Obituary: Professor Abner Cohen
Caplan, Lionel, The Independent (London, England)
DURING HIS career as a social anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, Abner Cohen combined an interest in what he often called the "micro-histories" of specific populations, based on meticulous first-hand ethnographic investigation, with wider theoretical issues surrounding the relationship between politics and culture.
His regional interests were diverse, ranging from the Middle East (he was born in Iraq and lived for several years in Israel), to West Africa (he spent extensive fieldwork periods in both Nigeria and Sierra Leone), to Britain (where he lived, worked and carried out research).
Born in Baghdad, he migrated to Israel with his family in 1949. After a spell of army service he became a school inspector and it was during this period that his interest in social anthropology developed. A British Council scholarship enabled him to train at Manchester University under Max Gluckman, and in 1958, armed with fluent Arabic and wide knowledge of Islam, he embarked on a study of Arab villages in Israel. He focused on the changing significance of traditional kinship units as a consequence of the villagers' absorption first into British Mandatory Palestine and subsequently into the State of Israel. This fieldwork was to form the basis of his doctoral dissertation and later his first book (Arab Border Villages in Israel, 1965) and was to establish him as a promising scholar in the discipline.
In 1961 he moved from Manchester to the Department of Anthropology at Soas where he remained for the next 24 years, first as a Research Fellow, then moving rapidly through the college's academic hierarchy. His interests soon turned to urban West Africa, and to the topic of ethnicity, which he saw as an increasingly important phenomenon in the post-colonial world.
His study of Hausa traders in the mainly Yoruba city of Ibadan, south- west Nigeria, underlined not only that the contours and meanings of their identity were different in newly independent Nigeria than they had been during the colonial regime, but that "being Hausa" in Ibadan had to be understood in the particular urban context defined by their activities in the cattle and kola nut trade. Against the view of some anthropological predecessors and contemporaries that "tribal" or ethnic identity was somehow "primordial", a psychological or cultural given, Cohen insisted that the mobilisation of ethnic solidarity was situational, a strategy for collective action to achieve specific economic or political goals. The book which emerged from the research (Custom and Politics in Urban Africa, 1969) became a classic in its time, and earned him the prestigious Amaury Talbot Prize for 1969.
In the same year he returned to West Africa, this time to Sierra Leone, to explore some of these themes further. His focus was on the Creole population of Freetown, who, though they comprised less than two per cent of the country's population, were disproportionately represented among its elites, holding top positions in the Civil Service, the professions and higher education.
By examining informal and largely invisible aspects of their everyday life outside the work place - family organisation, the centrality of women in maintaining community values, the cult of the dead and their involvement in Freemasonry - he showed how culture and power are inextricably interdependent (The Politics of Elite Culture, 1981). …