February 25, 2021Benson Saler, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, passed away on February 25, 2021. He leaves behind his wife Joyce, and his children Michael, Judith, and Bethel. The Saler family is planning a memorial service in Fall 2021.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1930, Benson received his BA in 1952 from Princeton University in Public and International Affairs. He attended the University of Pennsylvania to earn his MA (1957) and PhD (1960) in anthropology, arriving at Brandeis in 1963 and teaching here until his retirement in 2000. Benson conducted fieldwork in Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States, and cultivated expertise in the anthropology of religion, cognitive and evolutionary anthropology, and (in the USA) the “alien abduction” phenomenon. Benson’s books include the classic 1993 volume (re-issued in 2000) titled Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories; a 1997 volume on myth-making around the UFO Crash at Roswell; and a collection of his selected essays, Understanding Religion (2009). He was the recipient of several major grants in the discipline, including an ACLS, NSF, and Wenner-Gren, and in 1978 he spent a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as the Sir Isaac Wolfson Visiting Professor. In the late 1990s, Benson served as the President of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, as well as Vice-President of the American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology of Religion Section.
Benson managed to carry off an unusual stance in anthropology. He simultaneously appreciated the excitement of species-wide questions (why, after all, do religious representations occur across all societies?), while sounding caveats and critiques of sweeping explanations or theories. He was critical of one-size-fits-all definitions of religion, for instance, and leery of pitfalls that could come from unwittingly generalizing western approaches to the concept. Several members of the Anthropology Department have continued to teach using Benson’s flexible and sophisticated definition of religion in terms of a cluster of features that loosely tend to go together (but sometimes come apart). In a related spirit, Benson contended that cognitive theories of cultural phenomena have been “insufficiently polychromatic” in their understanding of their objects. Benson managed to bring together localized interpretive approaches with big cross-cultural questions, suggesting productive ways of combining these ways of thinking.
With startling productivity, Benson continued to issue articles year by year after his putative retirement, with titles such as “Constraints on Theory Building in the Science of Religion.” This year, Bloomsbury Press will publish his final book, The Supernatural and Other Essays. One of the chapters within it is titled “Something Nice About Vampires”—apparently, they are rule-abiding.
It seems fitting that Benson would find something nice to say about everybody, for Benson was not only brilliant and original but also kindly and genial. One former colleague describes Benson as “very smart (but very humble about it) and very funny (in a droll sort of way).” Words like “erudite,” “friendly,” and “entertaining” recur. Two people who worked with him used the same phrase: “a gentleman and a scholar.” Benson was genuinely interested in others’ work and thoughts, and his students could tell. His World Religions class filled with enrollments of around 75 to 100 enthusiastic students every year. One former student reports she has never been able to part with her notes from all of the courses she took with him.
Upon his official retirement, the Anthropology Department began to honor Benson with a series of “Saler Lectures” on the anthropology of religion. To date, nineteen events have been held and information about future lectures will be posted on the Anthropology Department website.
September 8, 2020
Sally Engle Merry, PhD 78, passed away on 8 September 2020. Sally was Julius Silver Professor of Anthropology at New York University. She taught courses on human rights, gender, and legal anthropology, and co-taught the IILJ Colloquium on Infrastructure, Rights and Regulation. She was one of the Principal Investigators in the IILJ project on Indicators, and in the new project on Infrastructure as Regulation.
A giant in the fields of legal anthropology, human rights, and gender violence, Sally’s passion for anthropology was born at Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1966 with high honors and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She went on to earn a Master of Arts degree from Yale University in 1967 and a doctorate from Brandeis University in 1978. She was awarded a Doctor of Law degree, honora causa, from McGill University in 2013.
May 30, 2019
Charles A. Ziegler, PhD ‘83, Brandeis University Senior Research Scholar, passed away on Sunday May 26, 2019. Charles was a brilliant scientist and a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution for his demonstration of exceptional scholarship capacity and creative ability in the arts. Additionally, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in science from 1989-1991. As a Senior Research Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University, Ziegler lectured on social organization in industrial settings and the relationship between sciences, technology and other elements of culture. A prolific writer, Charles published widely on modern technical intelligence and institutionalization of America's nuclear detection system among other areas. He co-authored UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth with Professor Emeritus Benson Saler and Spying Without Spies: Origins of America’s Secret Nuclear Surveillance System (1995) with Professor Emeritus David Jacobson. Ziegler and Jacobson also co-authored “How Big is Kiriwina” (Mankind, 1984); "Popular Delusions and Scientific Beliefs: Conflicting Belief Systems of Scientists and Administrators in the Creation of a Covert Technological Surveillance System” (Naked Science 1996); and "Insider and Outsider Perspectives in the Anthropology of Science" (Perspectives on Science, 1998). Charles was also the owner of six patents dealing with alpha rays, x-ray emission and scattered rays, all before our society's current understanding.
David Kaplan, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brandeis University, passed away December 12, 2012 in Wayland, Mass. at the age of 83 after a 5 year battle with pancreatic cancer.
He was born in Union City New Jersey on May 8, 1929. He received his BA, MA and PhD (1960) degrees in anthropology from the University of Michigan. His doctoral field work was done in Mexico. He taught at the University of Oklahoma for two years (1959-1961) and then was at Brandeis University for the rest of his career. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1966, and to Professor in 1972. He was awarded Emeritus status in 1996. Kaplan served as Chair of the Department twice, from 1971-1974, and again from 1979 to 1980. He served as Dean of the Graduate School from 1983 to 1990. He published articles on Mesoamerica. His major publications concerned theory in anthropology. His Brandeis colleague Robert A. Manners and he published Theory in Anthropology, A Sourcebook in 1968. This was followed by Kaplan and Manners, Culture Theory in 1972, a critical evaluation of major theories in anthropology. Culture Theory remained in print for decades and was widely used in anthropology courses in the United States and in other countries.
Kaplan's areas of specialty included method and theory, economic and political anthropology, and peasant culture of Mesoamerica. At Brandeis, Kaplan taught courses on the Nature of Human Nature and the Evolution of Political Economy, as well as graduate seminars in method and theory. He helped advise many PhD dissertations.
He is survived by Carol his wife of 55 years, two sons, two daughters-in-law, and five grandchildren.