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Saturday July 17, 2010

Anthropologist's research ranged from Newfoundland speech to West Bank Jews

His work on Scandinavia's Saami was hailed as a masterpiece

Special to The Globe and Mail

Robert Paine's career was so multifaceted, his intellect so deft, his management practices so influential and inclusive, his research standards so high and thorough, and his impact as an anthropologist, author, teacher and administrator so far-reaching, it is difficult to pick a single example to demonstrate his prowess.

His fieldwork among the northern Scandinavian Saami provides some illustration. Paine developed this research over 14 years, in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when such societies were of borderline interest to anthropologists.

Then, he pursued it on his own with such dedication, he learned the Saami work and language, and saw the results of his fieldwork eventually become Herds of the Tundra.

Published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1994, and lauded as "nothing short of a masterpiece" for its integration of multidimensional social, linguistic, subsistence, ethnographic and biological knowledge, the book is used by the Saami Institute as a tool for teaching younger Saami about their elders' ways.

The British-Canadian anthropologist died July 8, 2010, several days after suffering a stroke while walking his dog on Signal Hill in St. John's. He was 84.

A professor in the department of anthropology at Memorial University from 1965 until his retirement in 1994, he wrote seven books and edited four others while contributing chapters, and publishing numerous articles.

He practised, he once said, in an interview, a type of "seismological anthropology." He would sense a tremor, in some field, in some part of the earth, and off he would go.

Thus he could study the Jews of the West Bank (where he crept under barbed wire to interview subjects who'd arrived from Moscow or Montreal) and analyze the speech of Newfoundland and Labrador elected officials, resulting in the memorably titled Ayatollahs and Turkey Trots: Political Rhetoric in the New Newfoundland.

Robert Paine was born in Portsmouth, England on April 10, 1926. His father, Sidney George Barten Paine, was an officer with the Royal Navy, his mother an Irishwoman named Olive Davison, and he had a younger brother, Richard.

At his boarding school, the Second World War disrupted routine when the children were evacuated to Devon. To cope, they were advised to take up a hobby, and Paine chose birdwatching, which would become a lifelong passion.

In fact, he was studying forestry at the University of Edinburgh, because he thought it would allow time for birding, when, at 17, he was called up and joined the Royal Marines.

He fought as a British paratrooper in the later years of the war and was part of the regiment that reclaimed Hong Kong in August, 1945.

After the war, he studied at Oxford University, obtaining a BA in history (1950), before discovering anthropology and earning an M. Phil (1951) and D. Phil in social anthropology (1960).

The discipline was very different then, and there was little funding for research outside the purview of Britain's Colonial Social Science Research Council. This did not deter him at all. He went off to study the Saami, then called Lapps, in Northern Scandinavia.

"He had £50 in his pocket, and he went to the English seaport of Grimsby, to see if he could get a berth," said his partner Moyra Buchan.

"In a pub he met an English skipper who asked if he spoke Norwegian. And he lied quite blatantly and said yes. The skipper took him on to read magazines to him. Robert said he made most of them up!"

He worked odd jobs, eventually as a reindeer herder, learned to speak Saami, and immersed himself in that life for three years, even marrying a Saami woman, Inger-Anna Gunnare, with whom he had a son. They later divorced.

This independent path "caused some difficulty when he submitted his work for his D. Phil," said his colleague, Jean Briggs. Nevertheless, Paine was offered the chair of anthropology at Oslo.

In 1965, Memorial University president Moses Morgan enticed him to head the school's then dual department of sociology and anthropology.

Paine loved the potential he found in both the province and the campus. The 1960s were very dynamic and a time of considerable growth and development for the university.

Besides building up the department and laying the groundwork for social sciences research, he was also director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research, a unit whose work challenged Premier Joey Smallwood's policy of moving people from outports to bigger centres to consolidate services.

"It brought scholarship into a public venue," said Shane O'Dea, English professor and public orator at MUN. Some of the institute's works, for example, were published in The Evening Telegram, and this outreach arguably affected the 1971 provincial election, and helped bring about Smallwood's defeat, said O'Dea.

Around this time, Paine married again, to Sonia Kuryliw; they, too, later divorced. He subsequently married Lisa Gilad, the mother of his daughter Jessica. After Gilad died in 1996, he married Rachel Kimor; she predeceased him in 2007.

Paine also pushed an understanding of Newfoundland as an island in the North Atlantic as a focal point for research into areas including fisheries, community studies, and aboriginal culture.

Always, he stressed the vital need of fieldwork as a platform for theories, and his many administrative innovations included joint appointments and the foundation of Memorial's Queen's seminars with colloquiums on topics such as friendship.

"He didn't adhere to a school of thinking," said Briggs. Thus he would spark unexpected, exciting connections between ethnographic facts. Nor was his own work static.

In his 60s he became interested in political rhetoric, and the political dynamics of groups, which led him, among other directions, to become a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He published his second volume on the Saami 18 months ago. He gave his last anthropology lecture earlier this year, and afterward mentioned that he wanted to learn how to do Power Point presentations. He sent his most recent article for publication just weeks ago.

A very active man, he went on daily hikes with his beloved dogs. "His rather chaotic relationships with his dogs made these steep climbs an adventure," said Mark Tate, Memorial's anthropology head. And birdwatching remained a consummate interest.

Colleagues remember a vivid, generous, loyal man, and former students a rigorous and demanding adviser with a penetrating and charismatic intellect.

Paine's many awards include a fellowship with the Royal Society, membership in the Order of Canada (1996), and honorary doctorates from the Universities of Edinburgh, Tromso in Norway, and Memorial.

Predeceased by two of his four wives, he leaves his son Michael, daughter Jessica, and good friend and partner Moyra Buchan.

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Sweeping interests

Robert Paine said he practised 'seismological anthropology' - sensing a tremor in some field and going off to study it.

While studying West Bank Jews, he once crept under barbed wire to reach interview subjects.

He also analyzed the speech patterns of elected officials in Newfoundland, producing Ayatollahs and Turkey Trots: Political Rhetoric in Newfoundland.

He worked as a reindeer herder, learned to speak the Saami language and married a Saami woman.

His work challenged Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood's policy of resettling outport inhabitants in bigger centres, and arguably affected the 1971 provincial election, helping bring about Smallwood's defeat.

He pushed an understanding of Newfoundland as a focal point for research into areas including fisheries, community studies, and aboriginal culture.

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