Paul Rabinow, a world-renowned anthropologist, theorist and interlocutor of French philosopher Michel Foucault, his former comrade, died from cancer at his home in Berkeley on April 6. He was 76.
A professor emeritus of anthropology, Rabinow joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1978 after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He retired in 2019.
During his more than four decades at Berkeley, Rabinow’s scholarship and pedagogy traversed such diverse lines of inquiry as the anthropology of reason, medical anthropology and the ramifications of synthetic biology. His seminal Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, published in 1977, was considered a model for conducting ethnographies and fieldwork.
Paul Rabinow was born on a U.S. Army base in Florida on June 21, 1944, to Irving and Mildred Rabinow. His parents were social workers and the descendants of Russian Jewish immigrants.
In a 2008 interview, Rabinow described a childhood in 1940s and 50s New York where anti-Semitism and McCarthyism loomed large: “As a child, I was passionately involved in sports, roller hockey in particular; a strange obsession as it was mainly played by Irish Catholics and the Jews played basketball,” he said. “I was the only Jew in a Catholic Youth Organization league.”
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, he gained admission to the University of Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965 and a master’s degree two years later. At the University of Chicago, he met French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and learned about European perspectives. In graduate school, he spent a year at École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, and honed his French.
Rabinow completed his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of philosopher Richard McKeon and anthropologist Clifford Geertz and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1970.
After, he took a job at an experimental school in New York City. At the time, UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah let him participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar. Rabinow ultimately joined the Berkeley faculty with an appointment in the Department of Anthropology.
In 1980, Rabinow was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. It was around that time that he met Michel Foucault, who had been visiting Berkeley off and on since the mid-1970s. Their collaboration resulted in the 1983 publication of Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, followed by The Foucault Reader in 1984.
Meanwhile, activism in the Bay Area was reaching a fever pitch in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Grassroots activist groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) fought to destigmatize the disease and to build political support. Rabinow was convinced to co-teach (with anthropology professor emerita Nancy Scheper-Hughes) UC Berkeley’s first course about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the 1990s, Rabinow coined the concept of biosociality as the shared experience of sickness and suffering, particularly with respect to the AIDS epidemic.
In addition to his research, teaching and mentoring at Berkeley, Rabinow served as director of the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory, which he founded with anthropologists Stephen Collier and Andrew Lakoff. He was also director of human practices for UC Berkeley’s Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC).
Among other honors, he held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a professional training fellowship in molecular biology from the National Science Foundation. He also served as a visiting Fulbright professor at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro and at the University of Iceland.
Now and then, he returned to Paris where he taught at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and, later, at École Normale Supérieure. So strong were his ties to the City of Light that the French government named him Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and École Normale Supérieure awarded him the visiting Chaire Internationale de Recherche Blaise Pascal.
In its obituary for Rabinow, the French newspaper Le Monde dubbed him “the most Francophile of North American anthropologists.”
Rabinow’s critically acclaimed writings include Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1983), which he co-wrote with UC Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus; The Foucault Reader (1984); Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology (1993); Essays on the Anthropology of Reason (1996); French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory (1999); Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment (2003); and Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary (2007).
He is survived by his wife, Marilyn Seid-Rabinow, of Berkeley; son, Marc Rabinow, of New York; and sister, Naomi Landau, of New Mexico.