James Nelson Anderson, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of social and cultural anthropology, passed away last month at the age of 84.
Remembered for his work in ecology and environmental anthropology, Anderson was fascinated by the cultures of people in Southeast Asia, who develop sustainable practices as they interact with their environments. The spirit of Anderson’s study imbued his own life, where he was known for his magnetic warmth and engagement with everyone around him.
As a scholar, Anderson was far ahead of his time, said Kent Lightfoot, an anthropology professor and one of Anderson’s colleagues. He studied the practice of sustainability long before the term was coined. Specifically, Anderson enjoyed investigating the ways the people of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines employed their local environments in the management of their daily lives.
His interest in sustainable living transcended his intellectual work. His daughter Rica Anderson remembered how he would encourage his family to recycle long before the practice was popularized.
But Anderson’s love of human beings did not end at his work in his office. As a human being, he valued communication and respected everyone’s stories, which made him an approachable professor and a loving father.
For Lightfoot, Anderson was not only a human reservoir of information about human ecology and the cultures of Southeast Asia, but also a source of encouragement who taught Lightfoot how to become a more effective and committed teacher.
“He was somebody who never made you feel rushed,” his daughter Rica Anderson said. “He made each person feel like they had all the time in the world to talk to him and made them feel valued.”
Patient and dedicated, Anderson always worked closely with students who struggled with difficult theoretical concepts in the classroom. He even invited his graduate students over for dinner. After one such occasion, his students built a bookshelf for his room as a way to express their gratitude.
“He had some very loyal students — all of us did, but Jim had more,” said Herbert Phillips, another one of Anderson’s colleagues in the anthropology department. “I haven’t heard of a student who complained about him.”
One of Anderson’s daughters had ran into two strangers, once on a hiking trip and another during a dinner outing, who had both been Anderson’s students.
“They both said that my father had changed their lives,” Rica Anderson said. “Having two random strangers tell you that separately, that’s just wonderful.”
One of Anderson’s best qualities was his humility — he never shared a detail about his achievements or his projects, and when he was a dad, “he was just being a dad,” Rica Anderson said.
Anderson is survived by his wife, Emerald, and his daughters Victoria, Pia and Rica.