Professor David Parkin

Emeritus Professor


David Parkin (1940- ) was from 1996 until 2008, when he retired, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, fellow of All Souls College, and head of ISCA and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography from 1996-2006. Before coming to Oxford, he was at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, first as a student (1959-1964) and then as a member of faculty (1964-1996), becoming professor of African anthropology in 1982. He is now Emeritus Professor at Oxford and Honorary Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies.  His early training included the study of Swahili and Bantu linguistics alongside anthropology, and this has stamped his long-standing interest in the role of language in social organisation in Africa and generally. 

Parkin’s focus has been on East Africa where he has carried out a number of years’ fieldwork among different peoples and in different ecologies: the Luo of western Kenya, the Giriama of eastern Kenya, and Swahili-speakers in Zanzibar and Mombasa. He has studied the growth of ethnically mixed urban populations in Kampala, Uganda, where his interest in Luo first started, and in Nairobi, where he developed more fully his interest in Luo. Field research among the Giriama of Kenya began with a study of economic entrepreneurship and continued into an analysis of the role of religion in pastoralism, agriculture and trade. Thereafter he concentrated on Islam among Swahili-speakers, extending this concern from the East African coast to the Hadhramaut, Oman and other areas of the Indian Ocean littoral. More recently he has lectured, published and carried out limited research in China. In later years he has examined concepts of materiality, especially in relation to the human body, and became interested in the evolution of language and in the orchestration of sensory-based semiosis. 

He was chairman of the International African Institute and of the Association of Social Anthropologists, was elected fellow of the British Academy, and has sat on various bodies concerned with higher education and the social sciences, both in the UK and France, where he has also held various appointments, including visiting membership of the CNRS.  

While continuing as Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and All Souls College, Oxford University, he was from 2009-11 research professor at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Goettingen, Germany, focusing on medical and sociolinguistic processes of diversification. He held the Peking University Global Fellowship in 2016. 

Research interests

  • Islam and medicine, with particular reference to Swahili-speaking peoples of East Africa; and religion and healthcare among the Giriama and Luo of Kenya.
  • Language development and cross-cultural semiosis of the senses (Easten Africa and China).
  • Redefining Materiality in anthropology (from objects to human density and scale).

Advisory role on external bodies

  • International Assessor. Committee for the New Millennium Book Award in Medical Anthropology (American Anthropological Association). 2006-9.
  • Member of Le Comité International d’Orientation Scientifique et Stratégique (COSS) du Collège de France, Paris. Appointed by the Ministry of Education, France. Consists of twelve international scholars to assess research and teaching at the Collège de France across all its disciplines. 2007-2012.
  • Nuffield Foundation Council on Bioethics. Member of working party on the ethics of research related to healthcare in developing countries. 1998-May 2002, month of publication of jointly authored Report.
  • Royal Anthropological Institute Working Group on the Well-Being Initiative of the Department of Education. 2006; Chair Committee on Anthropology and Language 2013 continuing.
  • Co-advisor with Vibha Joshi to the Vice-Chancellor, University of Nagaland, Kohima, India, on the setting up of a new department of anthropology 2004.Journal editorships and editorial board memberships

Journal editorial boards

  • Anthropology and medicine (continuing)
  • Ethnos (until 2004)
  • Multilingua (until 2000)
  • Islam and Muslim Societies (Delhi) (Founding Editorial Advisor 2002 continuing)
  • Ethnology Minzu Xuekan (Southwestern Minorities University, Chengdu, China) (continuing)

Monograph editorial boards

  • Oxford U P (New York) Monographs in Linguistic Anthropology (ed. W. Bright) Until 2004
  • Oxford U P (Oxford) Anthropolology Ethnography Series. 1996-c.2002

Editor of four monograph series

Curzon (later Routledge)

  • Indian Ocean Studies.

Berghahn: Three Series (from c.1996)

  • Methodology and history in anthropology (continuing)
  • Fertility, reproduction and sexuality (co-ed with Soraya Tremayne) (until c.2015)
  • Epistemologies of healing (co-ed with Elisabeth Hsu) (continuing).

Full list of publications.