Andrew Turton obituary

Other lives: Social anthropologist whose work was focused on Thai peasant life and culture

My husband, Andrew Turton, who has died aged 83, was a social anthropologist of northern Thai peasant life and culture. For four decades his work was associated in some way with Thailand and south-east Asia.

He was born in Bristol, to George Turton, a regional transport manager for the Hovis company, and Joan (nee Tointon). His father was killed in April 1944 while on active service in the RAF, when Andrew was not quite six. As the son of an old boy who had died in the war, Andrew was awarded a scholarship to Charterhouse school in Godalming, Surrey. He then received a state scholarship and a place at Cambridge University to read modern languages.

Within two months of graduating he joined the British Council. After a short posting to Spain, he was sent to Thailand for two years, followed by two years in London on the east European desk. But Thailand called. He was granted leave by the British Council to pursue a postgraduate diploma in anthropology and development at the London School of Economics, which turned into his PhD project, based on two years’ field work in the village of Mae Suai, and published in 1975.

In 1970 he was offered a research fellowship at the School of Oriental and African Studies (now Soas University of London). He and I met in 1971 and married in 2002. On the home front he was founding secretary of a large tenants’ association in Islington, where we lived. Internationally he was a member of the organising committee of the Vietnam Solidarity Conference that until 1975 was the leading British group campaigning to end the American war in Indochina.

At Soas he was head of department for six years and retired as reader in social anthropology in 2003. His early books and articles developed the theme of how traditional agricultural production based on cooperation was disrupted by the introduction of wage labour, capitalist expansion and the encroachment of state power from Bangkok, creating intermediary local powers – rich peasants, traders and petty officials – as well as an impoverished and economically precarious class of poor farmers. His work has formed the basis for subsequent studies of the crisis of Thailand’s rural economy.

He supervised more than 30 PhD students, many now in academic posts all over the world. In 2008 they organised a panel at the 10th International Thai Studies Conference in Bangkok, to honour his work. This was published as a Festschrift in 2010: Tracks and Traces; Thailand and the Work of Andrew Turton.

He turned his academic skills to writing the biography of his great-great-grandfather, who lived in 19th-century Leeds, Horse-drawn Transport in Leeds: William Turton, Corn Merchant and Tramway Entrepreneur (2015).

Andrew served as chair of the Islington Children’s Fund and for seven years as chair of the board of trustees of the Manor Gardens Welfare Trust (2004-13). He wrote a history of the Manor Gardens Centre for its centenary in 2013.

He is survived by me, our daughters, Polly and Clio, three grandchildren and his elder sister, Ruth.

Antonia Benedek

The GuardianTramp

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