Jeremy Boissevain, anthropologist who made Malta home, dies

Veteran Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain has passed away, aged 87.

The Dutch anthropologist whose research on festa-partiti became seminal for Maltese social sciences, has passed away.

Jeremy Boissevain died at 87, having built his anthropological corpus of work mainly through research on the southern Mediterranean, exploring the effects of tourism on society and the environment, patronage and politics.

Boissevain first came to Malta in September 1961, and wrote his doctoral thesis – later published as “Saints and Fireworks – Religion and Politics in Rural Malta” – in the summer of 1962.

He humbly admitted that his prediction about Maltese festi disappearing from the scene altogether was wrong. In a collection of essays, ‘Factions, Friends and Feasts: Anthropological Perspectives on the Mediterranean’, Boissevain publically acknowledges that his 1965 prediction about Maltese festi was wrong-headed. His cautionary note to fellow anthropologists was to ‘beware predictions... especially when they appear to align in a perfectly logical rhythm’.

Mark-Anthony Falzon, head of the department of sociology at the University of Malta, said on Facebook that Boissevain's departure "leaves a great void, to put it mildly. I'll be writing a longer appreciation once I get over the shock."

David Zammit, a lecturer in the Faculty of Laws who specialises in legal anthropology, said Boissevain will be sorely and deeply missed. "Like Margaret Mead, he was more than just an isolated cynical observer of Maltese social life. His love for fieldwork and for people were inseparable.

"He effortlessly taught generations of students that research can be fun, does not need to rely on mystifying vocabulary and can produce valuable practical insights. He occupied an incredibly significant role in facilitating the development of an anthropology of Euro-Atlantic societies and in the transition from functionalism to post-structuralist anthropology. Malta has lost its leading ethnographer."

His original argument about the decline of feasts – first articulated in ‘Saints and Fireworks’ (1965) – observed how substantial migration from Malta in the 1950s drained a lot of the manpower necessary for the organisation of feasts, while an improved transport system enabled people to socialise outside their immediate village core – which would instantly drain some of the appeal of the local festa. He maintained that the increasing popularity of football was drawing young people away from the band club as a social contact point, while public attention was increasingly being diverted away from entrenched religious traditions, and instead to the machinations of local politicians. 

"By the 1970s, however, I became aware that my prophecy had failed," Boissevain wrote. "Village festi were noisier, more crowded and contested with greater vigour than I had ever seen."