Master Ethnographer of the Somali
Recipient of the I.U.A.E.S. Commission on Nomadic Peoples Lifetime Achievement Award
Philip Carl Salzman Chair, Awards Committee
It is through the work of Professor I. M. Lewis that we have learned most fully and most deeply about the Somali nomads, that "fierce and turbulent race of Republicans," as Burton, quoted by Lewis, calls them. From Lewis' accounts of the Somali, always graceful, sympathetic, and analytically sharp, we have been taught about Somali nomads' way of life, their engagements with the wider world, their history, and their contemporary circumstances and dilemmas. Thanks to Lewis' efforts, publications on Somali nomads serve as one of the richest repositories in the ethnographic literature on nomadic peoples.
Lewis' general ethnography of the northern Somali nomads, A Pastoral Democracy, subtitled A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa, was published in 1961, and followed shortly by the brief complementary monograph, Marriage and the Family in Northern Somaliland (1962). Then Lewis collaborated with Andrzejewski in a volume on Somali Poetry: An Introduction (1964). The first edition of Lewis' history of the Somali, entitled The Modern History of Somaliland: From Nation to State, appeared in 1965. Three subsequent editions have been published, the latest, with the title, A Modern History of the Somali, in 2003. In addition to several brief, introductory works on the region, Lewis' more recent works on the Somali include Nationalism and Self Determination in the Horn of Africa (1984), Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society (1994), and Peoples of the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Afar and Saho (1998).
Those of us who are familiar with A Pastoral Democracy and Lewis' supplementary ethnographic monographs and articles can testify how full and rich his accounts of Somali nomads are, and with what a masterful eye he examines events to discern patterns. If I may be allowed a personal reminiscence, the Somali were the first nomads I met, and I met them in Lewis' A Pastoral Democracy. I was intrigued by the Somali nomads, not knowing at the time how much I owed to Lewis for the fascination that I felt. Reading A Pastoral Democracy was a major step for me along a path I have trod for many years (although Lewis of course cannot be held responsible for any of my ethnographic or theoretical sins).
Lewis as we know did not stop at his ethnography of a tribal people. He pursued the Somali back through history, and forward through the passing of time, and outward geographically in order to contextualize Somali people, practices, and activities. He particularly has focused on the interplay between Somali culture and social construction in patterns of change and transformation such as state-building and state-breaking and other engagement with the wider and contemporary world. Lewis has thus not left his Somali nomads as impressive examples of their ethnographic kind, but has followed them in their real lives as they struggle to make a place for themselves in the 20th and 21st centuries. Lewis' work is demonstration, if any such be needed, that the postmodern rejection of repeated field research and of continuity of ethnographic focus is an arid conceit.
We can see in Lewis' more general anthropological work an additional contribution of his ethnographic studies. Lewis' profound knowledge of tribal society arising from his Somali research is reflected in the wisdom of his more general treatises, such as Social Anthropology in Perspective (2nd edition 1985) and Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (1971), where we find examples drawn from the Somali, but, more importantly, his appreciation of the organization and dynamics of social life and culture rests firmly on knowing first hand how tribal society works.
The Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, in recognition of Professor I. M. Lewis' outstanding contribution to the study of nomadic peoples, presents Professor Lewis with its Lifetime Achievement Award.