John H. Rowe

Thirteenth Emeritus Lecture Honoring
Eugene Hammel

Interview with Eugene Hammel

Honoree of Anthropology's Thirteenth Emeritus Lecture

From Berkeley Anthropology Matters! (BAM!): anthropology department newsletter. University of California, Berkeley. Novermber 1, 2003.

Who are you? How are you an emeritus professor of anthropology yet you are in the demography department?

I entered anthropology here in 1947 when I took my first anthro course with Ronald Olson. I was always interested in archaeology. I got my degree in 1951, minoring in linguistics. Most of this time I worked as a museum preparator. I started graduate school here in 1951. Then I got called into the army and spent three and a half years in the service, during which time I learned Serbian. I returned in 1955 to resume graduate work—my most influential teachers being McCown, Rowe and Foster. I worked in all four fields; the fields for my Ph.D. included: anthropological theory, South American archaeology and peasant culture and society. My orals committee was made up of Mary Haas, Robert Lowie, John Rowe,Ted McCown and James Parsons (geography). I knew Kroeber, but I didn’t work with him because he had already retired. One time I was talking to Kroeber about my Pomo work, and I admitted to having trouble with my glottalized consonants. A year later I ran into Kroeber, and he said, “How are those glottalized consonants coming along?”

In those days you had to take two preliminary written exams before your orals. First, we took what were called “baby prelims,” a two-day written exam taken at the end of your first year. Then you took regular prelims, which was three days of written exams. If you passed the latter, you were scheduled for your orals. I was the first student not to have to do a “ten day problem.” A ten day problem was when at the end of your orals, the chair would hand you an envelope which contained a research problem that you had 10 days to go into the library to research and solve. I was the first student who didn’t have to do this. They thought they were being too rigid.

I did my field work in Peru in 1957-58, and then wrote my thesis in 1959. I had a wife and two children and I didn’t have time to waste. I continued my work in the museum and helped Foster design Kroeber Hall—mainly as the museum photographer, I helped design the darkroom. I taught at University of New Mexico for two years. I taught all four fields. Then I was invited to come back to Berkeley. I started teaching here in 1961. I taught Anthro 1, Anthro 2 and in the 240 series, I taught the physical component. From 1962-63 I was at the Center for Advanced Study in Palo Alto, then in 1963 I did field work in Serbia on ritual kinship. I did further work in Serbia in 1965-66, investigating how urbanization and mobility affected kinship. When back here in 1966, my interests in computing developed. My interest in historical demography was also growing at this time. This led to hooking up with the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, so I spent a sabbatical year at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. When I returned to Berkeley I succeeded Bob Heizer as Associate Dean of the Graduate Division. This was 1966 and there was a lot of political turmoil on campus. The ideological warfare completely fragmented the demography department. The faculty basically split off to join other departments and then the campus administration shut down the department. As Associate Dean of the Graduate Division, I was given the job of taking care of the demography graduate students who still needed to progress towards their Ph.D. This is how I came to be administratively connected to demography.

For a while I chaired a committee that was in charge of what to do with this problem in demography. We proposed to form a “graduate group in demography.” The group would maintain the Ph.D. and masters program and was to be funded and have faculty. However, the group would be administered by the Graduate Division. After being told for some time, “you can’t do that,” we finally succeeded in getting the idea approved. I became chair of the demography group. We ran this program successfully, we were excellent especially in demographic theory, and we gained an international reputation, but it was difficult to do any personnel actions because all of our FTE were joint appointments. Whenever we wanted to get someone promoted, we had to go through some other department plus Grad Division, which doesn’t do personnel actions. Finally Shack, who was Dean of the Graduate Divison, said enough! and demography once again became a department within the College of Letters and Science.

I was going to two faculty meetings a week, in anthropology and demography, until I finally decided to move my FTE line over to demography, where I was the chair. I retired in 1993.

Why are you interested in what you study?

I am interested in the events of the life cycle, the milestones in a human life, birth, death, marriage, etc. And I am interested in the fact that, in principle, these events are countable. Of course, definitions and social meanings of, for example, “what is a marriage” vary between cultures, so it is not always easy to count things, but still, in principle, they can be counted. And if you do a good job of counting, then you can ask what makes the numbers go up and what makes them go down. Without quantitative data, any historian or ethnographer would not know what has happened. And you can’t detect what is happening without sorting through huge numbers of records in order to come up with what is happening statistically. Of course, those counting wouldn’t know where to look for problems if they did not listen to the ethnographers. I’m interested in: “is it possible to assemble information on social processes that is sufficiently precise and countable so that you can see what affects the outcomes?”

In the last 40-50 years, anthropology has been distrustful of quantification—there is a skepticism towards what was done. This is too bad because there is a natural marriage between the two disciplines. Anthropological demography is a fertile field. For one, outcomes are countable. You can actually tell the difference between a little and a lot. Second, the events we are trying to count are the basic events of a human life. What could be more important? I can’t understand why people don’t get passionate about this subject.

What work are you the most proud of?

I’m not proud of any of it. Not a single piece of work that I’ve done is without a valid criticism. I don’t view research as something to be proud of, but instead it is something to be critical of, so that it can be made better.


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