Paul Bohannan, 87; USC anthropologist researched Nigerian culture and American divorce
Paul Bohannan, the USC anthropologist who was the world’s leading expert on the Tiv culture of Nigeria and who coined the phrase “the divorce industry” in his groundbreaking books on U.S. divorce, died July 13 at his home in Visalia, Calif. He was 87 and had battled Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
After getting a doctorate from Oxford University, Bohannan and his anthropologist wife, Laura, set off for Nigeria, where they spent four years among the Tiv, a rarely documented tribe of slash-and-burn farmers under the last days of British colonial rule. The couple lived in a mud hut without plumbing, learned the Tiv language and documented the customs and culture of the tribe, which then numbered about 800,000 people.
The couple documented their experiences in a 1953 book, “The Tiv of Central Nigeria,” as well as Bohannan’s solo 2000 book, “The Tiv: An African People From 1949 to 1953.”
The latter book included some of the more than 1,200 black-and-white photos taken by Bohannan during his stay. The photos provide a record of domestic activities the Tiv have now abandoned, including using the indigo plant to dye cloth, making beds from palm fronds and hollowing out trees to make canoes.
Nearly half the photos had been badly damaged by the mold, heat and humidity in Nigeria, but they were restored by USC visual anthropologist Gary Seaman using digital technology.
“Someday, when Nigeria’s Tiv find another ethnographer, Paul Bohannan’s photographs will provide a benchmark against which to measure any change,” Seaman said.
Bohannan also spent a year among the Wanga in Nyanza Province of Kenya in 1955.
For most of the rest of his career, Bohannan used anthropological insights to study U.S. culture, particularly family life and divorce among the middle class.
In his book “All the Happy Families,” Bohannan cited the growth of the divorce industry, which includes judges, lawyers, detectives, counselors and others who deal directly with divorces. He estimated that the size of the divorce industry rivaled that of the automobile industry and questioned why there weren’t similar industries to minister to families and single parents.
A Washington Post review of his 1970 book “Divorce and After” said that it “goes far below the surface stereotypes in looking at divorce — not an easy thing to do when stereotypes have always dominated the thinking in this area . The book is good reading, yet accurate and scholarly.”
Other major books included “We, the Alien: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology,” “How Culture Works,” “Justice and Judgment Among the Tiv,” “Africa & Africans” and “African Homicide and Suicide.”
Paul James Bohannan was born March 5, 1920, in Lincoln, Neb. He grew up in Indiana, Montana and Colorado and was a student at the University of Arizona when the United States entered World War II. He enlisted in the Army, took Japanese lessons and spent much of the war helping break Japanese codes. He then traveled through Japan as an interpreter, completing his service with the rank of captain.
After the war, he completed his bachelor’s degree at Arizona, then went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.
He married Laura Marie Smith in 1943. The couple divorced in 1975, and he married Adelyse D’Arcy in 1981.
Before coming to USC in 1987, he had been on the faculty at Oxford, Northwestern University, Princeton University and UC Santa Barbara. He served as dean of social sciences and communications from 1984 until his retirement in 1987. At the time of his death, he was writing his autobiography.
A connoisseur of Scotch whisky, Bohannan spent many summers in Scotland visiting distilleries. He also had a strong passion for ballet and a large library of classical ballet performances.
“He often would remark that if he hadn’t grown up in the time and the place he did, he would have undertaken a career like [ballet dancer] Vaslav Nijinsky,” Seaman said.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Denis, of Hanford, Calif., and a brother, William, of Connecticut. According to his wishes, there will be no funeral service. A memorial service is pending.
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