Dec. 8, 1994
Vol. 14, No. 8

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    Obituary: Milton Singer, College & Anthropology

    Milton Singer, the Paul Klapper Professor Emeritus in the College and Anthropology, died Dec. 5 in his Hyde Park home. He was 82.

    Singer, one of the nation's pre-eminent scholars of India, helped create a leading center for the study of South Asia at the University and published widely on the culture of India, particularly on its period of modernization.

    "He was one of five or six Americans who made South Asian studies a major field in the United States," said Bernard Cohn, Professor in Anthropology. "His leadership in developing the South Asia program at the University of Chicago was marked by the integration of social scientists and humanists into a collaboration that provided a lively and effective educational experience faculty and students valued."

    Singer stressed the importance of working with Indian scholars, Cohn said, and his work provided a model for scholars in the field throughout the world.

    Singer's fieldwork in India during the 1950s and 1960s led him to dispute a popular American contention that India would not be able to advance economically because its people were too tied to their traditions of caste and Hindu spirituality. During a trip to Madras, India, he studied industrialists to learn how their careers as entrepreneurs had been influenced by their culture.

    "The results of that study support the general conclusion that these industrial leaders and their families were able to make the transitions from village and small town to a large city, and from agriculture and commerce to modern education and modern industry, without abandoning their traditional institutions," Singer wrote in a report in 1988. "Far from being major obstacles to their industrial careers, these social institutions, beliefs and rites have often proved adaptive in modern industry."

    Singer's research in India led to the publication of When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization, a book first published in 1972 and reissued in 1980. His other books include Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study, with Gerhart Piers (1953); Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology (1984); and Semiotics of Cities, Selves, and Cultures (1991). Singer, who was born in a small village in Poland, came to the United States with his family as a child and grew up in Detroit, where he attended public schools. He received his B.A. in 1934 and his M.A. in 1936 from the University of Texas.

    He came to Chicago to study philosophy and received his Ph.D. from the University in 1940. Singer's study of philosophy led to one of his enduring interests -- philosophical, or semiotic, anthropology.

    While working on his doctorate, Singer took part in many seminars on social-science methods with Chicago economists. He joined the University faculty in 1941 and worked with other faculty members from 1941 to 1951 to develop a three-year, integrated program in social sciences for undergraduates. He received the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1948.

    Singer's research on India began when he helped direct an interdisciplinary project on the study of cultures and civilizations with University anthropologist Robert Redfield. Upon Redfield's death in 1958, Singer became project director, a position he held until 1961. Redfield had promoted the idea that anthropological research should be integrated with other social sciences, and the Redfield-Singer collaboration moved anthropology into a much wider field, Cohn said.

    From 1955 to 1970, Singer helped organize and lead the Committee on Southern Asian Studies. Prominent scholars from South Asia as well as American researchers were invited to join the University faculty to expand the work done at Chicago on the region.

    The committee was instrumental in developing an undergraduate course of study in non-Western civilizations at the University. This was one of the earliest programs of its kind in the country and led to similar courses elsewhere.

    In 1970, Singer expanded his work to include an anthropological approach to the study of American culture, a move that was prompted by student interest.

    "When the student countercultural revolution was still in progress," Singer wrote, "a group of anthropology graduate students asked me to organize a workshop on American culture that would give them some perspective on the turbulent times. Students were encouraged to choose their research problems according to their personal interests. At the same time, I began some personal observations designed to compare the relations of innovation and cultural traditions in India and the United States."

    His work in this area led to several articles in scholarly journals and to the publication of Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology.

    Singer was named the Paul Klapper Professor in 1952. He held visiting professorships at Berkeley, the University of Hawaii, the University of Puerto Rico, and the University of California, San Diego. He became emeritus in 1979.

    In the following years, while continuing to develop semiotic analysis, Singer also initiated a broadly interdisciplinary project on culture and nuclear policy that addressed issues with far-reaching consequences for the future of humanity.

    Singer was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1972. He was chosen to be the Distinguished Lecturer of the American Anthropological Association in 1978, and he received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the Association for Asian Studies in 1984.

    He is survived by his wife, Helen.