bob in 1998, on a campus visit to UGA the spring before starting my Ph.D. with him. As an eager and aspiring anthropologist interested in local knowledge, sustainable development, and smallholder agriculture, I asked him if he would recommend some summer reading, something to get me primed for the grueling program of intellectual growth, which is graduate school. He just gave a puzzled but thoughtful look and said “Go read some Wendell Berry.” Wendell Berry? The middle American agrarian philosopher/poet/activist? What does he have to do with becoming an anthropologist? What am I getting myself into with this Bob Rhoades fellow?

I dutifully added Berry's “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” to my summer reading list. Berry is an eloquent and moving writer, but at the time I don't think I fully appreciated what he should mean to a budding anthropologist, why Bob recommended him. Twelve years have gone by since my initial reading of the book, not to mention countless thousands of pages of academic texts, all the while under the Bob's guidance in one way or another. In revisiting my beat up copy of “Unsettling of America” since Bob's passing, I have rediscovered the essence of what I learned from him, both as a professor and as a person, and now fully understand why I received the unexpected assignment.

My point is that food is a cultural product; it cannot be produced by technology alone. Those agriculturists who think of the problems of food production solely in terms of technological innovation are oversimplifying both the practicalities of production and the network of meanings and values necessary to define, nurture, and preserve the practical motivations. That the discipline of agriculture should have been so divorced from other disciplines has its immediate cause in the compartmental structure of the universities, in which complementary, mutually sustaining and enriching disciplines are divided, according to ‘professions,’ into fragmented, one-eyed specialties.

[Berry 1995:43]

Wendell Berry is not an anthropologist, a social scientist, or a scientist at all. I now believe that it is precisely because Berry is an agrarian philosopher, poet, and activist, that Bob recommended this work as an introduction to anthropological education. Looking back, it was an exhortation to think beyond discipline and beyond science entirely, to think critically—as a citizen of the world and as an independent moral actor—about the significance of meaning in livelihoods, the modes of interaction between technological change and social change, the different ways that the social processes in agrarian communities, science, business, and government drive those changes, and most importantly how we choose to position ourselves, personally and professionally, in relation to these questions. It is only through this reflection that we can meaningfully situate our practice as scientists. Knowing that the academic training and socialization would arrive soon enough (and would be more than thorough in its saturation), the recommendation of Wendell Berry was Bob's way of suggesting that the anthropological project, and the scientific project in general, needs to be grounded in a compassionate, normative vision that outweighs and precedes the domains of science in importance.

While embracing the notion that it is important to start from a position as a philosopher, poet, and activist, Bob simultaneously emphasized that it is consequently important to accept our obligation to do solid, empirically grounded anthropology, and good science in general, in the interest of a more just social order. Although he was passionate about anthropology as a discipline, it was never for the sake of the discipline itself. Instead, all of his work—in the CGIAR research centers, in academic research, and in the classroom—highlighted the importance of interdisciplinarity, of fighting against anthropology becoming a “fragmented, one-eyed specialty.” As an advisor, he constantly emphasized the obvious importance of doing good anthropology, but he likewise stressed the importance of the professional skills of integrative and collaborative research with economists, agronomists, crop breeders, ecologists, and most importantly with farmers themselves, because the applied, real-world problems that we should be working on do not acknowledge disciplinary or professional boundaries. In a paper presented at the AAA meeting in 2007, former AAA president James Peacock observed that “To get the most out of anthropology, you need to get out of anthropology.” This serves as an apt summary of Bob's philosophy of practice as an anthropologist, one that I think he would recommend agricultural anthropologists everywhere to follow.

While the world may be a lesser place now for his absence, it is certainly a far greater place for his having lived. Not only did Bob's own work help improve the lives of so many farmers around the world, but the passion and vision he has inspired in so many students and colleagues, family and friends, confirms that his influence on the world continues to multiply and is only just beginning to be felt. As he told many of his students in his final months, “Keep doing applied work.”

At the 2010 AAA Annual Conference, Culture and Agriculture will host a double invited session exploring the diverse intellectual legacy of Robert Rhoades, entitled “The Heights and Depths of Putting People First: A Tribute to the Work of Robert Rhoades.” A personal remembrance and reception will also be held in a separate event. Please see the AAA Annual Conference program for details.