The University of Chicago News Office
February 1, 1995 Press Contact: William Harms
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Sol Tax

Sol Tax, an internationally renowned anthropologist who organized anthropology as a global discipline and helped establish the field of action anthropology, an approach in which researchers work to help solve social problems, died January 4 in Chicago. Tax, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, was 87.

A specialist on Native American cultures, Tax studied cultures around the world. Throughout his career he was a leader in bringing people together to discuss important issues in the discipline. In 1957, he founded Current Anthropology, an international journal that publishes research and commentary. He was editor of the journal from 1957 to 1974.

“More than any other single person, Sol Tax was the facilitator and organizer of anthropology as an international discipline,” said George Stocking, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and an expert on the history of the discipline.

“Tax used Current Anthropology as a means of providing communication worldwide on important issues in anthropology,” Stocking added. “Particularly in developing countries and in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, Sol Tax was the name people associated with anthropology.”

Tax had a keen interest in social issues, and in 1968 he organized a conference on the military draft that brought together leaders of the military and political figures such as Sen. Ted Kennedy. The conference led to the publication that year of “The Draft: A Handbook of Facts and Alternatives”

Tax was president of the American Anthropological Association from 1958 to 1959.

In 1973, he organized the Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, which was held in Chicago. More than 1,000 papers were presented at 85 conference sessions. The conference was attended by 4,000 scholars from more than 100 countries.

The theme of the congress was “One Species, Many Cultures.” The conference was intended to encourage respect for and understanding of cultures worldwide.

Tax was born in Chicago and grew up in Milwaukee. He received a Ph.B. in 1931 from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in 1935 from the University of Chicago.

He was an ethnologist for the Carnegie Institution, Washington, from 1934 to 1946 and did fieldwork in Guatemala. In 1940, he became a Research Associate at the University of Chicago. He was named Professor in 1948. During the 1940s, Tax studied Mayan civilization and trained many of Mexico’s early anthropologists.

His main area of specialization was the social anthropology of North and Middle American Indians. As a researcher in that area, he established an approach known as action anthropology, which attempts to reconcile the work of the anthropologist with that of an administrator concerned with helping solve problems identified by the people being studied.

“By definition, action anthropology is an activity in which an anthropologist has two coordinate goals, to neither one of which he will delegate an inferior position,” Tax said in a paper he delivered at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1950. “He wants to help a group of people to solve a problem and he wants to learn something in the process.”

Tax’s experience understanding Native American social structure helped him and other anthropologists assist Native groups being dislocated by a dam project in North Dakota.

Tax was director of the Fox Indian Project in Tama, Iowa, from 1938 to 1962 and was coordinator of the American Indian Chicago Conference in 1961.

The 1961 conference brought 700 Native Americans from more than 80 tribal groups to the University of Chicago to prepare a “Declaration of Indian Purpose,” which sought for the first time to present a unified Native American position statement on the relations of native peoples to the federal government. In the declaration, the tribal groups asked that the government respect native customs and Native Americans in economic and social development projects.

Tax served as Dean of the University Extension from 1963 to 1968. As dean, he oversaw the off-campus education programs of the University and also organized conferences, including one held in 1965 on “the Origins of Man.” The research presented at the 1965 conference added new insights to work that had been presented at a conference Tax organized and was chairman of in 1959–the Darwin Centennial Celebration held at the University of Chicago.

Tax’s other books include “Penny Capitalism: A Guatemalan Indian Economy" (first published in 1953 and reprinted in 1963 and 1971); “Evolution After Darwin” a three-volume work published in 1960; “Horizons of Anthropology" (1963); and “The People vs. the System: A Dialogue in Urban Conflict” (1968).

Tax served as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for the Study of Man, an interdisciplinary human-sciences research and educational group. He also served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and on a Presidential task force on Native Americans, and he was a member of President Johnson’s special task force on American Indian Affairs. Additionally, he was a consultant for the U.S. Office of Education, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Smithsonian Institution.

He was widely honored for his work. In 1962, he received the Viking Fund Medal and Award from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research for his outstanding achievements. He was an honorary member of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the Chilean anthropological Society, and the Czechoslovakian Anthropological Society.

Survivors include his wife, Gertrude Katz Tax, daughters Susan Freeman of Chicago and Marianna Choldin of Champaign, Ill. and three grandchildren.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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