Bernard Cohn, 75, studied colonialism, India’s caste system
Bernard Cohn, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology and a pioneering scholar of the British colonial period of India, died Tuesday, Nov. 25, in his Hyde Park home. He was 75.
“Barney Cohn was interested in questions of history and power during the colonial period long before other anthropologists were studying those questions,” said John Kelly, Professor in Anthropology.
“Other anthropologists were looking at symbolism and cultural structure, but those interests changed in the 1980s, and anthropology caught up with what Cohn had already been studying for 30 years.”
Cohn’s work, in particular, provided a new understanding to India’s caste system. His work revealed that although the caste system had existed in India before the British took control, the system took on new meaning when the British established laws to codify it.
“Cohn showed that the British imagined India as a very hierarchical society and used laws and rituals to control the country that made it more hierarchical,” Kelly said. Cohn was a leader in the turn of anthropology to history and in the introduction of anthropological themes in history.
His work influenced a wide range of scholarship in both disciplines, especially in studies of South Asia and of Colonial societies.
Cohn first came to the University as a postdoctoral fellow in 1957, and later joined the faculty in 1964, spending the remainder of his career at Chicago.
He wrote and published extensively on a wide range of topics related to India, including the titles Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (1996), An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays (1987) and India: The Social Anthropology of a Civilization (1971). A much beloved mentor and teacher of graduate students, he inspired the transformation of South Asian studies toward questions about knowledge, power and colonialism.
Cohn, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., received a B.A. in history in 1949 from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1954 from Cornell University. He conducted fieldwork in India between 1952 and 1953 as a Social Science Research Council World Area Training Fellow and as a Fulbright Fellow.
Cohn conducted his fieldwork in a North Indian village and concentrated on an ethnography of the disadvantaged castes and their relation to other castes in the village.
He returned to India for archival fieldwork between 1958 and 1959 as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow.
Fellowships from the American Council for Learned Societies, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Center for Advanced Studies of Behavior Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, among others, supported additional research. This included frequent research trips to London to pursue archival work on such topics as British colonialism, including the superimposition of the British legal system on the Indian system, the Indian census, as well as Indian clothing and textiles.
Cohn served as chairman of anthropology at the University of Rochester from 1960 to 1964, then returned to Chicago. He was Chairman of the University’s Anthropology Department from 1969 to 1972. Cohn also served as a research assistant specialist with the U.S. Army in Fort Benning, Ga., from 1954 to 1956.
Cohn, whose additional research interests included photography, architecture, museums and memorials, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.
He is survived by his wife, Rella; four children, Jenny, Abby, Jacob and Naomi; two granddaughters; and a brother, David.