Ronald Frankenberg obituary

Academic whose book Village on the Border pioneered the application of anthropological methods to British society

In the 1950s, British anthropologists normally conducted their fieldwork overseas. Ronnie Frankenberg, who has died aged 86, broke the rules by focusing on the former slate-mining community of Glyn Ceiriog, then in Denbighshire and now in Wrexham county borough, for his first book, Village on the Border (1957).

In doing so, he showed how anthropological methods could be effectively applied to British society. His choice of subject was fortuitous: he had intended to write his doctorate on the Caribbean, but his outspoken communist sympathies led to him being deported from Barbados, and the vice-chancellor of Manchester University demanded that he study within a day’s journey from the city. Needing to conduct his research in a non-English language to satisfy the conception of anthropology at the time, he hit upon the settlement in the Ceiriog Valley, not far beyond the Cheshire border.

Frankenberg’s study savaged the nostalgic romantic belief that small-town communities were cosy affairs, as well as the view that there was a settled sense of hierarchy and that people knew their place in a traditional and deferential social order. He emphasised instead how the town was riven with conflict, and showed how these tensions played out in the town’s day-to-day life – notably in the affairs of the local football club. He also showed how migrant “strangers” – far from disrupting community life – could actually assist solidarities within the town by acting as arbiters of local issues, though only where the locals gave them licence to.

His thinking was deeply influenced by Max Gluckman, founder of the department at Manchester University that gave rise to the wider Manchester school of anthropology, who had inspired him to abandon his undergraduate medical studies at Cambridge. However, Frankenberg introduced new themes, notably an emphasis on the power of gender inequality.

The success of Village on the Border enabled Frankenberg to straddle anthropology and sociology in a way that has not been achieved in Britain before or since. His 1966 book, Communities in Britain, surveyed the growing number of community studies that had been carried out since the second world war and restated the fundamental division between urban and rural social life. This standpoint flew in the face of much urban theory, which was beginning to play down this division because of the steady proliferation of urban sprawl into the countryside, and so the book did not prove as significant as his earlier study.

By this time his energies had become devoted to academic leadership. In 1969, after working as education officer for the National Union of Mineworkers in south Wales, and then at Manchester and at the University of Zambia, he was appointed inaugural professor of sociology at Keele University, and helped make it one of the leading departments in Britain.

There Frankenberg used his authority to build a genuinely joint department of anthropologists and sociologists, and was inspired by the student protests of the period to develop the innovative workshop seminar system. Students met their lecturers at the start of term and hammered out a weekly curriculum and reading list together. Lecturers were not empowered to impose their views on the students. When I taught at Keele in the early 1990s, I responded to enthusiastic student demand to introduce a workshop on the sociology of Stoke-on-Trent, which proved to be one of my favourite teaching experiences.

This teaching format proved very effective in allowing new and emerging topics to be rapidly put on to the curriculum. It helped make Keele a pioneer in key areas of research in science and technology studies, in visual culture, and in the sociology of time. Frankenberg also edited the Sociological Review from 1970 to 1994, positioning it as a more maverick outlet than its rivals, and held visiting positions at the University of California, Berkeley, and Case Western Reserve, Ohio.

Born in London, Ronnie was the son of Louis, a businessman, and his wife, Sarah (nee Zaions). From Highgate school, north London, he went to Cambridge. A talk by Gluckman persuaded him to switch from anatomy, physiology and biochemistry for the first part of his bachelor’s degree to archaeology and anthropology. In 1950 he moved to Manchester, where he gained a master’s in social anthropology and undertook the project in north Wales that brought him a PhD (1954).

His later research moved away from communities: in 1985 he became professor emeritus, but continued at Keele as director of its Centre for Medical Anthropology until 1995, leading the first master’s course in the UK devoted to this topic. This move was linked to his Marxist-inspired concern with how power relations affected the experience of health, and he did fieldwork in Tuscany on health traditions and reforms. His last post at Keele was as a part-time tutor in medical social anthropology (1996-2000); he was also a part-time tutor and professor of medical anthropology at Brunel University (1989-2000).

After this final retirement, he continued to live in north Staffordshire, which he had come to identify with while at Keele. It was also where his third wife, Pauline (nee Hunt), whom he married in 1977, conducted pioneering research on gender and class relationships in coal-mining villages.

In 1953 Frankenberg married Alison Sherratt, and they had two daughters, Ruth and Rose-Anna. In 1964, he married Joyce Leeson, and they had a daughter, Helen. Both marriages ended in divorce. With Pauline he had a son, Adam, and daughter, Rebecca. Ruth, also a sociologist, died in 2007. He is survived by Pauline and his other children.

• Ronald Jonas Frankenberg, anthropologist, born 20 October 1929; died 20 November 2015


Mike Savage

The GuardianTramp

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