Professor Lucy Mair who died on April 12 was aged 85 was one of the first women social anthropologists to do field work in Africa and a forthright defender of a liberal tradition in anthropological scholarship.
Much of her work was closely concerned with the social economic and cultural relations between so-called developed and developing nations – a topic requiring unusual breadth of approach perspective and wisdom.
Lucy Philip Mair was born in London on January 28 1901 and educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and at Newnham College Cambridge where she read classics. She was associated for a time with Gilbert Murray’s work for the League of Nations, concentrating on colonial affairs.
She joined the staff of the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in 1927 and was drawn into the circle of Bronislaw Malinowski, who encouraged her to travel to Uganda in 1930.
She spent nine months in the field studying the people of Buganda, and her book. An African People in the Twentieth Century, published in 1934 was presented as a thesis for a PhD degree at London University.
During the Second World War she worked at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and in government, and in 1946 visited Australia to teach the future administrators of New Guinea. She returned to the LSE in 1947 where she was Professor of Applied Anthropology from 1963-68.
After her retirement she returned to New Guinea and then held posts at the universities of Durham and Kent, ceasing to teach at the age of 77. She received honorary degrees from both universities, and was elected honorary fellow of the LSE in 1975, and of Newnham College in 1982.
Mair’s entry into anthropology was from a liberal concern with the fate of the colonies, and her practical dedication to creating greater understanding among administrators pervades her early writing.
Her work is characterized by clarity of expression, a certain impatience with theoretical argument, a willingness to address laymen’s questions and by an ability to highlight the ironical confrontation of people’s ideals and intentions with the outcome of their actions.
In New Nations she made some dispassionate judgments of the practical manifestations of micro-nationalism or strong, small-scale local feeling. Using the example of Kenya, where there were no traditional rulers for the British to support, she suggested that the lack of a sense of nationhood in that country could not be wholly blamed on the colonial power.
The decision to split Kenya into semi-autonomous regions was she believed a device to take account of local patriotism not to introduce divisions where none existed before.
From the start, Mair resisted the common assumption that applied anthropology was a junior or easier branch of the discipline. It was necessary to be a good anthropologist before trying to apply anything, and there were no rules of thumb which could be handed down.
In the years of her retirement when some academics become less productive she showed how good an anthropologist she was by continuing a series of books on general topics which she had begun with the classic Primitive Government (1962). Between 1969 and 1984 she published what is in effect her own summa anthropologica six books ranging from Witchcraftt (1969) to Marriage (1971), and from African Societies (1974) to African Kingdoms (1977).
In recent years she often took up cudgels to defend teachers and colleagues whom she thought were wrongly criticized and created a conservative reputation for herself.
In fact her reading of the new anthropological theories of the 1970s and 1980s was extensive and she proved receptive to new ideas into her extreme old age and although she did not always accept them there was no doubt she understood them.
Mair was a modest person and was once seen to turn off her hearing-aid ostentatiously when a speaker began to praise her. She was also shy and sometimes abrupt. Her tendency to argue vigorously and with emphasis proved disconcerting to some students at any rate until they saw her treat her most eminent colleagues in the same manner.
She nevertheless had many friends among her students and colleagues, and others were drawn to her by her love of music and literature and her intellectual power. She regarded them with reciprocated affection though not often with indulgence.