Remembering Robert LeVine

Sep 1, 2023

We were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Robert LeVine in August 2023. Below is a tribute to his life and career by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (source).

HGSE is mourning the loss of longtime faculty member and researcher Professor Emeritus Robert LeVine. An anthropologist whose work concerned cultural aspects of parenthood and child development in African, Asian, Latin American, and other societies, LeVine passed away this week.

Recruited from the University of Chicago, LeVine joined the burgeoning human development and psychology faculty at HGSE in 1976. He became instrumental in establishing a tenure process at Harvard in the discipline, advocating for tenure on behalf of such luminaries of the field as Professors Catherine Snow and Howard Gardner, late Professor Kurt Fischer, and former Professors Carol Gilligan and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco. As former dean Patricia Albjerg Graham noted at Human Development and Psychology’s 50th-anniversary celebration in 2020, HGSE’s faculty was “vastly enhanced” through LeVine’s efforts, with then Harvard President Derek Bok noting that he “could never find anything wrong” with the tenure candidates put forth by LeVine.

“Bob LeVine was the soul and the spirit of human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education,” says Snow. “He combined his interests as an anthropologist in cross-cultural aspects of parenting with his concerns as an educator to ensure optimal outcomes for all children. His last research undertaking focused on how experience with schooling and literacy in girlhood changed women’s approaches to parenting. His teaching and mentoring embodied the degree of genuine interest in others’ ideas that characterizes the most generative thinkers. Generations of former students, including some current HGSE faculty members, have memories of deeply engaging conversations with Bob in his office, conversations that lasted long after the time scheduled for them.”

Suarez-Orozco, now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts-Boston, shares, “Bob LeVine was an anthropologist’s anthropologist. [He] was a marvelous storyteller and raconteur of his field during the special moment when a new interdisciplinary and comparative field of research was being born.”

LeVine’s work had a significant influence on psychological anthropology, conducting wide-ranging ethnographic studies on cultural variations in parenting and child development, including autonomy and socialization, attachment and emotional development, and cultural values and identity formation.

His groundbreaking work in East Africa with the Gusii people was, according to Suarez-Orozco, “the foundation for Bob’s subsequent research on the cultural contexts shaping and reshaping parenting practices, child development, and the broader sociocultural dynamics within disparate communities. … At a time of rampant, racist ethnocentrism, Bob provided a powerful corrective deploying the tools of comparative social sciences to bring light and humanity into the complexity of human behavior.”

LeVine’s work with the Project on Maternal Schooling at HGSE resulted in the 2012 book, Literacy and Mothering, which aimed to answer the question of whether schooling affects child survival, fertility, and the behavioral development of children. The book — co-authored by his wife Sarah LeVine, as well as former HGSE students Beatrice Schnell-Anzola, Professor Meredith Rowe, and Emily Dexter — reported findings from studies in Mexico, Zambia, Venezuela, and Nepal, and was able to unequivocally connect maternal literacy and children’s outcomes.

As a valued teacher and mentor, LeVine taught classes at HGSE in parenting in diverse cultures; comparative human development; child rearing, family, and culture; and cultural psychology among other topics. He made great effort to nurture his students as learners, educators, and researchers, often partnering with them on studies, such as those in Literacy and Mothering.  

“As a former student at HGSE, I saw first-hand how Bob ensured that students understood the importance of studying child development from a cross-cultural perspective. It was impossible to take his course and read his early work and not question claims of universality in studies of child development,” says Rowe. “In his own research on the Project on Maternal Schooling at HGSE, much of which was conducted in collaboration with his wife Sarah, his major impact on the field was to highlight how across many different cultural contexts, the strong positive effect of women’s schooling on their child-rearing practices and children’s development is likely due to the communicative practices and academic literacy skills the women learned in school.  It was Bob’s hope that future researchers would test out this pathway of effects with longitudinal samples to show further evidence of causality.”

LeVine was recognized for his distinguished career contributions by the Society for Psychological Anthropology in 1997 and was awarded the American Educational Research Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to Educational Research in 2001. He wrote or edited over 12 books, 100 articles and book chapters, and numerous papers for UNESCO and the World Bank.

“Bob LeVine was a rarity among scholars: a highly original theorist and researcher across the social sciences; a wonderful, sensible, and sensitive mentor; and a builder and maintainer of strong institutional culture in the area of human development and education,” says Gardner. “All of us at HGSE were privileged to have had him for decades as a wise and cherished colleague.”

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