Anne Parsons (1930-1964)


(obituary by Clifford Geertz & David Schneider)



Since the end of the second world-war there has been much discussion in academic circles as to whether it is possible to be a general social scientist. Can one follow one's intellectual interests in whatever direction they naturally lead, over whatever fences they need to cross, or does it remain essential to be clearly identified with one particular discipline in order to escape superficiality and the winds of fashion? Anne Parsons' career, as terribly short as it was, is a decisive argument for the former position. Her work, brilliant, committed, and completely her own, established beyond doubt that it is not necessary to fit easily into established pigeonholes to be a creative and a serious scholar. One can, as she did, build one's own identity as a scientist out of one's talents and one's concerns rather than accepting it ready-made and ill-fitting from one or another of the conventional ideologies of the academic establishment.


Dr. Parsons did her undergraduate work at Swarthmore and Radcliffe in history, psychology and social relations. In 1953, she went to the University of Paris on a Fulbright, emerging in 1955 a Docteur d'Universite with very honorable mention by unanimous decision of the jury for her thesis on La penetration de la Psychoanalyse en France et aux Etats-Unis. Upon returning to the United States she took up a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellowship for training in social anthropology and psychiatry at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. After completing this additional training period in 1957, she moved to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, as a research fellow in psychiatry, and in 1960 she became a candidate of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.


Her research work was equally varied: In 1953-54 she participated in the predominantly anthropological "Rimrock" project at Harvard, in which the value systems of five south-western cultures were compared. In France, it was Piaget's work which seems to have most attracted her, and in 1958 she translated (with Stanley Milgram) the methodological introduction to his and In-helder's The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. At McLean, her interests turned toward a socio-cultural approach to schizophrenia, and her work in this area forms her major contribution to social scientific theory and research. After collecting some 30 cases of Protestant, upper-status schizophrenic women at the hospital, she spent nearly two years in Naples collecting 30 comparable cases of lower status Italian schizophrenic women in an effort to isolate cultural elements in the symbolic content of psychotic delusion. While in Naples she also began a study of normal lower-class families and produced an analysis of ward social structure in a mental hospital. Finally, upon her retrun to the United States, she became actively involved in the attempt to relate social scientific findings to the most pressing social problems of the day, most notably disarmament.


In this issue's article, virtually all these interests find a reflection, and, what is more important, a true focus, as she probes the social and cultural aspects of psychological phenomena among a deviant group of Italo-Americans. For those who did not know her personally, it will give more than an indication of her originality as a thinker and her quality as a person. For those who did, it will simply drive in more deeply what they already know: that her death last year deprived the cause of general social science of one of its most telling witnesses and all of us of one of our most reliable allies in the effort to make such a science relevant to the problems of men.


Clifford GEERTZ


Anne Parsons (1930-1964), in: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 4 no. 2 (1966), p. 182.


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