Harold W. Scheffler: anthropologist illuminated fundamental patterns of kinship

Harold W. Scheffler, professor emeritus of anthropology 1963-2008, died peacefully at his home in New Haven on July 24.  He was 83.

Scheffler was considered one of modern anthropology’s most important scholars of kinship, and his 45 years as professor of anthropology on the Yale faculty (1963-2008) are the longest faculty service in the department’s history.

Scheffler was born on Oct. 24, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended Southeast Missouri State College in 1952 and transferred to the University of Missouri the following year. His studies were interrupted by military service with the United States Army, 1954-1955, after which he returned to the University of Missouri and received a B.A. degree in anthropology and sociology in 1956.

Scheffler then went on to the University of Chicago for graduate work in anthropology, receiving an M.A. in 1957. He continued in the doctoral program at Chicago and, with fellowships from the Carnegie Corporation and the Fulbright program (1960-1961), he conducted 18 months of fieldwork (1958-1961) on the island of Choiseul in what was then called the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. His 1963 Ph.D. dissertation on "Kindred and Kin Groups in Choiseul Island Social Structure" was published in a revised version two years later as “Choiseul Island Social Structure.”

“Kinship and descent have always been at the core of anthropological knowledge, and Hal Scheffler was one of the progenitors of its theory, in a distinguished line of descent from Lewis Henry Morgan, W.H.R. Rivers, Meyer Fortes, and others,” says William Kelly, professor of anthropology and the Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies. “With his fieldwork in the Solomon Islands and in Vanuatu and later work in aboriginal Australia, with sweeping comparative knowledge, and with elegant and penetrating formal analyses, he deeply enriched our appreciation of the intricate patterns by which the most foundational of human social relations are crafted from genealogical connections.”

Scheffler’s collaborations with his Yale colleague Floyd Lounsbury on structural semantics were pioneering, his own monumental work on “Australian Kin Classification” (1978) was definitive, and his synthetic account of “Filiation and Affiliation” (2001) clarified for a new generation of scholars what is so compellingly at stake in understanding the principles of human social organization, says Kelly.

Scheffler taught at the University of Connecticut (1961-1962) and Bryn Mawr College (1962-1963) before joining the Yale University faculty in 1963. He remained with the Department of Anthropology throughout his career, retiring to emeritus status in 2008. Over the years he was also a visiting professor or research fellow at the Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, the University of Brisbane, and the University of the Witwatersrand, and was DAAD Visiting Professor at the Free University of Berlin.

He served the Department and the University in many capacities over four and a half decades, and he was a longtime fellow of Berkeley College. He was particularly proud to have been an early and steadfast advocate for the growth of Women and Gender Studies at Yale and served on its council for many years. His courses on kinship, on human rationality and modes of thought, and on sexual meanings reached generations of Yale undergraduates, and for many years he trained entering doctoral students in the department’s first-year pro-seminar. Doctoral students writing their dissertations often noted they were attracted to him because of his generosity with advice and support and his unerring eye (and sharp red pencil) for jargon.

He is survived by his wife, Jan Simpson; his daughter, Mary Lindholm; and his sister, Joan Wiesehan.