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Home » Campus News Latest » Obituaries » Esther Newcomb Goody ’54

Esther Goody was born in 1932 to Theodore “Ted” and Mary Newcomb in Cleveland, Ohio, and passed away Jan. 18, 2018. 

She was the eldest of three children. The family moved around as her father took on a number of teaching posts in psychology. She had attended half a dozen schools by the age of 11 before settling in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, where Ted Newcomb founded the doctoral programme in social psychology.

Ann Arbor likes to call itself “The Athens of the Midwest.” It was the first institution in the 19th century to introduce a democratic version of the German seminar teaching method to the United States and today is a centre of excellence in a wide range of disciplines. Esther obtained her BA in Sociology and Psychology at a liberal arts school, Antioch College in 1954 (Clifford Geertz’s alma mater), with a mandatory cooperative education work programme. It would be hard to imagine an educational background further removed from that provided by Cambridge University.

Esther had previously attended lectures in social anthropology in London during the year her father spent at the Tavistock Institute, and now, after graduating from Antioch, she decided to ditch her plans for a PhD at Harvard, choosing to use an overseas grant to enroll in Meyer Fortes’ Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University. Jack Goody was her supervisor and they were married during her doctoral fieldwork in northern Ghana in 1956-7. Two daughters, Mary and Rachel, soon followed. Esther completed her doctorate in 1961 and taught at Cambridge University until her retirement as a reader in 1999. She maintained active research in Ghana throughout her life.

The field of kinship studies was founded by William Rivers, once president of the British associations for both anthropology and psychology. It was continued by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and revived by Meyer Fortes with Jack Goody after the Second World War — all of them, at least for a time, at Cambridge University. Esther and Jack Goody became a true partnership, making many field trips to northern Ghana, especially in the first decade after Ghana’s independence. Their work together and separately culminated in their classic article on cross-cousin marriage in the mid-1960s. Then Jack took off into history and Esther turned to synthesizing social anthropology and social psychology.

Apart from her almost 50 years of intermittent research in Gonja, northern Ghana, Esther Goody also worked in England (London and Leicester) and India (Gujarat). In her five books (two authored and three edited), she explored family sociology, parent-child relations, fostering, early commodity production and apprenticeship, sociolinguistic strategies of interaction and the interactive sources of intelligence.

Her last extensive project in northern Ghana was on social variations affecting school performance, in particular, the classic distinction between traditional states and stateless societies highlighted in Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s African political systems (1940). This work is so far incomplete; but it deserves to be made public, since it formed a suitable climax of her romance with the two disciplines to which she devoted her life.