Bolivia’s been in the news for many reasons in the last few weeks, and there’s a regular old pile of stories to be dissected and reposted: UN human rights reports, opening of relations with the USA, footballing triumph and oh my, assassination attempts! But I am afraid to say that all of this has been overshadowed by tremendous grief and shock at the death of Olivia Harris, who among many other things was my PhD supervisor. Writing this with a heavy heart, it feels that to follow this announcement with the customary sarcastic digestion of news is to trivialise it. I’ve also been reluctant to put it up here because frankly, that would mean admitting that she is dead, and that has been difficult. It’s illogical that someone so lively, warm and important should be suddenly gone. But she is.
Olivia’s influence in British anthropology and Latin American studies has been immense, but her contribution to thinking about Bolivia is perhaps even more significant. She carried out fieldwork in Ayllu Laymi, Norte de Potosi, and explored gender, landholding, cosmology and productivity. In the 1980s she published essays on gendered violence and reproduction that brought Andean realities into contact with feminist thought. Her background in philosophy and history gave her writing a framework of reference that made it pertinent and interesting far beyond anthropology, and she was also deeply interested in law and legal systems. Olivia’s influence, one suspects, was at the heart of many of the most interesting monographs to be written about the Andes and beyond in the last few years: Professor Les Back, for example, was one of her first supervisees.
I didn’t know it, but I was one of her last. I first met Olivia in 2003. I was a nervous recent graduate eager to carry on studying the politics and cultures of highland Bolivia, intimidated by the interview with Big Famous Name Olivia Harris. She put me at my ease immediately and we laughed and teased out research ideas. This unaffected warmth, generosity, patience and eagerness to muck in and discuss research questions continued to characterise every interaction we had, even at the nadir of sluggish PhD production, blockage, angst and frustration. Many times I went into meetings with Olivia embarrassed about a lack of progress or unsure of the value of my ideas, and I always – always came out reassured, buoyed, encouraged and inspired to continue writing. Just ten days before her death, it was announced that she was very unwell. I don’t think anyone could have expected her to leave us so abruptly. This is one of the moments of rupture she described as her latest research interest: traumatic, certainly and life-altering for many, not least her family. In addition to her personal kindness, compassion and charisma, there are a great many threads of investigation and thought left unwoven. The loss of all the possible projects, all the future books and seminars and collaborations, is difficult on an entirely different level than the personal pain of losing someone who was a parent figure, friend and mentor to so many. Olivia, thank you for the extraordinary gift of having had you in our lives. We will miss you searingly.
James Dunkerley, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London School of Advanced Study, wrote Olivia’s obituary for the Guardian. As one expects from James, it is academically robust in describing some of her key contributions, and tender in describing her life and how beloved she was by friends and colleagues. It follows below the cut, as does the text of a brief article from La Prensa including a note of mourning from her Bolivian colleagues. It is deeply sad that most of them will be unable to come to her funeral, but they have this to say:
‘Your friends, we who saw you arrive in the 70s for your fieldwork with the Laymis, we who shared with you your joys, slept, ate, cried and danced at your side, those who know of your commitment to our struggles, advances and retreats thank you deeply and wish you to know that we are with you, always’.
The Guardian, Monday 20 April 2009
Olivia Harris, who has died suddenly of cancer aged 60, was professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and one of the finest anthropologists in Europe. A specialist in highland Bolivia, she published studies on gender, kinship, feminist theory, law, work, money, death and, most recently, time.
Olivia worked for most of her career at Goldsmiths College, London University, where in 1986 she co-founded the anthropology department. Much sought after as a teacher – Olivia held visiting positions at Chicago and Oslo universities – she became chair of the LSE’s department of anthropology in 2005.
Her early death deprives us of the work she might have done, but To Make the Earth Bear Fruit: Ethnographic Essays on Fertility, Work and Gender in Highland Bolivia (2000) provides a selection of her essays. A remarkable work of ethno-history, which she co-authored with Tristan Platt and Thérèse Bouysse-Cassagne and which was published in La Paz, is Qaraqara Charka: Mallku, Inka y Rey en la provincia de Charcas (2006).
This Anglo-French collaboration of 20 years shows her to be an outstanding social scientist and yielded a text of 1,000 pages, including annotated transcripts of documents and interpretative essays on the Inca and Spanish colonisation of what is today Bolivia. Rich in its revisionist approaches to ethno-history and methodology, it sold out within weeks. Its full intellectual impact has yet to be felt.
The fourth child of Sir Ronald Harris, then a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, and his wife Julia, Olivia spent her childhood in the greenbelt comfort of Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey. At seven, she lost her mother to cancer, which, together with her father’s second marriage and the expansion of the household’s complement of children to six, sharpened her powers of observation and reflection.
Her love of music and gifts as a violinist can be traced to her early childhood. She continued to play quartets throughout her life, albeit with intervals caused by absences in the Andes, where compensation was found in the folk-dances that she gleefully joined even as the ethnographer in her was deconstructing them symbolically.
Olivia was educated at Benenden public school in Kent. She then read greats (classics) at St Anne’s, Oxford. She also engaged fully with the late 1960s spirit of liberation. Her feminism included a sensibility towards the wider dynamics of gender relations which was present in much of her later writing.
Perhaps an even sharper existential rupture with her background came with her registration as a postgraduate at the LSE anthropology department, and two years of fieldwork (1972-74) in a very poor region of Potosí, Bolivia. As well as the rigours of participant observation in Aymara-speaking communities, often warring with each other over seemingly valueless tracts of wilderness, Harris had to contend with the threats faced by foreign democrats under General Hugo Banzer’s dictatorship. At the same time, she found many of the paradigms of British anthropology inapplicable to the highly complex peasant society in which she was living.
What emerged from that experience was not the standard PhD monograph. Instead there were a series of spirited and sophisticated collaborative studies that bore the imprint of Harris’s teachers, particularly Maurice Bloch, her colleagues in the field, especially Xavier Albó and Tristan Platt, and the Cornell-based anthropologist John Murra.
In her obituary of Murra – published in this paper in November 2006 – Harris wrote that his research on the Inca state was not attuned “to the exotic cosmology, but to the far more pragmatic question of how this unique polity was organised”. She shared Murra’s (still unfashionable) view that the Spanish “Conquest” never amounted to a comprehensive subjugation of pre-Columbian civilisation. “For him,” she wrote, “what had happened was an invasion – conquest implied a legitimisation of the new order.”
Her own work embodied a keen interest in metaphysical phenomena. The analysis of the concept of pachakuti (time-shift) undertaken with Bouysse-Cassagne reveals much about the cosmology underlying popular support for Evo Morales and his presidency in Bolivia today, and it provided a springboard for a methodological critique of the work of Fernand Braudel.
For some, this work emerged too slowly. Olivia happily admitted that her own timekeeping was lamentable, but, once she joined Goldmsiths in 1979, it was justified by the stream of administrative meetings and teaching responsibilities that augmented an array of extra-curricular political and social commitments.
Steeled by her experience promoting the discipline – she served as vice-president of the Royal Anthropology Society and on the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise – Olivia deftly managed the academic jargon required to secure scholarships for a rising number of research students; at her death she had supervised more than a dozen PhDs to completion with an equal number under way. Many, one senses, were attracted not just by the sharpest of minds but also by that warm, almost girlish register that entered her voice when curiosity was piqued and she was working up an idea in company. The professorship awarded in 2000 coincided with publication of To Make the Earth Bear Fruit by the University’s Institute of Latin American Studies, where she taught on a popular master’s course. It was when the composition of Qaraqara Charka was finishing that Olivia returned to the LSE.
Olivia’s home in north London was a place of great conviviality. Harry Lubasz, the historian with whom she shared her home for the last two decades and whom she married days before her death, enriched her life with a love that feigned wry bemusement to veil adoration. The arrival of Marina into that household 14 years ago fulfilled a long-held desire for a truly intergenerational family and spread joy well beyond the confines of Pyrland Road.
Harry and Marina survive her.
• Olivia Jane Harris, anthropologist, born 26 August 1948; died 9 April 2009
Falleció la antropóloga inglesa Olivia Harris
Una nota de sus colegas dice que llegó a Bolivia en los años 70, y trabajó en diferentes etapas durante más de 30 años con pueblos del altiplano de La Paz, Oruro y Potosí. Se especializó en el ayllu layme
La antropóloga británica Olivia Harris, muy conocida en Bolivia, donde trabajó durante más de 30 años con pueblos aymaras y quechuas del altiplano, falleció el miércoles en Londres, Inglaterra, víctima de una enfermedad terminal.
Una nota enviada por correo electrónico y firmada por una decena de colegas y compañeros suyos en el país dice: “Tus amigos, los que te vimos llegar en los 70 para tu trabajo de campo con los laymes; los que compartimos contigo tus alegrías, dormimos, comimos, lloramos y bailamos a tu lado; esos que sabemos de tu compromiso con nuestras luchas, avances y retrocesos te agradecemos profundamente y queremos que sepas que estamos contigo siempre”.
Junto con Xavier Albó, Thérèse Boysee, Thierry Saignes y Tristan Platt, entre otros profesionales, Harris efectuó estudios que revelaron la historia y costumbres de los pueblos qara qara charka, ayaviris, lukurlarama y layme, este último, objeto de especial interés de la especialista.
“Con Thérèse nos enseñaste —continúa la nota— sobre el purum, el pacha, y sobre el pachakuti. Tu Mapa del norte de Potosí, publicado con Tristan, nos ayudó a ver mejor la realidad en esa zona. Los diablos entre los laymes nos enseñó sobre las creencias de esos tus amigos”.
El comunicado de los dolientes por la desaparición de la autora de Monteras y guardatojos, no da más detalles sobre el deceso. Lo firman, entre otros, Esteban Ticona, Cristina Bubba, Xavier Albó, Javier Medina, Carlos Mamani, Ineke Dibits, Ruth Volgger, Orlando Huanca, Epifanio Pacheco y Verónica Cereceda.