Professor Marcus Banks - Obituary

Published on
Monday 2 November 2020
In Memoriam

The anthropologist Marcus Banks, who has died aged 60, transformed our understanding of the possibilities for cultural representation through visual media. He also played an influential role in the wider transformation of anthropology, from a discipline once framed as a study of ‘exotic’ faraway peoples, towards one primarily concerned with the politics of social and cultural difference in the world around us. 

Born in Liverpool in a working-class household, where he attended New Heys Comprehensive School, Marcus went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1978, to read Social Anthropology. Having taken a First, he stayed on for a PhD with Caroline Humphrey and Deborah Swallow, completing his thesis in 1985. 

Even at that stage, Marcus’ work was breaking new ground, his doctorate being a study of Jainism in both Jamnagar, Gujarat, and Leicester, UK. At a time when anthropology was still generally equating cultures with singular places, his study – published in 1992 as Organizing Jainism in India and England by OUP’s Clarendon Press – was an exemplar for understanding how cultural forms may be also extended and transformed across transnational fields. Methodologically, the study was an early example of what came to known as ‘multi-sited ethnography’, and – in its focus upon Leicester – of ‘anthropology at home’.

However, it was at Oxford University that Marcus was to make his greatest contribution. Having been appointed as a ‘Demonstrator’ at Oxford’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA) in 1987 Marcus was to remain at that university for the rest of his life, with later promotions to Professor (in 2001), and to Director of the larger School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (a post he held from 2012 to 2016). 

A year’s training he received at the National Film and TV School (in 1986-1987) – as part of a special scheme set up by the Royal Anthropological Institute, designed to deepen ties between the discipline and the media industry – turned out to be transformative. From the time Marcus arrived at Oxford, he focused his energies upon the then nascent sub-discipline of Visual Anthropology. Over the following three decades he went on to establish himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars in that field. 

Over a long series of publications – which included the collections Rethinking Visual Anthropology (co-edited with Howard Morphy, 1997), Made to be Seen (co-edited with Jay Ruby, 2011), and the book Visual Methods in Social Research (2001) – Marcus re-defined the field. 

Beginning with studies of Indian iconography, but moving on to a range of other examples as well, Marcus’ real contribution was to show how visual production should never be analysed as a ‘peripheral’ activity, the domain of a specialised group of individuals (‘artists’). Rather, the making of visual artefacts (of all kinds) should be thought of as a central – perhaps the central –  means through which all people, everywhere, forge their identities, and order and transform the social and political worlds around them. In short, his interest was on the possibilities of image-making as a mode of cultural expression. Writing largely in an era before Facebook, Instagram, and other kinds of social media had become commonplace, these ideas were well ahead of their time, and in many ways anticipated the effects of the visually and media-saturated worlds in which we all now live.

It was not only Marcus’ research that was ahead of its time. So too was his teaching. At a time when Oxford’s anthropology syllabi were still marked by the legacy of structuralist theories – with their emphasis upon such concepts as rules, roles, offices, and obligations – from early on Marcus’s teaching centred around refreshing new ideas of post-colonial theory, of de-construction, of the ‘new’ gender and queer theories. His textbook Ethnicity: Anthropological Constructions (1996) was equally forward looking. It remains in common use for university courses on that subject, even today. 

All of this innovation, combined with Marcus’ general personal charisma and generosity, endeared him to successive generations of students who went through ISCA’s taught Master’s programmes. He also built up strong loyalties amongst many generations of the Institute’s growing numbers of doctoral students (of whom I was one). 

Marcus was as supportive and committed a member of his college as he was to the other communities to which he belonged. Following his move to Oxford, Marcus quickly became a stalwart of the Wolfson College community. Scrupulously calm, balanced, and erudite, in his advice and judgements on all matters, Marcus quickly gained the trust of the wider College body, and went on to be elected to the Governing Body (in 1995), and to hold a series of senior college offices, including that of Vicegerent (2014-2016). Following a term in the University Proctor’s Office (2007-2008), Marcus also had the respect of the wider Oxford community. He leaves his mark on Wolfson in various ways, having been heavily involved in the college’s recent re-development scheme, having introduced humanist ‘prayers’ for Wolfson’s formal dinner nights, and having influenced the college’s decision to hoist the LGBTQI+ flag up its flagpole. 

Marcus leaves his mark on the wider discipline of anthropology. He held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Vienna (2010), Paris V Descartes (2011), and Canterbury, New Zealand (2012); and sat on the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Film Committee (2001-2005), and the European Association of Social Anthropologists’ Executive Committee (2017-2019). 

He is survived by his partner Barrie Thomas, by his brother Martin, and by Tessa, the daughter of his late sister.

Marcus John Banks, anthropologist, born 4 July 1960; died 22 October 2020.

Professor Richard Vokes, The University of Western Australia

Guardian obituary