Introduction to the Legacy of Lambros Comitas

Written by: Ellen Schnepel, PhD

Lambros viewed anthropology as a science which in theory explores all facets of human life and interaction through time and space. He was a pragmatist who demonstrated the value of an applied anthropology based on the firm linkage of scientific rigor, insightful methodology, and high ethical standards. Unlike many of his colleagues, he saw no gulf between mainstream and applied anthropology, arguing like his elder, Conrad (Connie) Arensberg, that “they were but two facets of a single endeavor with application providing an essential laboratory for testing the theories and models generated by the academy.” Therefore, “anthropology of service” and anthropology as theory can and do interfertilize.

In the 1960s, Teachers College, Columbia University, sought to initiate the discipline of anthropology. Lambros was hired to design the graduate program. With a deep understanding of the evolution and differences in “schools of anthropology” (e.g., Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard), he created the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology. Insightfully, he linked it with the Department of Anthropology at Columbia from which the PhD degree would be awarded.

The program model centered on conducting fieldwork early in the student’s graduate education while participating in the First and Second Year Colloquia of combined cohorts. Emphasis was placed on note-taking in field work. “If anthropology has a soul, that soul is the field,” Lambros said, “but the field is only one of two indispensable components of anthropology. The other is the anthropologist.” Their relationship is the “intricate dance” between the researcher's personality and knowledge and the unfamiliar social and cultural forces that initially engulf him. In this dualism, the field is both “crucible and molder of anthropologists.”

Lambros was a “methods man,” intrigued by unlocking the appropriate methods and techniques to enter the field in order to investigate the essential research problem. He was the consummate field worker, with an interest in the nature of society and in basic research on real-life issues whose findings could be applied to practical problems. He endorsed anthropology’s unique method of participant observation and adopted Arensberg’s community-study method (1954) — with its definition of community as a master institution or master social system, a key to society and a model, perhaps the most important model, of culture.

While contemporary American sociocultural anthropology has many theoretical currents, no one approach dominated the discipline. Lambros was similarly theoretically eclectic. He understood the value of multiple perspectives and the flexibility gained from a lack of a dominant approach, pointing out that the absence of rigid boundaries and definitions “offers an area for creative combinations and innovative solutions to theoretical and methodological questions.”

Foremost a Caribbeanist, he conducted early research on fishing cooperatives (Barbados, Jamaica), followed by a medical anthropological study of chronic cannabis use in Jamaica, with Dr. Vera Rubin. This led to his later work on hashish users in Greece. St. Clair Drake, an anthropologist from Barbados, described Lambros as a “bibliophile” — evidenced by his years of preparing annotated bibliographies of the Caribbean and Latin America. He is most known for Caribbeana 1900-1965: A Topical Bibliography (1968), later expanded to The Digitized Caribbeana 1900-1975: A Bibliographic Guide to the Non-Hispanic Territories (2005). During his lifetime, he wrote many journal articles and book reviews, as well as forwards and introductions to books. From his 1950s field work in Jamaica, he was best known for advancing the concept of occupational multiplicity — as an individual cobbles together a number of work activities to eke out a living. His final work, The Hashish Dialogues: An Unintended Ethnography of Hashish Use in Greece, with illustrations by Lily Herlambang, was published posthumously in 2023.

Comitas is admired and remembered for his teaching and mentoring of seemingly countless numbers of graduate students over five decades. During this time he advised well over 100 dissertations (Murray 2017). His students form a cohort spanning multiple generations, interests, and backgrounds. Lambros believed that the most rewarding part of anthropology was teaching; and the student was paramount. His special concern was to train students who would choose careers of applied research, even in domains somewhat distant from traditional academic pursuits.


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