In Memoriam: Melvin Ember, Helped Foster Comparative Study of Culture

Cultural anthropologist Melvin Ember, who helped foster the comparative study of culture during his more than 20 years of service as president of Yale’s Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), died on Sept. 26 after a 10-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.

Ember combined an active research career with writing for non-professionals. He was co-author, with his wife Carol, of two widely used textbooks, “Anthropology” and “Cultural Anthropology,” and was author or co-author of multiple professional and scientific articles. He served as editor of the journal Cross-Cultural Research from 1982 until his death.

As chair from 1967 to 1973 of the Department of Anthropology at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY), Ember attracted young scholars from major institutions around the country. He served as executive officer of the graduate program in anthropology at CUNY from 1973 to 1975 and was president of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research 1981 to 1982. He was named president of HRAF at Yale in 1987.

In contrast to cultural anthropologists who spend a year or so in one community, Ember’s fieldwork in American Samoa and all of his subsequent research was explicitly comparative and empirical. He believed that the work of anthropologists around the world and across time could be used to test theories about why cultures are different or similar, and he contended that different theories had to be systematically evaluated in light of available evidence. In his own work, “Mel had no fear of being wrong along the path to understanding,” says his colleague and co-author Burton Pasternak. Family members and colleagues say he was also known for his “quick wit,” patience and humor.

In addition to his wife, who is the executive director of HRAF, Ember is survived by his children Matthew, Rachel, Katherine Ember Levy and Julie, and four grandchildren: Sydney, Jamie, Emily Porter and Jacob Porter. One of his final requests to his wife was that friends and colleagues meet to tell jokes in lieu of a funeral.

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