John Middleton, professor emeritus of anthropology and an internationally renowned Africanist scholar, died on Feb. 27 after a brief hospitalization. He was 87 years old.
Middleton's field work and major ethnographic writings on African cultures forged new anthropological perspectives on their political and social structures.
He conducted five major field studies in Africa: among the Lugbara of Uganda and Zaire; the Igbo and Lagosians of Nigeria; the Akan of Ghana; the Swahili of Kenya; and the Shirazi of the Zanzibar Protectorate. Out of this research came three classic studies: "Tribes Without Rulers" (co-edited with David Tait, 1958), which offered insights into the structure and functioning of tribes not subject to a unified political power; "Lugbara Religion" (1960), which explored how belief systems can be — and have been — manipulated for political reasons; and "From Tribe to Nation in Africa" (co-edited with Ronald Cohen, 1970), which dealt with the gap between the state and society in that continent caused by colonialism and perpetuated into modern times. The latter volume became a standard textbook used in courses on Africa and political studies. He also authored and edited well over 100 other articles and books.
In a 1999 interview in the journal Current Anthropology, Middleton noted that one of the most important things he learned doing fieldwork was "you can do utterly nothing without people telling you what they want to tell you. And they decide how to do it, as the leading partners in a joint task of learning, as when they decided to tell me the myths of origin. You see, I would sit on the great rock near my house and ask people, ‘Who lives there? Who lives there?' because you could see the landscape laid out in front of you — you could see 100 miles with thousands of little villages. And they'd say, ‘Well, now you've got to learn how we came here.' And everybody started telling me myths. People tell you what they want you to learn."
Born in London, England, in 1921, Middleton received his B.A. in English from the University of London in 1941. He was called up for service in the fall of that year, and, after receiving officer training, was sent to East Africa to serve in an infantry battalion in the colonial army there. In fact, Middleton recalled in his Current Anthropology interview, "I first saw Africa from the deck of a troop-ship in Freetown Harbour, in Sierra Leone, one day in late 1942. It was during a lightning storm, and we had to remain on board looking at the green hills around the city through dismal curtains of rain, while sweating from the humidity." He told the interviewer that his experiences in Africa definitely influenced his field of study. "Had I gone to Malaysia, I might have ended up studying Southeast Asian societies."
After the war, Middleton received his B.Sc. and Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of Oxford in 1949 and 1953 respectively. He held several positions before coming to Yale in 1981: lecturer of anthropology at the University of London 1953-1954 and 1956-1963; senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Capetown 1954-1955 and at Rhodes University 1955-1956; professor of anthropology at Northwestern University 1963-1966 and at New York University 1966-1972; and professor of anthropology at the University of London, 1972-1981.
At Yale, Middleton chaired the Department of Anthropology 1983-1986 and the Council on African Studies 1983-1988. He received a joint appointment in religious studies in 1987. He retired from Yale in 1991, but continued to remain active at the University and continued to do research and publish.
Middleton served as the acting co-director of the International African Institute 1973-1974 and 1980-1981, and served as editor of the institute's journal Africa 1972-1979. He received the institute's Gold Medal for Service to African Studies in 1979. He was president of the then-new Association for Political and Legal Anthropology 1983-1985.
He was a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the American Anthropological Association and the Association of African Studies. He was also a member of the American Society for the Study of Religon and the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth.
Middleton is survived by his wife, Michelle Gilbert; his daughter, Jane Middleton; and his grandaughter, DeeDee Middleton.