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  • In Memoriam of Lambros Comitas (1927–2020)
  • Ellen Schnepel

Lambros Comitas’s anthropological career began in the mid-1950s in the British Caribbean and spanned over six decades. His initial study of the sociocultural effects of mechanization of the fishing fleet in the Barbadian coastal community of Bathsheba was followed by an investigation of the impact of government-sponsored fishing cooperatives on five coastal settlements in Jamaica. From this research, he formulated the concept of “occupational multiplicity,” a framework to describe the complex lives of workers who were involved in multiple economic activities for survival.

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Lambros Comitas-in his office/library at Teachers College.

With Dr. Vera Rubin, he co-authored Ganja in Jamaica: A Medical Anthropological Study of Chronic Marijuana Use (1975). While the work was heralded, the authors’ conclusion that marijuana was a medically safe substance and should be decriminalized was considered controversial for its time. Comitas’s [End Page 167] research expanded to diachronic and synchronic variations of cannabis use among East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago and hashish users as a stigmatized group in Greece. Most recently, he was engaged in a study of First Nation hashish dealers in New Brunswick, Canada, with filmmaker James Hamilton.

Along with the American geographer and historian David Lowenthal, Comitas co-edited four books under the rubric “West Indian Perspectives”—Slaves, Free Men, Citizens; Consequences of Class and Color; Work and Family Life; and The Aftermath of Sovereignty (1973). Biannually from 1973–2006, he wrote the article “Ethnology: West Indies” for the Handbook of Latin American Studies in which he documented the development of social science scholarship in the region. One of his most important contributions to the field of Caribbean Studies was the 1977 compilation, The Complete Caribbeana 1900–1975, a four-volume bibliographic and topical guide to the scholarly literature, which was later edited as The Digitized Caribbeana 1900–1975: A Bibliographic Guide to the Non-Hispanic Territories (2005). One of his last publications, Education and Society in the Creole Caribbean (2011)—a study of the impact of education in three post-colonial societies (Trinidad, Barbados, and Grenada)—was co-edited with his lifetime friend, mentor, and frequent collaborator, the Jamaican anthropologist M.G. Smith.

For 41 years he was affiliated with The Research Institute for the Study of Man, a leading center in New York City founded by Dr. Rubin for the study of the Caribbean. After her death, he served as its director from 1985 to 2001. RISM sponsored research projects and training programs and organized multi-disciplinary conferences focusing on problematics across the geolinguistic and political boundaries of the region. After leaving RISM, Lambros founded the Comitas Institute for Anthropological Study in 2003. With a focus on the environment, natural disasters, and indigenous resistance, it hosts an annual field school for ethnographic research. Lambros was also a gifted photographer, and he considered visual anthropology as important as note-taking in ethnography. CIFAS remains an enduring legacy to the breadth of his scientific research in the Caribbean, Bolivia, Greece, the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia, Spain, Andorra, and Canada.

Lambros was born in New York City on September 29, 1927, the son of Greek immigrants from the island of Ithaca. He had a 76-year association with Columbia University. Entering Columbia College at age 16 in 1943, he received his B.A. in 1948 following service in the US Army, and his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Political Sciences (Anthropology) in 1962. For 56 years he was a member of the faculty at Teachers College, the educational arm of the university, where he helped create doctoral programs in Applied Anthropology and Anthropology and Education, [End Page 168] shaping these fields to address societal issues of the day. He also served in a variety of administrative positions: Director of the Division of Philosophy, the Social Sciences, and Education; Director of the Institute for Latin American and Iberian Studies; and Director of the Institute for International Studies.

Lambros had a profound and nurturing influence on his students. A strong proponent of training students for careers of applied research in domains somewhat distant from traditional academic pursuits, he...


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