Fredrik Barth: Personal Memories

Fredrik Barth

Thomas Fredrik Weybye Barth (Fredrik Barth) was born in Leipzig 22 December 1928 and died in Oslo 24 January 2016. He was my mentor, professor, and colleague, more or less in that order, first at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, and later at the Ethnographic Museum, University of Oslo. What follows are a few memories I have of and with him.

Bergen, Norway

In 1976-77 I finished undergraduate courses ("grunnfag" and "mellomfag") at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. This was the department that Fredrik founded and built. Several – if not most – of the scientific staff had been his students, and the rest were his contemporaries. They were all his disciples – they were "barthianere" – in some cases with a more or less pronounced twist. The curriculum was organized in separate parts ("partsystem") following the traditional division of the field of social anthropology. All parts contained one or more of his articles and books, be it within ecology, economics, kinship, politics, or religion. Not to mention the theory part, where "Models of social organization" and the "Generative process model" were underlying most of what was taught as well as researched. We undergraduate students, who had never met Fredrik personally, got to know him very well as an anthropologist. Stories – even myths – about his several fieldworks in far-away locations, in particular among the Baktaman on Papua New Guinea, abounded. Most of us became small "barthianere" ourselves, in many cases perhaps without quite realizing it - it was simply social anthropology. Truth be told, there was hardly any alternative, and certainly no opposition. That is, on the fringes there was a focus on specifically Marxist anthropology, kept alive by a few of us dedicated students at the departments in Bergen and Oslo (we met a couple of times for discussions, and partying, during week-end seminars, somewhere along the Bergen-Oslo railway line).

Then he suddenly came to Bergen, and the department announced that he would give a guest lecture! It is impossible to express how momentous this event was for us students! Among the scientific staff the views may have been more varied. The guest lecture was announced widely. One of the University's largest auditoriums was required, and was filled to capacity. "Everybody" were in attendance, including the scientific staff, all of whom, as I recall, were seated way behind (some among them had possibly preferred to stay away, but I gather the feeling was this was an occasion not to be missed). There were also several among the audience from outside the department, and even outside the university.

They – that is, Fredrik and wife and fellow anthropologist Unni Wikan – had just returned from fieldwork in Oman, and the lecture addressed aspects of this fieldwork, specifically gender and gender relations (some of us students would later read about this in their various publications). How much we actually understood of what he said is uncertain, focused as we were on the fact that we were seeing and listening to him that we had read almost everything by, and knew so much about as an anthropologist. Beyond this we were fascinated by the form. He was dressed in what some among us would later come to see as a trademark black leather jacket. He did not stand in front of the blackboard (he did not use it), he did not pace back and forth, he did not sit down behind the desk on the podium, and he did not read from or consult written notes (he did not bring any). He sat on the desk itself, in front, feet dangling and hands holding on to the front part of the desk (that is, when he did not use them to explain or underline an argument), and he remained in this position throughout. He talked in a way that we were not used to – direct, engaged, and informal. We were totally fascinated. Now, here was the embodiment of what we understood the word charisma to mean! Unni was sitting up front with their new-born son Kim, and he was completely quiet and at ease, possibly taken by the same breathless excitement as us students. The talk finished, there was the obligatory couple of questions, from the scientific staff only, which we interpreted partly as an effort to make a position and partly out of a feeling that somebody had to ask something, more than as anything else.

Oslo, Norway

Later we both moved to Oslo. In my case first to "Brakka" on University of Oslo's Blindern campus (an old WW II barracks that housed the Department of Social Anthropology), and then to the Ethnographic Museum downtown. At the Ethnographic Museum I shared an office with fellow graduate students in the attic (famously referred to as "Loftet"). I worked as a Scientific Assistant ("Vit. Ass.") with responsibility for permanent exhibitions, public outreach (that is, giving guided tours around the exhibitions), and dissemination (the latter included a program of showing ethnographic films). I became interested in visual anthropology and ethnographic film, and was active in the Nordic Anthropological Film Association (I organized the annual conference in 1982 – both Fredrik and Unni participated), on the side of work on ecological and economic anthropology which was my scientific area of interest. Fredrik was Professor at the Ethnographic Museum, and was always an interested and interesting interlocutor, in long discussions around the lunch room table, or during discussions after an ethnographic film had been shown.

Once, in Oslo, he gave a public lecture about the Baktaman fieldwork. As usual he spoke without using written notes. He brought along a piece of rock – black, oval, and polished very smoothly – an important object in Baktaman culture (I am sorry to say I do not recall much about its specific role and function). This stone functioned as an excellent didactic aid in presenting and explaining Baktaman culture. The audience was fascinated – by what they heard, by the way it was presented, and by the way he managed to make this unknown culture come alive.

As it happened, I eventually moved out into the world. In 1980 to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to study anthropology. After a brief period back in Oslo I left again, never to return to University of Oslo or the Ethnographic Museum. In 1983 I went to Bangladesh to do anthropological fieldwork. I moved to Zurich in 1986 to study as well as work at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zurich. The next stop was Washington DC, where I moved in 1993 to work for the World Bank. But all of this is part of a different story entirely, perhaps to be shared on another occasion. But Fredrik and I did meet again, this time in Washington DC.

Washington D.C., United States

At the World Bank, the team of social scientists I was part of worked on two main issues, namely indigenous peoples and involuntary resettlement, focusing on both operational support to projects and policy issues. Some among us had just finished a major portfolio review of closed projects with involuntary resettlement components. The manager, Michael Cernea, a sociologist, who had spearheaded the World Bank's work on involuntary resettlement (he coined the term "development-induced displacement and resettlement"), continued his focus on this important issue. And so it was that he, on 23-24 March 1995, invited Fredrik to give a seminar at the World Bank. Fredrik was a member of the "International Resettlement Monitoring Panel" for the Ertan Hydropower Project in China, and together with professor Thomas Williams, a fellow member of the panel, he discussed the experience of this panel with Bank staff that were working on resettlement issues. While in Washington, he also gave two seminars on "Ethnicity and development" and "The distribution of knowledge", two subjects that are very close to his heart.

While some may be surprised that Fredrik would engage in applied anthropology, certainly to the extent of becoming a member of the Ertan project's resettlement panel, this should perhaps after all not be so surprising. Throughout his life and work, there always was a close connection between theory and practice. While he himself seldom addressed this operational link, it was certainly there. He was always concerned with how cultures, in a specific environment arrive at specific ways and methods for how to solve problems, the everyday mundane ones in the areas of economics and politics, and the more celestial ones, as in the domain of religion. The corresponding patterning of social organization and kinship are of course part of the overall equation. He saw these as so many unique adaptations, a kind of symbiosis of culture and nature. Further, he argued that there were lessons for us all here. We could learn from how other people and cultures had gone about structuring culture and giving content, rationality and logic to it. Cultures were a storehouse of experiences in making a living. I do not recall, specifically, how he got involved in the Ertan project and involuntary resettlement. Perhaps it was simply curiosity, wanting to understand how a whole culture could be displaced, and re-establish itself in a new location. Whatever else it might have been that specifically drove him, at the bottom of it all there certainly was his persistent insistence on understanding the human condition in its many facets.

In the two other seminars he was addressed topics that were very central to his work, namely ethnicity and knowledge, and that was fairly familiar to all in the audience. On ethnicity he argued that it has to do with the social organization of cultural differences. Culture is broadly distributed and without boundaries. Ethnic groups, on the other hand, have boundaries. They are not the manifestations of primordial sentiments; they depend upon the creation of boundaries. The political content of ethnicity is undetermined. He argued that ethnic conflict can be avoided, but it must be done within the culture based on the specific / unique history of each case, and it is accordingly not possible to generalize. It is necessary to build systematic records of how things happen, how an ethnic situation evolve, and focus upon understanding how things happen at the local level. With reference to the anthropologist Ward Goodenough, who theorized from the mind to the collective, he argued that anthropology instead should engage in middle-level social science theorizing.

As for knowledge, he insisted that it is a major modality of culture. Knowledge is in a causal position in between culture and action. Knowledge emphasizes the distributive aspect of culture, as opposed to the view that culture is homogenous. In this way knowledge makes it easy to talk about change. His main argument was that the distribution of knowledge in terms of social positioning. Both knowledge and social positioning are related to social action. At the same time it is important to realize that knowledge is opposed to belief. He illustrated his views on this with reference to examples from his fieldworks among the Baktaman in PNG, in Oman and in Bhutan.


I use this occasion to say hello to fellow students, teachers, and colleagues at the depts. of anthropology at University of Bergen, University of Oslo, UCLA, and University of Zurich who might come across this article.

Lars Soeftestad

(1) As a result of substantial international traveling, including that I live part of the year in Sofia, Bulgaria, it took time before I learnt of Fredrik's passing, and accordingly could write this tribute. It was written in March 2016, and was intended as a contribution to an online page together with other tributes, but was not ready in time to be included.
(2) See the words of remembrance over Edvard Dahm Vogt (Note 7). Edvard and Fredrik knew each other since childhood (they spent summer vacations together in Kristiansand).
(3) For an intellectually and academically rigorous appreciation, see Thomas Hylland Eriksen's obituary (see Sources).
(4) The presentation of the seminars at the World Bank was added in Dec 2109, as I only then was able to consult my notes from those seminars.
(5) The source of this overall argument stems from seminars and especially discussions in the lunch room at the Ethnographic Museum, University of Oslo. 
(6) Image credit: Boston University, URL: (accessed May 2016). See also the Sources.
(7) Relevant Devblog articles: URL: (Note: a Norwegian language version of the present article.)
(8) Permalink:
(9) This article was published 8 August 2017. It was updated 24 April 2020.

Anderson, Bob. 2005. "Interview with Fredrik Barth". Recorded in Oslo, Norway in June 2005. URL:  (film, 61 min, accessed 8 August 2017.)
Boston University. nd. "Fredrik Barth. Emeritus Professor in Anthropology". URL:  (accessed 8 August 2017.)

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2015. Fredrik Barth: An intellectual biography. London: Pluto Press.
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2016. Obituary of Fredrik Barth. Anthropology Today, vol. 32, no. 2, April 2016.

Lewis, Herbert S. 2017. 'Fredrik Barth' by Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Review. History of Anthropology Newsletter.
Sperschneider, Werner. nd. "Fredrik Barth: from fieldwork to theory". URL:  (film, 56 min, accessed 8 August 2017.)
Wikipedia. nd. "Fredrik Barth". URL:  (acessed 8 August 2017.)

Add new comment