In memoriam

Jane Guyer, influential anthropologist beloved by students and colleagues, dies at 80

A specialist in economic transformations in West Africa, Guyer was celebrated for her theoretical discourse as well as the 'forward motion' she inspired among scholars and her devoted students

Leading anthropologist and beloved teacher Jane I. Guyer—professor emerita, former George Armstrong Kelly Professor of Anthropology, and professor and former co-chair of The Academy at Johns Hopkins—died Jan. 17 at the age of 80.

Known for her original mind and deeply influential ideas, Guyer specialized in economic transformations in West Africa, particularly the productive economy, the division of labor, and the management of money, publishing extensively in those areas. She focused on the interface between formal and informal economies, and especially on the instabilities caused by that interface. Her work has been celebrated for contributions to empirical research as well as theoretical discourse.

Jane Guyer

Image caption: Jane Guyer

Image credit: Marshall Clarke

Guyer's interest in these areas began during her childhood in Birkenhead, England, across the River Mersey from Liverpool, during the aftermath of World War II. Observing the rationing process of items like orange juice, milk, and candy, she described herself as having developed a strong sense of civic duty, where community priorities eclipsed individuality. By high school, she had committed to studying social history, exploring how education, economics, and cultural systems shape a society's values.

"She was one of the most extraordinary minds in contemporary anthropology, and a person of such wisdom, generosity, and compassion at Johns Hopkins University, where she taught and led our department for many years," said Anand Pandian, professor in the Department of Anthropology. "She was such a wonderful human, and she is missed so deeply. 'No method of inquiry yields infallible results, but we nevertheless live in forward motion,' Jane wrote in one of her many scintillating essays. That forward motion will endure in the thinking of the many devoted students, readers, and colleagues she mentored, taught, and continues to inspire."

While earning a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1965 from the London School of Economics, Guyer developed a skepticism of free market theories that endured throughout her career. She went on to earn a PhD in anthropology from the University of Rochester in 1972 after conducting research on women farmers in western Nigeria, while her husband Bernard Guyer, Zanvyl Krieger Professor of Children's Health Emeritus at the Bloomberg School of Public Health—then a medical student—worked there on arboviral diseases in children. She taught at the University of North Carolina and Northwestern, Harvard, and Boston universities before coming to the Krieger School's anthropology department in 2002. In 2007, she added a secondary appointment in the history department. She was named emerita in 2015.

Throughout her career, Guyer said her primary question remained simple: How do people make a living, particularly during times of turbulence? What fascinated her was the way that question encompasses all of the internal values and external market forces that go into building a life. "The longer I pursue this question, the more profound it seems to me," Guyer told the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.

Guyer authored numerous publications, including her 2007 American Ethnologist article, "Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical, and Punctuated Time," which remains a benchmark work of anthropological theory. Perhaps her most influential work was her 2004 book based on her Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester, Marginal Gains: Monetary Transactions in Atlantic Africa.

In 2016, she selected, annotated, and re-translated Marcel Mauss's essay "The Gift," considered the founding document of economic anthropology. Her significant publication extended far beyond a translation, placing the essay within the framework of the devastation that World War I brought to the scholarly communities of France, Britain, Germany, and the rest of Europe, Bernard Guyer said. "How much could that entire generation of scholars have contributed to human understanding had they not been lost in war?" he asked.

Africana Studies scholar Wale Adebanwi's 2017 The Political Economy of Everyday Life in Africa; Beyond the Margins is a festschrift in which 15 African, European, and American scholars authored chapters recounting the ways in which Guyer's ideas, writings, and conversations influenced their own research and scholarship. A significant contribution to the fields of anthropology, economics, history, political sciences, and religion, among others, it demonstrated the breadth and depth of Guyer's knowledge, understanding, and generosity, Bernard Guyer said.

On the eve of Guyer's retirement and in honor of her teaching and mentorship, anthropology graduate students organized a conference called "Possibilities," which was inspired by her understanding of possibility as "an ethical stance, demanding courage … an aesthetic of coexistence, demanding discernment," and "a vision of politics, demanding study and steadfastness."

That sense of possibility was not limited to academia. "Jane was my neighbor in Tuscany-Canterbury and once a month or so we used to take a walk together in Stony Run," said Niloofar Haeri, professor in the Department of Anthropology. "She came with her walker and navigated the hills with force and determination. On one of these walks, as we were going uphill, Jane noticed that the sun was on the other side of the street. She looked at me and sang, 'Grab your coat and snatch your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street' (from Frank Sinatra's famous song). The song was so apt for the moment and made her walker disappear. It made both of us smile for the rest of our walk."

Guyer was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2008, where she served on several national and international committees, and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. She served on the board and the executive committee of the African Studies Association from 2006 to 2009, and was warmly elected by her association colleagues as Distinguished Africanist of 2012.

In addition to her husband, she was the beloved mother of Sam (the late Aliza) Guyer, Nathan (Amanda) Guyer, and Kate (Bill) Fennell, and a cherished Nana to Jonah Guyer, Hannah and Owen Guyer, and William and Grace Fennell.

A funeral will be held at noon on Thursday, Jan. 25, at Sol Levinson & Brothers in Pikesville with burial immediately following. Guests are welcome afterward at the DoubleTree Pikesville until 7 p.m., and again on Friday from 2 to 5 p.m.