In Memoriam: Professor Sally Falk Moore

Professor Sally Falk Moore dies at 97

SFM pix

Obituary for Professor Sally Falk Moore

Harvard Gazette article about Sally Falk Moore's career and contributions

HLS Symposium Celebrates the Writing and Teaching of Sally Falk Moore 

Tributes to her life and work:

I was an appellate litigator happy in the fight but invariably drawn to the complexities of the cases and the histories of the doctrines; I took a leave from my job at the US Department of Justice and entered a law graduate program. There I explored lots of approaches to thinking about law, and, while some were interesting and impressive, none rang deep or true. Then I picked up Law as Process: An Anthropological Approach to Law (1978). The words jumped off the page: here were the sorts of questions I wanted to ask and here were powerful tools with which to ask them. (I was the daughter of an anthropologist and was only just realizing that things I took for granted could not be taken for granted. No wonder, then, that an anthropological approach to law made sense to me.) I soon came to understand that the virtue of Law as Process was not, per se, that it put forth ‘an anthropological approach to law,’ but that it put forth a brilliant, searching, intellectually uncompromising anthropological approach to law.   

Sally’s work in legal anthropology was anchored in the idea of social life as process, the idea that social orders are never whole, never complete, always multiple, always under construction, and always being altered, undone, and remade. Sally understood law as, essentially, social projects to fix the present or form the future, and she understood that, whatever the range and variety of laws’ effects, laws would never wholly fix the present or form the future. By studying these social projects over time, using tools of ethnography and history (including some key ones she fashioned!), she showed, we can learn both about the realities of law (its various, differential effects; ways it is appropriated, evaded, redoubled, or forgotten; and so on) and, also, about the larger social processes in which legal efforts are embedded.  Sally was remarkable for combining a sensitive, finely tuned sense of the utter complexity and, to some extent, unknowability of social life with a supreme and infectious confidence in our ability to actually gain some real understanding of social life; as she put it: “[T]he question must be asked” (2016:35).   

It’s hard not to think that a key reason that Sally’s questions, concepts, methods - the sheer power of her thinking - remain so sharp and vital is because they were forged in relation to the ongoing tumult of the world in various key locales (New York City, Wall St, Nuremberg, Kilimanjaro) rather in relation to the various academic contests of the times. This is not to say that she did not situate her work within those academic contests; she painstakingly analyzed massive bodies of work in anthropology and law alongside the presentation of her own ideas. But she had been a Wall Street lawyer at 21 (learning what lawyers do to serve commercial interests and wealth) and a Nuremberg prosecutor at 22 (delving into the business files of the company that manufactured the gas used in the genocide). And she fashioned her own career, cherishing her family, and writing papers about the matters that moved her.  She had been, as she described in a late as-yet unpublished memoir “a politically minded young woman”; she knew her mind, she was preternaturally clear-eyed, and she was, it seems, intellectually fearless.  

I knocked on Sally’s door after reading Law as Process; to my great delight the rapport was immediate. I became one of the many fortunate whom she counseled, first helping advise a law doctorate and then, infinitely patient, advising an anthropology doctorate yet to be completed. When I knocked that first time, I had feared – given her unforgiving intellect and her immense achievements – a dour persona.  Nothing could be further from the truth. She was funny, generous, kind, full of vitality and elan, she had a keen sense of the absurd, and she was also, frankly, very wise.  She offered her example, her counsel, and her friendship.  And she offered the gifts of urgent questions and crystalline concepts. These gifts are ours to share, to use, and to extend. Through them, she will be present for a very, very long time. 

Sarah P. Robinson Critical Inquiries Research 


I remember Sally Moore from 1982 when I came back to Harvard as a Full Professor and Sally was in the second year of her tenure at Harvard. She was intellectually formidable and highly critically minded, yet always gracious in what she said to students and faculty. An outstanding Africanist and a master ethnographer, she wore her scholarship lightly and rarely talked about her accomplishments; instead, she deflected attention toward others and to what they had accomplished. I remember her presiding elegantly over faculty dinners at Dunster House where she was Co-Master. I also remember the decisiveness in her responses to departmental issues and Harvard-wide issues. That legal dimension of her career and life was visible in the way she did social and cultural anthropology. Her idea of diagnostic events was not just a theoretical contribution but represented her way of doing ethnography. It was a fruitful model for students. Unless you knew something about her background, few would have guessed that she was a very young lawyer at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi perpetrators. This was an aspect of her experience she simply did not talk about in academic settings. I have not always agreed with Sally on departmental matters, but I almost always have agreed with her on the ideas she had about Harvard, anthropology, and the troubled world we all inhabit. She is an unforgettable presence in our department and now she has become an ancestor. Living up to her standards in teaching and research and how to live life sets the highest standard. Goodbye, Sally.  

Arthur Kleinman, Rabb Professor of Anthropology, Dept. of Anthropology 


Dearest Sally,

You are not so long gone that I can manage to honor you in the third person as I should. Little insistent things crowd out other, more obviously important things as I try to fathom your passing. I will always recognize your blocky handwriting. SFM will always mean you in my notes. You preferred to write in ink, and once explained that a fountain pen does not need to be pressed down like a ballpoint pen to make a mark on paper, and that this spares your hand if you have to write for long periods. You were right. I remember the movement of the heavy, too-loose rings on your fingers as you talked. You never varied your haircut. Your acute, lively mind allowed you to see social and political dynamics that others might miss, and to make elegant, effective tools for analysis from them – useful tools.

You were formidable; as unnerving as that sometimes was, it was also affirming and protective: it allowed me to take myself more seriously as a young woman scholar. It took decades for your sparks of girlishness to become more visible to me, although they were doubtless there all along.

You once said that, as new graduate students, we enter “life-term social arenas” with fellow students and with many faculty, and, most especially, of course (or ideally), with our advisors. You were right about this, too. I first encountered you in print as a nineteen-year old undergraduate; you were very present in my life for 42 years. You were very present in my students’ lives.

You demonstrated that seeking to think well is a quality of life issue, and that intellectual honesty is an essential form of courage and a basic human need. You expressed this beautifully in the paper, “Some Political Trials in Africa”. It was about human rights lawyers bringing cases they thought they would probably lose. They wanted to leave a record for the future, to say: “We were here, we cared, and we tried.” I always wanted to ask you about your work after the war, but didn’t. You never taught a course about it. The previous administration in this country forced you to relive some of that. I am grateful that you got to see a changing of the guard, even if that is only a partial step toward something better in the scheme of things right now. But you were here, you cared, and you left a record through your research and writing, and also through your teaching. Thank you, Sally.

Much love,


Liisa Malkki, Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University


What sad news of the passing of Sally Falk Moore, a beloved friend and greatly admired colleague.  Sally, with her unwavering good judgement, great learning, captivating eloquence, and immediately engaging personality was always a dominant figure in anthropology.  We were simply delighted when she came to Harvard at a time when there were very few women in the Faculty.  She was always a very impressive presence both in the meetings of the Arts and Sciences, the Department and in the Law School.  Her vital work in Africa opened up important careers for many of our very best students.  

The significance of her work in that vast continent is now, these dramatic days, even more precious, important and appreciated  as we painfully confront the nefarious long term profoundly racist results of the unimaginably cruel Atlantic Slave Trade.  It was this evil Slave Trade over two or three centuries that helped  Western colonial interests to capture and dominate the New World, both North and South.  Sally had personally participated in the prosecution of the Nazi's at the historic  Nurenberg trials that took place at the end of the second worlld war.  That unforgettable experience as a young lawyer had marked her profoundly.  She was always particularly sensitive to matters of justice and personal human rights.  It was evident in her work iin Africa.  We will greatly miss her warm friendship, her lively laughter  and her luminous personal charm.  A great loss to our Department, to our University and to Anthropology  

Nur Yalman, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Anthropology 


We first came to know Sally Falk Moore in the early 1970's, when she served a formidable role model and engaged mentor to a cohort of emerging Africanists in the US and UK. A scholar of great distinction, compassion, and vision, her highly original work on African law ensured her place as a towering figure in legal anthropology, in which her theory-work also made a signal contribution to the rise of what became known as “processualism.” Similarly, her detailed, analytically acute documentation of the effects of colonialism in East Africa are a critical important archive in the history of the discipline. Sally was a fine teacher and, as we know from our own friendly arguments with her over the years, a fiercely insightful interlocutor. We shall miss her greatly.  

Jean and John Comaroff, Professors, Dept. of Anthropology


It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Sally Falk Moore. Sally taught the Fall term Proseminar in Social Anthropology in 1986 when I took it (along with classmates Paul Farmer, Lawrence Cohen and others). Sally's interests in process and agency at the time opened up important avenues for me intellectually, as did her focus on politics, authority and law more generally over the years.   

By the time I was ready to leave for the field in Japan in 1989, Sally brought to my attention the relevance of law to my focus on ritual and power, and predicted that I might choose to explore those dimensions at a later time. Indeed that has happened. Recently, in the winter of 2019-2020, I had some exchanges with Sally via email. As I explained to her my interest in legal anthropology and new research areas, she reminded me of the importance of an anthropological approach to law as one based on precise and long-term observation and knowledge of individuals and communities.   

Sally remained throughout a positive and welcoming mentor, and a truly remarkable role model---an intellectual powerhouse in her field, always elegant and poised, and generous towards her students' own sense of direction. Her comment about the fruits of anthropological method in the face of law and legal studies remains in my thoughts. As I explore legal history and the history of legal anthropology, I appreciate her words of wisdom.   

Rosemarie Bernard, Faculty of International Research and Education


My favorite memories of Sally are from her seminars - her precision; her clarity; her impatience with glibness and fuzzy discourse; her own remembrances of people and places from the field; her focus on the evidence; her eye-rolling at "coffee shop ethnographers"; her skepticism about the trend toward "identity-schmentity" (her words exactly); her frequent advice to "marry a rich [person because you are an anthropologist]"; her fearless critiques of the ethnographic slippage of the time (which led her to say that one of my chapters actually had potential - the others she wasn't so sure of!); her materialism without orthodoxy; and her jovial laughter and willingness to have a drink with her students (as long as we mixed it right).  Her work and advice left an indelible mark on me, something I will always try to emulate, though I'll never get there.  Thanks, Sally. 

Bret Gustafson, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, Washington University


Sally was a brilliant anthropologist and an extraordinary human being.  She taught me more than I can express -- about anthropology, about Africa, about the importance of understanding social life as a set of temporally-located processes and practices and not a timeless structure or system.  But perhaps even more important than any of that was the intellectual sensibility that Sally both advocated and modeled.  She valued intellectual straight-shooting, and had no use for academic point-scoring or obfuscation masquerading as sophistication.  As a teacher and mentor, she never expected her students to follow in her footsteps as disciples, but instead encouraged them to find their own way intellectually by pursuing the topics that were meaningful to them.  She approached scholarship with intellectual honesty and great seriousness of purpose, and expected the same from us.  I will remember her, as my teacher and friend, with love, admiration, and gratitude. 

Jim Ferguson, Professor, Dept. of Anthropology


Sally left: leaving with us a wealth of her intelligence, wisdom, and love, so rich and powerful that in front of it words look pale and inadequate. Inadequate, the words below help to convey my gratitude and commemoration. Among the many whose lives have been touched and lit by her, I am exceptionally fortunate. It started with an exception. Arriving in Cambridge from the other side of the planet, I searched through the Harvard Course Catalogue, like a famished person entering a banquet, and found anthropology 205, a seminar exclusively for PhD candidates of Anthropology leading to their general examination. I was in EALC. Thanks to the “shopping period” when all courses were open, I sat at the back, listening to Sally introduce the seminar with eight features commonly involved in anthropology. Ten minutes into this, another voice grew louder inside: “I must take this course; it is about how to think; I need this for my life.” When the class ended I spoke with her, explaining in my unpolished English that I wanted to use anthropological theory to analyze ancient China, a subject normally defined as history . . . Sally generously signed my course registration card under “Instructor’s special permission.”  

With that signature, Sally started her tutorage over my lifelong intellectual growth. For a student from another department, studying neither law nor Africa, she supported my unconventional pursuit, and continued watching over my steps. When I had finished a year of 205, she included me in the general exam with the cohort, leaving a record. She served as one of my PhD thesis supervisors, and upon its completion, she suggested that, since I had completed two sets of requirements for two departments and had written an interdisciplinary thesis, she could form a special committee to award me a joint PhD degree. “It will not help you in the job market, but it will reflect your training in both disciplines. Think it over.” Her signature is written literally on my joint degree, but metaphorically on all of my subsequent interdisciplinary scholarship, as well as in my relationships with my own students.   

“We certainly live in strange times,” Sally says in her last email to me (January 6, 2021) while watching the news about Hong Kong, where I teach. I had a chance to tell her that the analytical power and critical thinking with which she equipped me have been handed down to my students, who live in the showdown between two systems. When and where the young are suppressed and intimidated, her analytical tools – for dissecting theories and methodologies, and for charting social fields and processes of change – have now armed my students to navigate everyday life in our strange times. “I feel empowered,” many of them say, overcoming the overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness. In moments of their despair, I would cite Sally’s words to me when I faced adversities: “make a list of possibilities, go down it step by step, no tears.” These, and many more, are her gifts to the world. There is no way to repay them, except to pass them on, turning my exceptional good fortune of knowing her into a heritage shared across generations.  

Aihe Wang, Professor at The University of Hong Kong


I was struck by Sally from my first encounter with her in a graduate seminar on political anthropology that she co-taught with Michael Herzfeld in 1991/92. I liked the combative atmosphere in the room. Different visions of what anthropology was, could be and should be flashed up in impassioned verbal exchanges between the two of them. Michael was then the young Turk full of ideas reflecting the post-structuralist and reflexive turns in anthropology. Sally was not so much a defender of some status quo, but the vivacious advocate of a processualist understanding of anthropology that had never quite become main stream and seemed as worth defending in 1991/92 (and dare I say 20/21) as when it originated as a counter-imaginary to structure-functionalist and structuralist hegemonies in the 1940s and 50s. Sally taught me how to theorize through ethnographic work focusing on what she called diagnostic events. She built the bridge I needed to connect my philosophical interests in phenomenology, pragmatism and the works of the later Wittgenstein with empirical research. Her penetrating questions and constant admonitions forced me to get into the habit of translating quite abstract concepts into experience-near terms. She also opened my eyes to the ways in which an ethnographic imagination can transform historiographical practices, because the ethnographer sees the debris of contingent interaction, collected by people for particular purposes, where the more traditionally inclined historians sees facts. My encounter with Sally was life changing. And her teaching has stayed with me all through these years surfacing regularly in my questions to my own students asking them what the grand conceptual schemes of any great theorist might mean ‘on the ground,’ that is as a sequence of social interactions.  

Andreas Glaeser, Professor of Sociology, The University of Chicago


Sally Falk Moore was, among so much else, an extraordinary teacher. Meeting her and learning from her was an introduction to scholarly life as something entirely unexpected. Her pro-seminar for first-year graduate students in social anthropology, the secular ritual as she might put it of my entry into the fold, was bracing in its rigor and at the same time simply joyous in how she opened up the act of reading and the scope of thought.  What good habits I have she largely formed.  What other habits—well, for years I would come to see her and lay out my dilemmas of research to have her say, smiling broadly, what am I possibly to do for you? And then go on to offer a set of careful instructions that she seemed almost gleefully to assume I would fail to heed.  
On one of these visits to her William James Hall office, I had hoped to enlist her in my efforts to postpone being “sent to the field” after two years of graduate school coursework: since I was doing the joint MD-PhD, my advisors had me on an accelerated timetable.  I pointed out that I had had only a single anthropology course as an undergraduate.  How I asked her, expecting her to share my sense of outrage, was I to learn all the anthropology that I needed to know in two years?  There was silence in the room for a bit. Then she said, putting the words carefully:  Perhaps then three years would allow you to learn all the anthropology that you need to know?  I am perhaps a bit slow, for it took her repeating the question with four and then with five years for me to take away a point.   
Even from the first day of the pro-seminar, things were unsettled and things were learned.  She taught us how to read a book, an extraordinary lesson.  She helped us attend to the “units of analysis” of a text and to a mode of argument.  She pressed us toward a specific mode of argumentation, one that I took in my own direction but that nonetheless is entirely indebted to her.  She brought us immediately into problems of law without necessarily framing them as problems of law.  Within a few weeks we were opened to questions of process and of time and to a repertoire of insight and critique that offered a vaccination of sorts against the still dominant if waning field of symbolic anthropology and the then regnant problematizations of agency of Bourdieu and particularly of Sahlins.  The critique was piercing and fierce and yet it was what I would call respectful and always closely engaged.   
Many of the lessons given and instructions offered took several more years to assimilate.  And they came not only from the challenge of reading Sally Falk Moore but from engaging the work and thought of her many students, with Sally always in mind, in particular for me the engagements of Liisa Malkki, Jim Ferguson, Paul Farmer, Laurie Kain Hart, and especially John Borneman.   
I have certainty the lessons will keep coming. 

Lawrence Cohen, Professor of Anthropology, Berkeley