Pnina Werbner (1944–2023)
by Katharine Tyler
Professor Pnina Werbner, the leading scholar in anthropological studies of British Pakistani Muslim communities in Britain, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism while on holiday in Barbados on 17th January 2023 at the age of 78. She was Professor Emerita of Social Anthropology at Keele University, where she worked from 1997-2010. Pnina’s research interests were informed by her experience of being a migrant and the migration process. She was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in Ashkelon and Jerusalem in Israel. Pnina emigrated in 1970 to do her master’s degree (1970-1972) and doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Manchester (1975-1979). Pnina’s daughter, the journalist Donna Ferguson, wrote in her mother’s obituary in the Guardian(March, 2023): ‘As an immigrant herself, first to Israel and then to England, she was highly attuned to the situation of cosmopolitan and transnational people and this became a major theme in her work, along with citizenship and multiculturalism’.
Pnina’s research with British Pakistanis in Manchester took inspiration from the case study approach of the Manchester School of Social Anthropology (her uncle, Max Gluckman, founded the school), as well as state-of-the-art sociological and political theories on identity, migration, and citizenship. Pnina’s interweaving of classic and contemporary scholarship in her writing was also reflected in the way in which she engaged with classic anthropological topics such as ritual, the gift economy, entrepreneurship and pilgrimage while also advancing cutting-edge theories of diaspora, multiculturalism, citizenship, intersectionality, feminism, racism, anti-racism, social movements, and aesthetics. This trafficking between the traditional and the contemporary in her work and thought is exemplified by the themes that framed her first two monographs, that are part of what has become widely known as ‘the Manchester migration trilogy’. The first monograph explored ‘the migration process’ through the lens of ‘gifts and offerings among British Pakistanis’ (1990/2002), while the second book in the series focused on ‘Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims’ (2002). Whatever her theoretical framing, one of her aims was to interpret and explain the local contours and global complexities that shaped her interlocutors’ lives in the contemporary social and political moment. Indeed, tracing the transnational lives of British Muslims led Pnina to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with the members of a global Sufi order in Pakistan, that united thousands of devotees in Pakistan with British Pakistanis. This work formed the third book in the Manchester migration trilogy, Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi Cult (2003).
Pnina’s work and thought was at the forefront of challenging widespread stereotypical public, political and social scientific assumptions of postcolonial migrant communities as members of bounded and static ‘ethnic groups’. In explaining the reproduction of social inequalities, she illuminated and analysed those moments in which the oppressed, across racial, ethnic, religious, gender, class, diasporic, national, and migrant identities, found dignity, equality, and recognition in the face of racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. Pnina was also concerned with those moments in which people came together to transcend their differences to find dialogue and rapport to construct alliances.
Her work was intrinsically interdisciplinary. She often collaborated with scholars from within the field of critical race and ethnicity studies, including the leading feminist sociologist Nira Yuval-Davis with whom she edited the landmark book Women, Citizenship and Difference (1999). With the political sociologist Tariq Modood, she edited what is now thought to be a classic collection of essays within this field of inquiry on Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-racism (1997; 2014, the second edition included a forward by Homi Bhabha).
Alongside her numerous interdisciplinary collaborations, Pnina always kept a firm eye on directly furthering and contributing to the discipline of social anthropology. For example, her interest in cosmopolitan identities formed the impetus for her organisation of the ASA2006 Diamond Jubilee Conference on ‘Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology’ at Keele University. She edited the subsequent widely acclaimed ASA monograph based on the conference, Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives (2008). This book starts from the influential premise that ‘cosmopolitanism, is not, and never has been a “western” elitest ideal’.
Pnina had a kind of double anthropological life conducting fieldwork in Botswana, along with her fieldwork with South Asians in Britain and Pakistan. Her work in Botswana was conducted alongside her husband Richard (Dick) Werbner. Here Pnina took her concerns with entrepreneurship, and social movements in new directions through an analysis of working-class labour, poverty, and law in the manual workers’ union of Botswana (see her Monograph ‘the Making of An African Working Class: Politics, Law and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers’ Union of Botswana, 2014). During the covid-19 pandemic lockdown, Pnina and Dick wrote a book together for the first time. Their monograph is entitled African Customary Justice: Living Law, Legal Pluralism and Public Ethics (2021).
Pnina had a profound impact on my life. On Dick’s recommendation, she took me on in my early twenties to begin my postgraduate studies in anthropology with her in 1995-1996. She also found a substantial amount of money for me to work as a research assistant on one of her ESRC-funded projects, when I needed it. Pnina showed tremendous kindness to me during my time with her at Keele. I will always remember how we met every Friday afternoon to discuss my progress. Looking back at this now as a teacher, it strikes me just how incredibly generous she was with her time. Pnina also included me in workshops and conferences that opened-up the field of race and ethnicity studies to me. Not only this, I looked after Sylvester, the dog, one summer and she invited me to stay at her home while her family were away. Pnina also came-up with the brilliant idea of the ASA’s ‘Anthropology of Britain’ Network that I founded and convened for some 15 years with Cate Degnen. Pnina told me to ‘do it! It will make you famous!’. When I was trying to get my first article published, she invited me to her home for dinner to discuss my draft paper. It was published in the journal Ethnos . Recently, Pnina came down to Exeter, for an Anthropology of Britain workshop, where I now work, and she met my family. As ever her incisive commentary on the workshop made me think. She also generously wrote a reflexive preface for the workshop’s publication exploring the dilemmas of anthropological research on ethnicity and identity in Britain that built on an article she had published some 30 years ago titled ‘Barefoot in Britain’.
My mother died some 10 years ago now, but I often talked to her about Pnina, telling her stories about the ways in which Pnina was often direct in her approach, as well as kind, and how she seemed to be surrounded by an aura of creative chaos that was entirely unique to her. My mother would have fully understood what her loss means to me. On the week that Pnina died I had hoped to see her at an Anthropology of Britain on-line seminar organised by Celia Plender and Jess Fagin, the network’s new convenors. Pnina said at the last AOB meeting that she might come along to the next one. Of course, she did not come but I thought never mind, I’ll see her another time. I know that my feeling that Pnina would somehow always be there, and the shock of her death, was also keenly felt by Gabriel Shenar, who like me was also a postgraduate student with Pnina at Keele in the 1990s.
Indeed, having recently had the privilege of attending Pnina’s wake in March in Manchester, I realise that my experience of Pnina, of course, is not unique. Other students, now themselves established scholars, described how Pnina showed great interest in their lives and welcomed them into her home. Her co-authors, Nira Yuval-Davis and Tariq Modood remembered fondly the intellectual and personally rewarding experience of working with Pnina. And her family – led by Dick, their children Donna and Ben, her granddaughter Flora, and her sister the artist Hava Gillon, gave moving tributes that conveyed how they have lost a completely and utterly devoted and loving wife, mother, grandmother, and sister.
I shall miss Pnina and think about her intermittently for the rest of my life. I shall also continue to tell my own students studying anthropology, and critical race and ethnicity studies, proudly that I was taught and mentored by Pnina Werbner.
– 1990. The Migration Process: Capital, Gifts and Offerings among British Pakistanis . Oxford: Berg.
With Tariq Modood. 1997. Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism . London: Zed Books.
With Nira Yuval-Davis. 1999. Women, Citizenship and Difference. London: Zed Books.
– 2002. Imagined Diasporas Among Manchester Muslims: The Public Performance of Pakistani Transnational Identity Politics . Oxford: James Currey.
– 2003. Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
– 2008. Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives . Oxford: Berg.
– 2014. The Making of An African Working Class: Politics, Law and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers’ Union of Botswana . London: Pluto Press.
With Richard Werbner. 2021. African Customary Justice: Living Law, Legal Pluralism and Public Ethics . Abingdon: Routledge.