Marshall Sahlins


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Marshall David Sahlins was an American cultural anthropologist best known for his ethnographic work in the Pacific and his contributions to anthropological theory. He was the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Marshall Sahlins was born in Chicago, the son of Bertha (Skud) and Paul A. Sahlins. 

His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a doctor, while his mother was a homemaker. He grew up in a secular, non-practicing family. His family claims to be descended from Baal Shem Tov, a mystical rabbi considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Sahlins' mother admired Emma Goldman and was a political activist as a child in Russia.

Sahlins received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees at the University of Michigan, where he studied with evolutionary anthropologist Leslie White. He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1954. There his intellectual influences included Eric Wolf, Morton Fried, Sidney Mintz, and the economic historian Karl Polanyi. 

In 1957, he became an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. In the 1960s, he became politically active. While protesting against the Vietnam War, Sahlins coined the term for the imaginative form of protest now called the "teach-in," which drew inspiration from the sit-in pioneered during the civil rights movement. In 1968, Sahlins signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. 

In the late 1960s, he also spent two years in Paris, where he was exposed to French intellectual life (and particularly the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss) and the student protests of May 1968. In 1973, he took a position in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, where he was the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emeritus. 

His commitment to activism continued throughout his time in Chicago, most recently leading to his protest over the opening of the university's Confucius Institute (which later closed in the fall of 2014). On February 23, 2013, Sahlins resigned from the National Academy of Sciences to protest the call for military research to improve the effectiveness of small combat groups and Napoleon Chagnon's election. 

The resignation followed the publication in that month of Chagnon's memoir and widespread coverage of the memoir, including a profile of Chagnon in The New York Times Magazine. Alongside his research and activism, Sahlins trained many students who became prominent in the field. One such student, Gayle Rubin, said: "Sahlins is a mesmerizing speaker and a brilliant thinker. By the time he finished the first lecture, I was hooked."

In 2001, Sahlins became the publisher of Prickly Pear Pamphlets, which was started in 1993 by anthropologists Keith Hart and Anna Grimshaw, and was renamed Prickly Paradigm Press. The imprint specializes in small pamphlets on unconventional subjects in anthropology, critical theory, philosophy, and current events. He died on April 5, 2021, at the age of 90, in Chicago.

His brother was the writer and comedian Bernard Sahlins (1922–2013). His son, Peter Sahlins, is a historian. Sahlins is known for theorizing the interaction of structure and agency, his critiques of reductive theories of human nature (economic and biological, in particular), and his demonstrations of culture's power to shape people's perceptions and actions. Although his focus has been the entire Pacific, Sahlins has done most of his research in Fiji and Hawaii.

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