Paul Spencer obituary

Social anthropologist who studied the Samburu and Maasai peoples of the central Rift Valley

The social anthropologist Paul Spencer, who has died aged 83, was best known for his work on the peoples – principally the Samburu and Maasai – speaking the Maa languages and living in the central Rift Valley from northern Kenya to northern Tanzania. His initial interest lay in age organisation: how these livestock-rearing communities assembled groups of boys of around the same age and managed their passage to maturity through a succession of initiation ceremonies. The young men developed a lifelong bond by living and eating together apart from their families, dancing and raiding as one, and, later on, acting as patrons and mentors for junior groups in their turn.

Age and the passage of time remained at the core of Paul’s work, but he expanded his interests to include gender relations within the household, systems of belief and the social significance of dance. Despite his focus on men, he displayed an understanding of the predicament of women in a patriarchal world. They played a crucial role in upholding the core values that defined the community by shaming errant husbands and sometimes collectively punishing men whose delinquent behaviour transgressed the moral order. As Paul pointed out, relations between men were always mediated through women, despite the latter’s apparently subordinate position.

Paul Spencer during his time with the Samburu in the 1950s
Paul Spencer during his time with the Samburu in the 1950s Photograph: public domain

Paul produced two ethnographies: The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy in a Nomadic Tribe (1965), based on field research in the late 1950s and his resulting DPhil from Oxford University, and The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion (1988), which he saw as his central ethnographic statement. In both, short case studies enabled readers to see how his subjects tried to make sense of, question or endorse the rules and structures within which they lived.

They were written in the “ethnographic present”, as here: “Maasai enthusiasm over their traditions is tempered by a marked reticence concerning forces that lie beyond their grasp; and they avoid the topic of death above all. No one can know what happens after death, but the clear presumption is – nothing.” Then the style was common, but now it is widely criticised for its apparent abstraction and timelessness, which gave the impression that particular ways of life were fixed, and ignored the existence of change, as for example through the gradual decline of the cattle-keeping economy.

However, while Paul did acknowledge change, he believed that much that he valued in traditional society was at risk from modern development. He wished to preserve the memory of the communities he had known and to celebrate the diverse possibilities of human experience. His ethnographies, snapshots in time from the 50s and 70s respectively, are now invaluable for further research.

In all he wrote six books on the Maa-speaking peoples. In the fourth of them, The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa (1998), he placed a number of his earlier concerns within a more comparative context, considering the evolution and viability of subsistence pastoral societies in a rapidly changing world and the larger dynamics of ageing.

Time, Space and the Unknown: Maasai Configurations of Power and Providence (2003) looked more deeply into universal themes, including the problems of misfortune and the search for certainty in an unknowable universe.

There Paul wrote more fully about the well-known Maasai prophets, dangerously ambiguous figures who lived apart from the community and who had the power to bless and curse and to foresee the future. Maasai held them at arm’s length, but believed that they had access to cosmological truths hidden from ordinary people, and could use their knowledge to avert misfortune and to protect the community from sorcery. Paul was always intrigued that, while Maa speakers as a whole shared overarching institutions and a distinctive identity, communities differed substantially in how they understood and managed the process of maturation. In this book he proposed a division between the “northern” Maasai and the “southern” – the implications of which remain to be explored.

His final work, Youth and the Experiences of Ageing Among Maa, published in 2014, marked the culmination of a lifelong commitment. Yet he continued to look to the future, suggesting further areas of inquiry and speculating that more recent findings about the Maasai, which seemed to contradict his own, were simply an indication of how much belief and practices had changed over the past 50 years.

Paul was born in Acton, west London, the second child of Eleonor (nee Simon) and Douglas Spencer, a pioneer in colour photography. Douglas left Eleonor a month before Paul’s birth. After attending Woodhouse Grove school in Yorkshire, Paul took an engineering degree (1955) at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

With a career in industrial relations in mind, he became more interested in the human dimension of industrial organisation than industry itself, and so shifted to anthropology, which drew him into a three-year period of fieldwork in northern Kenya.

In 1962 Paul joined the Tavistock Institute in London, where he carried out sociological research unrelated to his work in Kenya. Nine years later he accepted a post as a lecturer in anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He became a professor at SOAS in 1993 and remained there until his retirement in 1997.

Throughout his career Paul was a meticulous fieldworker whose command of the Maa language – which he had taught himself in only five months – allowed him to engage his informants in long discussions, helping him to find the deeper meaning beneath the surface structures he observed. A hearing impediment, the result of childhood mumps, made him an especially attentive listener.

He is survived by his second wife, Diane Wells, whom he married in 1995; by his two sons, Aidan and Benet, from his first marriage, to Rosalind Scott, which ended in divorce; and by two granddaughters.

• Paul Spencer, anthropologist, born 25 March 1932; died 21 July 2015


Richard Waller

The GuardianTramp

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