Social anthropologist Gerald Berreman dies at age 83

Gerald D. Berreman, a UC Berkeley emeritus professor of anthropology who was widely recognized for championing socially responsible anthropology and for his work on social inequality in India, died at an elderly care home in El Cerrito, Calif., on Dec. 23 following a long illness. He was 83.

Gerald Berreman in India. (Photo courtesy of the UC Berkeley Anthropology Department.)

Gerald Berreman in India. (Photo courtesy of the UC Berkeley Anthropology Department.)

A native of Portland, Ore., Berreman joined the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology in 1959 as an assistant professor. He retired in 2001 after a distinguished career that featured a 41-year study of caste, gender, class and environment in and around the Indian village of Sirkanda and the urban area of Dehra Dun.

In later work, Berreman explored how lower-caste individuals in Northern India could escape the stigma of belonging to the so-called “untouchable” class. With a lifelong interest in South Asia and the Himalayas, he also worked on environmental and development issues in India and Nepal.

Berreman was known among anthropologists for his campaign to establish an ethics code that said anthropologists’ primary responsibility should be to the people they study. He also was an early proponent of transparency in social science research. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he contributed to efforts that helped debunk a 1970s hoax about the discovery of a Stone Age tribe in the Philippines.

Berreman was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the United States’ Cold War entanglements. Related to that, he refused to participate in Peace Corps training for volunteers going to India “because he thought that a nation which was annihilating a people in one country cannot be truly interested in doing good to another,” according to Berreman’s longtime Indian colleague, the poet and folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuck.

UC Berkeley colleagues recalled that Berreman was profoundly affected by the segregation he witnessed around him and across the South while stationed in Montgomery, Ala., with the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to1955, before the civil rights movement took hold in the 1960s.

“Gerry considered those years decisive with respect to his development of a broadly comparative theory of social inequality that allowed him … to compare caste relations in India, the American South and, by further extension, to South Africa during apartheid,” said UC Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who was Berreman’s former graduate student, colleague and friend.

She said his “masterful theoretical and methodological contributions…shaped and transformed generations of Berkeley graduate students, among whom I was extremely lucky and extremely grateful to have been numbered.”

Friends, colleagues and students recalled Berreman’s “smashing humor,” love of travel, and his regular “breakfast club” meetings with friends.

Berreman earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Oregon in 1952 and 1953, respectively. He received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Cornell University in 1959. Berreman spent almost three years in a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Fellowship and also had several Fulbright Fellowships. He received honorary degrees from the University of Stockholm and Garhwal University in India, and taught in Sweden, India and Nepal.

Berreman conducted several studies in Japan and Nepal with his wife, Keiko Yamanka, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department who researches transnational migration and social transformation in East Asia, primarily in Japan and South Korea.

“Gerry and I traveled together, worked together on research trips, and had lots of fun in the many places we visited,” said Yamanka. “I cherish these memories.”

In addition to Yamanka, Berreman’s survivors include daughters Janet Berreman of Albany, Calif., and Lynn Holzman of Santa Barbara, Calif.; a son, Wayne Berreman of Berkeley, Calif.; eight grandchildren; one great-granddaughter; and a brother, Dwight Berreman of New Jersey.

Memorial donations may be made to Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay, 2320 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94704 or at http://www.aseb.org/. A campus memorial will be held later.

RELATED INFORMATION

  • Click here to see “In Safri’s Home,” a first-hand account of Berreman’s fieldwork in Sirkanda, India, via his own photos and commentary that reflect encounters with a blacksmith named Safri and his family. It was compiled in 2008 for a special Magnes Memory Lab project by UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.