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My Anthropological Adventures in Turkey (1963‑present)

Paul J. Magnarella

University of Florida; Warren Wilson College

Avec une introduction de Ali Sipahi

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Magnarella, Paul J., 2024. “My Anthropological Adventures in Turkey (1963‑present)”, avec une introduction de Ali Sipahi, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l’anthropologie, Paris.

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Publié dans le cadre du thème de recherche « Horizons anthropologiques, histoires de l’ethnologie et du folklore en Turquie », dirigé par Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie, Frankfurt am Main) et Abdurrahim Ozmen (Dicle Üniversitesi, Diyarbakir).

Résumé : Paul J. Magnarella décrit les expériences familiales, géographiques et éducatives qui ont influencé ses recherches anthropologiques en Turquie. En 1969, il s’est lancé dans une vaste étude de la communauté de Susurluk, une ville en proie à des changements industriels, économiques, démographiques et sociaux majeurs. Il a résidé dans la ville pendant plus d’un an avec une famille locale et a combiné observation participante, questionnaires élaborés, recherches dans les archives locales et entretiens approfondis avec des centaines d’habitants pour brosser un riche tableau de l’histoire, de la société, de la culture, des pratiques religieuses, de l’organisation économique et de la politique de la ville. En utilisant des techniques de recherche similaires, il a également fait l’étude un village où s’étaient installés des immigrants géorgiens à la fin de la période ottomane.

Introducing Paul J. Magnarella

by Ali Sipahi
(Özyeğin Üniversitesi, İstanbul, Türkiye)

After World War II, Turkey attracted the attention of European and American social scientists as a suitable site—a laboratory—to study modernization and social change. Political scientists and historians took the lead in making Turkey an object of inquiry in Western universities, to which the students of anthropology did not remain aloof. After a silent period following the pioneering fieldwork of British anthropologist Paul Stirling in the late 1940s, half a dozen American anthropologists set out to do ethnographic research in Turkey in the late 1960s. Paul J. Magnarella was a constitutive part of this peculiar moment in the history of anthropology of Turkey, which left us a body of now-classic works on drastic social transformation in postwar Turkey. The following autobiographical essay presents, for the first time, Magnarella’s fascinating academic life and his experiences in Turkey.

Magnarella’s relationship with Turkey began as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1963–65, an experience that motivated him to pursue an academic career in anthropology. In 1969–70, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the town of Susurluk in western Turkey about the effects of modernization on local social relations. His book Tradition and Change in a Turkish Town (1974) is one of the first ethnographic accounts published in English about the political and social transformation in Turkey’s countryside in the 1950s–60s. As a study of a “town,” the mediator between village communities and metropoles, the book distinguishes itself from both the village monographs and urbanization studies of its time. It is also unique in bringing together statistical data gathering techniques, such as surveys, with intensive ethnographic fieldwork. The book is of course a product of its age and to some degree embraces the modernization narrative ; nevertheless, more surprising are the parts where Magnarella shows a critical stance towards the developmentalist rhetoric.

In his following visits in the 1970s, Magnarella also conducted a study of a Georgian village in Turkey. That work, published in English as The Peasant Venture : Tradition, Migration, and Change among Georgian Peasants in Turkey (1979), represents one of the very few studies of peasant communities that were created by the influx of immigrants from the Caucasus region during the late Ottoman period. Magnarella continued to publish on Turkish society in the following decades and his work has rightfully become a key reference in the field of anthropology of Turkey. Thus, I believe that the following account will be of great interest of readers of BEROSE.

My Anthropological Adventures in Turkey (1963-present)

by Paul J. Magnarella
(University of Florida ; Warren Wilson College)

1. The Early Years

1.1. Waterbury, the Brass City : A Hometown for Immigrants

My hometown was Waterbury, Connecticut, USA, located in the Naugatuck Valley. During my youth it was known as the Brass City. For more than 150 years the American brass industry was centered along the Naugatuck Valley. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Waterbury was the leading center in the United States for the manufacture of brassware. The city’s major metal employers were Scovill Manufacturing, Anaconda American Brass, and Chase Brass and Copper. At its peak during World War II, Scovill alone employed about 10,000 workers. Before and after WW1, thousands of immigrants passed through Ellis Island, New York and moved to the Valley to work in the brass industry. The Irish arrived first, joining the already settled English. They were followed by Lithuanians, Italians, Poles, French Canadians, American Blacks, and others.

My paternal grandfather, Paolo Magnarella, immigrated to the US from Fondi, Italy just prior to the World War I. Like many immigrants, he planned to earn money and return to his homeland. Once the war ended, he did just that, but discovered that Italy’s economic situation had not improved. Consequently, he returned to the US, and shortly thereafter he sent for his family (a wife and four sons) to join him. They settled in the Brooklyn section of Waterbury.

The Waterbury characteristics that most influenced my anthropological perspective were its rich ethnic diversity and distinct neighborhoods. The Brooklyn neighborhood where my paternal grandparents settled was dominated by Italians and Lithuanians. One of the Italian landmarks there was Divagard’s bakery, which created a delicious Italian bread that was only rivaled by bread produced by Spinnelli’s Italian bakery in the city’s Italian North End. The Lithuanian community flourished in Brooklyn. They established St. Joseph’s Church and grammar school and numerous businesses and associations. St. Joseph’s Church, a beautiful edifice, ranked as the first Lithuanian church in New England.

Italians also clustered in the upper North End and in Town Plot. Each neighborhood had its own Catholic church (St. Lucy and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, respectively) where priests delivered sermons and prayers in Italian. Each neighborhood featured Italian cobblers, barbers, pastry shops, restaurants, pizzerias and groceries. The last especially impressed me with their barrels of imported olives, hanging dried fish and large cheeses. The big groceries also sold crates of grapes during the fall wine-making season. Some Italian men, who had access to a basement or cellar, made wine. They purchased large quantities of grapes, put them through a grape grinder and press, and then stored the wine juice in wooden casks to ferment. My father did this for a number of years. I helped him by grinding. It was my favorite job, because, while doing it, I ate as many grapes as my stomach could hold.

The lower North End was largely occupied by Waterbury’s Black population. They formed at least two Baptist churches. The East End had historically been home to many of Waterbury’s Irish immigrants. They created Sacred Heart Church, and many of their children attended Sacred Heart grammar and high school. The South End was the home of Waterbury’s French-Canadian immigrants. Their community erected St. Anne’s Church, one of Waterbury’s largest churches with one of Connecticut’s only French-Canadian speaking congregations. The lower Willow Street section was home to various ethnicities, but the Irish predominated there. They erected St. Margaret’s Church and grammar school. Some successful English and Jewish businessmen lived in impressive one-family homes in the upper Willow Street and Columbia Boulevard area.

The office of mayor frequently rotated between an English and an Irish undertaker. The city boasted a good number of Italian, Irish, English and Jewish doctors, dentists, pharmacists and lawyers. My favorite dentist and physician were Dr. DiPietro (an Italian) and Dr. Saltzman (a Jew). At Dr. Saltzman’s invitation I attended his son’s bar mitzvah, a most enjoyable occasion. My lady companion and I shared a dinner table with some of the doctor’s friends, who enthusiastically explained the significance of the various dinner foods and shared the jokes and traditional stories associated with bar mitzvah.

Unfortunately, the city’s rich ethnic diversity was accompanied by divisive ethnic slurs. An Italian could derogatively be called or referred to as a Guinea or Wop ; Irish were Micks, French were Frogs, Germans were Krauts, Poles were Polacks, a Jew was a Hymie or kike, a Hispanic person was a spic, and a Black was a nigger or a coon. I never heard my father (Constantino) utter any of these slurs. He worked at Scovill Manufacturing side by side with many non-Italians. I remember him speaking positively about fellow workers, whether they were Poles, Albanians, French or Italians, especially paysans (men from his former region of Italy).

1.2. Our Homes

The first home I remember was a single-family house in Oakville, a rural village outside Waterbury. Because my mother Josephine felt isolated there, we moved to a tenement house in Waterbury’s Italian North End, when I was in the first grade of grammar school. My dad worked as a metal buffer in the nearby Scovill manufacturing plant. When I was about to enter the fifth grade, my mother was able to enroll my five-year-old sister Jo-Ann one year prematurely, in St. Joseph’s elementary school in Brooklyn. She had to spend two years in kindergarten, and I had to transfer to St. Joseph’s Grammar, so that I could bring my sister by bus across town to school. At St. Joseph’s I gained many Lithuanian friends. I especially remember some Lithuanian students, known as DPs (displaced persons), who had recently arrived in the US. Once a week, the Lithuanian students in my class were taken to another room for Lithuanian language instruction. I remember that when one of my Italian classmates tried to join them, our teacher (a Sister of the Holy Ghost) pulled him out of line because he wasn’t Lithuanian.

Two years later we moved to the Willow Street area, about a block from St. Margaret’s Church. My parents had saved enough money to buy a three-family house on mortgage. We lived on the second floor (which was easier to heat) and rented out the first and third. This was the ideal situation for many immigrant families. My sister enrolled in St. Margaret’s elementary school, but I continued to attend St. Joseph’s until graduation about a year later. While in this neighborhood, I had a large number of friends from diverse ethnicities : Irish, Italian, French, Albanian, English, and Jewish.

1.3. Post-Elementary School

After grammar school I attended Crosby High, which was considered Waterbury’s academic high school. The other two public high schools were Levenworth (regarded as a school for future factory workers) and Wilby (considered a school for future secretaries). Because my mother had years ago enrolled me in school prematurely, I was usually the youngest and shortest male in my class. This age disparity with my classmates affected me negatively both socially and academically. For the first two years I did very well in mathematics. However, in the third year I was mistakenly placed in a remedial class with a poor teacher. Hence, I never progressed in the numbers’ realm. In my third year I joined the swim team. One of my best friends was a teammate from a prominent English family. The devotion to intense training that competitive swimming required positively influenced my commitment to other activities.

In my senior year, the dean (whom I had never previously seen or known) had my class take an aptitude or interest test in preparation for college. Later, the dean called me into her office to review my test results. She noticed that I had scored high on artistic interests. However, after asking me about my family, she recommended that I major in business. Consequently, I would enter the University of Connecticut planning to major in insurance.

The next summer, I worked as a lifeguard at Sherwood Island State Park in wealthy Westport, Connecticut. I was the youngest and least formally educated of the guards. The guard captain, an African American from an upper-class family, had just graduated from Yale and was bound for medical school. Two of the guards were schoolteachers, two were college students, and one was a prep-school graduate, looking forward to attending Yale. We all lived together in a large house on the Park. By quietly observing and listening, I learned from all of them. One of the teachers sparked my interest in summer stock theater. Hence, a couple of evenings a week I ushered at the Westport Playhouse. There I enjoyed the opportunity of meeting Sammy Davis Junior, Carol Channing, Ryan O’Neal, and other actors/actresses. These summer experiences and social relations added a modicum of maturity and sophistication to my character.

2. The University and Thereafter

Having been born and raised in Connecticut, I made the practical but mistaken decision to attend the state university. In the late 1950s, the University of Connecticut’s low tuition did not compensate for its provincialism. Having read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) in high school, I imagined college as an opportunity to meet a rich variety of people from around the country, even from around the world. Instead, practically everyone I encountered at the University of Connecticut seemed to originate from Bridgeport or New Haven. I further erred by following the advice of my high school “guidance” counselor. At the University of Connecticut, business studies and a uniformly local student body combined to create a stable but uninspiring four years.

After graduation in 1959, I served in the U.S. Marine Corps to satisfy my military obligation. Then I tried my hand at business. Lacking a true dedication to hustle for money, however, I began teaching junior high school under a temporary certificate while earning a master of education degree through night courses at Fairfield University. Junior high social studies, especially history and geography, reminded me how much of the world I was missing. Then President John F. Kennedy told us of his Peace Corps vision : Americans volunteering to live and work abroad with and for others. Numerous motivations—some clear, others hazy—impelled me to join the Peace Corps. Among them was a wish to offset the academic and social disappointments of my college years.

I applied for idealistic and practical reasons. Helping others was appealing, but the major beneficiary would be me. Even though I specified no country preference, the Peace Corps’ invitation to train for an assignment in Turkey delighted me. Learning Turkish and living among the Muslim descendants of the Ottomans—how exotic and exciting !

3. Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV)

About eighty invitees reported to the Georgetown University campus in June 1963 to begin training. Most were bright, young idealists anxious for an overseas adventure. They came from a variety of backgrounds, colleges, and states. They were the kinds of people F. Scott Fitzgerald had written about. For ten weeks we immersed ourselves in courses on Turkish language, history, and society, and we tested our character with challenging canoe trips through the rapids of the upper Potomac. Our Peace Corps group, known as Turkey II (1963–65), was designated to teach English as a foreign language in public middle and high schools in Turkey’s provincial capitals. Having taught English grammar for a year to American seventh graders, I felt qualified for the assignment. The instruction we received in teaching English as a foreign language from Georgetown University linguists also helped. The organizers of the training program made a genuine effort to sensitize us and to foster respect for our future hosts. In retrospect, the training succeeded as well as could be expected. Living in a foreign culture, like being married, is too deep a social, physical, and psychological experience to convey to others through readings and lectures. Probably the best we can do is counsel patience, tolerance, and respect.

After a brief adjustment period in Ankara, the volunteers set out in small groups by mini-bus for their teaching sites. Another volunteer and I were driven to Burdur, a provincial capital of about 35,000 residents (in 1963) in southwestern Turkey on the edge of the Anatolian Plateau. We survived in this city largely because of the help and sincere hospitality of practically everyone we stumbled into. Fellow teachers and students always seemed to be there to answer our questions or to help solve our problems. Their friendship made this strange town become home. Few could speak English, but they had the patience to help us understand.

During much of this first year, I lived in the bachelor section of the high school lodgings (pansiyon) along with four other Turkish teachers, who had come to Burdur from distant parts of Turkey. They taught me to speak Turkish, to play the mandolin, to wash properly in the Turkish bath (hamam), to enjoy Turkish food, and to appreciate Turkish humor and political satire, as well as to empathize with my village students, whose families had sent them away to school at great expense and with even greater hope.

During the day, I taught English to five classes of fifty to seventy students each. They sat there alertly, three to a bench in their blue jackets and dresses, eager to hear a native speaker create the magical sounds of English and amused to hear him stumble badly over Turkish. In the winter, each classroom was heated by one small wood stove attended by the students themselves. Light was provided by a single electric bulb that glowed so dimly the students were unable to see the writing on the blackboard in the late afternoon. I never ceased to marvel at their ability to learn under these conditions with barely a complaint.

3.1. The Peace Corps Volunteer as Anthropologist

My one college course in cultural anthropology proved very useful as I lived in Turkey, first in Burdur and then in Antalya, teaching in the local schools. From anthropology I gained an appreciation for cultural variation and an aversion to ethnocentrism. I found the different ways Turks carried out ordinary tasks intriguing. Although I rated cultural anthropology as my favorite college course, actually becoming an anthropologist seemed a totally unrealistic aspiration. Careers in anthropology, I thought, were reserved for a select few who could reside abroad for extended periods and then write fascinating books at a leisurely pace without worrying about earning a living.

Consequently, joining the Peace Corps formed no part of a plan to become an anthropologist. On the contrary, I envisioned studying Renaissance art and history in Italy immediately after completing my Peace Corps tour. Besides, being an anthropologist required fluency in an unusual language. During Peace Corps training I had concluded that Turkish was beyond me. Because Turkish word order is the reverse of English, I doubted that I could ever think backwards fast enough to carry on a decent conversation even with the most patient Turks. To my joy and amazement, however, I was doing just that after a year in Turkey.

The circumstances prompting me to realize that I might be able to function as an anthropologist remain vivid. During my second year in Turkey, I revisited Yeşilköy, a romantically remote village on the edge of the Anatolian Plateau without electricity, plumbing, or hard roads. About six months earlier, the villagers had hosted me for three days when they were celebrating a wedding. During this visit, with my Turkish much improved and my mind and body accustomed to the rigors, smells, and tastes of peasant life, I enjoyed long, deep conversations with the village men about their lives and mine : our pasts, presents, and “God-willing” futures. For a moment during our talks, the former mono-lingual, mono-cultural, provincial me slipped apart from myself to observe the recast me from the far side of the room. Assessing in English this new counterpart, comfortably immersed in the Turkish peasant milieu, I felt a proud exhilaration. I realized a profound enrichment had occurred.

The Peace Corps experience provided me with the opportunity to learn how intellectually invigorating confronting the culturally different can be. New people, words, customs, ideas, and material creations constituted the stimuli for mental analysis, aesthetic enjoyment, and humanistic appreciation. Reaching understandings of previously strange and mysterious cultural phenomena gave me a novel sense of satisfaction and personal growth.

Peace Corps Turkey promoted an anthropological experience in at least four ways : by stressing the necessity of learning the local language to effectively communicate with ordinary people ; by requiring volunteers to live on the native economy at a standard comparable to their Turkish counterparts ; by assigning volunteers to a contributory role in the host country ; and by requiring a two-year, in-country commitment. Taken together, these factors enabled volunteers to become long-term participant observers in a true anthropological sense. By observing society from within as community participants, volunteers had the opportunity to gain the kind of empathetic comprehension many anthropologists hope for.

Furthermore, the host country’s own rich culture demanded special anthropological attention. Even the casual observer is intrigued by Turkey’s twentieth-century history : disintegrating Ottomanism, emergent Kemalist republicanism, its struggle towards political democracy and its contrasting peasant villages and expanding cities along with its culturally and geographically diverse regions. [1]

At the end of the first year, Sharlene Hagemann, also a PC volunteer and teacher, and I married in Ankara. We volunteered at an orphanage in Antakya in the summer, and later offered English classes in Antalya to middle and lycée students during the day, and to adults in the evening. We both enjoyed meeting teachers, students, shopkeepers and others in beautiful Antalya. At the conclusion of our Peace Corps assignment, I decided to pursue graduate education in the United States to better understand some of what we had seen and experienced.

4. Graduate Education

Initially, I entered Indiana University’s graduate program in political science, and one of my term papers dealing with Turkey’s 1965 election became my first scholarly publication (Magnarella 1967). Although I liked political science, a spare time reading of Titiev’s Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (1959) convinced me that anthropology offered better approaches to cross-cultural understanding [than the political science (A.S.)]. After one year at Indiana, I transferred to Harvard University, where I subsequently completed the master’s degree in social anthropology and the Ph.D. in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.

Living in Turkey as a Peace Corps volunteer contributed tremendously to my anthropological education at Harvard by providing empirical references for abstract theoretical frameworks. Emile Durkheim’s mechanical versus organic solidarity and Robert Redfield’s folk-urban continuum came to life as I applied them to Turkey. Term papers represented opportunities to try out different analytical approaches on Turkish data to solve sociocultural puzzles and compare the efficacy of rival theoretical models. Two of these term papers resulted in scholarly publications (Magnarella 1969, 1970).

Richard D. Robinson, a professor of international management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered a course on modern Turkish history at Harvard. In the late 1940s, Robinson had toured much of Turkey making keen observations on many aspects of its society, economy, and culture. The Institute of Current World Affairs published his reports as “Letters from Turkey” (e.g., Robinson 1949). I found both his course and his “Letters” extremely informative.

At Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, I also studied advanced Turkish with Dr. Zekiye Eglar, who was born in 1910. [2] Her mother Lalendar was the daughter of a Georgian prince, and her father Suleyman Pasha, originally from Azerbaijan, was a general in the Czar’s army. Dr. Eglar was fluent in Anatolian Turkish, Azeri Turkish, Russian and English. She had studied anthropology at Columbia University with Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Her extensive research in Pakistan resulted in her Ph.D. dissertation and a well-received book – A Punjabi Village in Pakistan (1960). For one year, I was her only student. I had purchased as many Turkish anthropology and sociology books and journals as I could order through Sinan Bookstore in Istanbul. Reading these with Dr. Eglar’s help and commentary provided me with an excellent foundation for fieldwork.

For my dissertation research, I decided to study the impact of modernizing processes on traditional Turkish culture and society within a small urban context. Anthropological studies of villages and large cities had already been done, but the Turkish town was largely unexplored. Crucial for the success of this research was the selection of a modernizing town whose authorities would permit my research. A good Turkish friend from Peace Corps days deserves the credit and my eternal gratitude for both the town selection (Susurluk) and a favorable local reception.

5. Returning to Turkey

5.1. Obtaining Official Permission

The Turkish government mandated that foreigners needed to secure official permission before conducting field research in Turkey. Applicants needed to submit forms to the Turkish Embassy explaining when, where, and what they planned to study. During the sixties, the Turkish authorities rejected many American applications or forbad requests to live and conduct research outside of Ankara, the capital city. Many aspiring anthropology students either had their research applications denied or their planned research strictly curtailed. I was one of the very few anthropologists, maybe the only anthropologist, who was allowed to live and study in a small, remote town for a full year. How my good fortune came about is a story worth telling.

In early October of 1967, while I was studying at Harvard, I received a phone call from Harvard’s Marshal’s Office, which served as a welcoming port for distinguished visitors to campus. The caller explained that a Turkish parliamentarian would be visiting Harvard on October 11, a day when the university would be closed for Columbus Day, a national holiday. She asked whether I, as a former Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey, would be willing to give the Turkish parliamentarian a tour of campus. I said yes and had the opportunity to meet Mr. Ismet Sezgin. The gentleman was in the final days of a lengthy US government-sponsored tour of the US, and he was homesick. After showing him around Harvard, I invited Mr. Sezgin back to our small apartment, where my wife Sharlene served him Lipton tea in the iconic Turkish hour-glass-shaped tea glasses. Mr. Sezgin held his glass up venerably and raved about the tea (the best he had had in the US).

Mr. Sezgin, whose English was limited, seemed delighted to converse with an American in Turkish. He inquired about my studies and was impressed that I was focusing on Turkish society and culture, and that I planned to return to Turkey for my dissertation research. He invited me to visit him in parliament once I got to Ankara.

Prior to going to Turkey in 1969, I had received a Fulbright grant and research permission from the Turkish Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs, but I had yet to hear from the Interior Ministry. About two months after I arrived in Susurluk, the local chief of police summoned me to his office. He apologetically explained that the Interior Ministry had denied my research permit and had ordered me to leave the country within 48 hours. I immediately boarded a bus to Ankara, and the following morning I went to the Fulbright office seeking help. The Fulbright director, a very congenial retired Turkish military officer, expressed sympathy, but claimed no one could question the Interior Ministry. Next, I set out to find Turkish parliamentarian İsmet Sezgin.

Mr. Sezgin’s Justice Party had just won a parliamentary majority in the 1969 general election, and Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel had appointed Mr. Sezgin as the head of the newly created Ministry of Youth and Sports. I found the Ministry in Ulus, the old section of Ankara, and entered the first of two anterooms. A young male aide went around the room asking each of the approximately two dozen people there to state their names and their reason for wishing to see the minister. From what I could hear, most were asking for money to support their local sports teams. One elderly man from Aydın (Sezgin’s home city) wanted an increase in his pension. After collecting this information, the aide allowed the whole group to enter the next anteroom. From there, supplicants were allowed into the minister’s office one by one at seven-to-eight-minute intervals. After over an hour of waiting, nine others and I were invited in together. We stood in line before the minister, who listened to each person’s petition and dictated to his özel kalem (literally “special pen” [private secretary, A.S.]) instructions for dealing with it. Each person, after speaking with the minister, exited the room.

I was the seventh in line. When my turn came, I quickly reminded the minister of his meeting my wife and me during his visit to Harvard two years earlier. He exclaimed his recognition and invited me to sit in one of the visitor chairs. After all the petitioners were gone. He welcomed me to his office and introduced me to his other guests (mostly government officials and party members) who were occupying visitor chairs lining both walls of the large office. First, Minister Sezgin politely inquired about my and Sharlene’s health. Then he asked how he could assist me. I reminded him that during his visit to our home I had described my studies and hopes of returning to Turkey to study its society and culture. I noted that my research permit had been approved by the Education and Foreign Ministries but rejected by the Interior Ministry. He expressed surprise at the rejection and instructed his özel kalem to phone the head of internal security and tell him that he, Ismet Sezgin, would be most grateful if he would meet with me to discuss my research plans. I thanked the minister and accompanied the özel kalem to an adjacent room where he made the phone call and arranged an appointment for me that very afternoon.

The building housing the Department of Internal Security was heavily guarded by armed soldiers. After explaining my business there, a guard led me to the anteroom outside the security head’s office. After a comparatively short wait, I was invited into the main office. The security head, Ibrahim Bey, introduced me to the mayor of Ankara, who was visiting him. Then Ibrahim Bey asked me for details about my research plans. He had an aide bring in my application file, which he examined. After more questions and my responses (all done in Turkish) Ibrahim Bey asked if I would send him a copy of my dissertation when it was completed. I, of course, said yes, and less than two years later I did so. He gave me a number and instructed me to return to Balıkesir (the capital city of the province in which Susurluk is located) and submit it to the security office there. In return I would receive my residency/research permit (ikamet tezkeresi). I thanked him, and once I exited the building, I danced with joy all the way back to my hotel.

5.2. Susurluk

A dear Turkish friend, who had attended my adult English classes back in Burdur days, suggested the town of Susurluk to me. An agricultural engineer, he had recently been assigned to the sugar beet refinery in Susurluk, a town of about 12,000 in 1969. Owing to the refinery, introduced in the late 1950s, the town and some of its surrounding villages were undergoing marked infrastructural changes, including new roads, cash cropping, and urban growth. Susurluk proved to be an excellent research site. My Turkish friend facilitated my entrance by introducing me to town officials, businessmen, and some factory workers.

In some respects, Susurluk’s history reminded me of my hometown of Waterbury. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the once vast Ottoman Empire was shrinking. As the Balkan states gained independence in the northwest and Russia expanded its domain in the north and east, Turks and other Muslim peoples sought refuge in Istanbul and Anatolia. Consequently, Balkan Turks, Bosnians, Albanians, Crimean Tatars, Georgians, Circassians, Nogai, Azeri Turks, Dagistanis and Gypsies resettled in villages around Susurluk in ethnic clusters. Just as the brass factories had attracted immigrant workers into Waterbury, so too did the sugar beet refinery and its attractive jobs lure people out of their ethnic villages into Susurluk. During my year in Susurluk, I had the opportunity of observing, meeting, interacting with and interviewing people from many of these ethnic backgrounds.

My goal was to understand and then offer a portrait of this town, explaining how its various sociocultural, economic, religious, geographic, and political elements fit together. The complex processes of change that occurred in Susurluk derived their essence, meaning, and dynamics from the aspirations and strivings of individual persons. The life movements of thousands of people taken together in their kaleidoscopic variety formed the images depicting Susurluk’s story. My main data sources included observing, meeting and talking with hundreds of people over a full year ; conducting a content analysis of local newspapers covering the previous ten years ; and administering a comprehensive questionnaire to 181 townsmen and a limited questionnaire to several hundred students. The resulting book—Tradition and Change in a Turkish Town (1974)—offers my portrait of Susurluk.

I illustrate through numerous case studies the various ways young Turks chose their spouses via elopement in order to circumvent the strict, patriarchal control of their male elders. I also explain the important role that ward chiefs play in mediating neighborhood conflicts and how mutual Muslim identification facilitated the town’s integration of the many ethnically diverse villagers who migrated there for work and new lives. For women, new lives included a more active role in their families’ economic decisions. I devote a significant part of the study to the changing kinship relations that industrialization and urbanization have caused. The traditional male-dominated family structure was being altered as expanded educational and employment opportunities fortified the status of the younger generation. The town’s traditional social structure was being altered as new, professional elites arrived from the major cities to take up industrial, medical, banking, and governmental positions.

6. My Godsends : Special People

A novice anthropologist’s first excursion into the field has been described variously as the initiation into the club, an episode in psychological trauma, a journey into self-discovery, and a stumbling towards pan-human awareness. Graduate students commonly criticize their professors for inadequately preparing them for this seemingly mystical adventure as well as for failing to divulge their own emotional grappling with this liminal stage of professional maturation. For me, however, returning to Turkey was like going back home. Thanks to my Peace Corps experience, I already knew the country better than any of my anthropology professors. My previous years in Turkey helped me to adjust quickly to living conditions, and my knowledge of Turkish enabled me to begin conversing with townspeople and collecting information immediately.

Among the most critical relationships that anthropologists forge in the field are those with their “key informants”—those godsends with the patience and charity necessary to transform cultural illiterates into passably civilized humans. In my own initiation to the club, many godsends stand out. I will mention only a few here. One was my landlady, a plump, five-foot two-inch peasant woman in her seventies with deep brown eyes and hennaed reddish-brown hair. She was an encyclopedia of local knowledge, who had outlived three husbands and her several children. For a year I lived with her and her fourth husband in their three-room house on one of the town’s main streets. We shared meals, entertained guests together, and passed many hours of enjoyable conversation either basking in the sun of their garden on mild days or huddled around their small wood stove on cold winter nights. Being illiterate, they entrusted me with the reading and writing of their correspondence. I shared household duties, like shopping and gardening. We became a family. I called her annem, my mother, and her husband amca, uncle ; they called me oğlum, my son. They never learned my name !

My Turkish mother was a treasure-trove of folkloric wisdom, a fortune teller, a Quranic prayer reciter, a popular curer, and a matchmaker. Over the year, she enriched my life with information about her varied activities. Through her I learned about the etiquette of Turkish home life and got a glimpse of the hidden world of traditional women. She baked special biscuits for me whenever I set out for a trip and ritualistically poured water on the steps to ensure that my journeys and returns would go smoothly. They always did. Before she died in 1977, she told me that we would reunite in the hereafter. “I made you my spiritual son,” she explained. “If you don’t attain paradise, Allah will let me bring you in.”

Another godsend was “Mustafa,” a young journeyman tailor, whom I met shortly after arriving in Susurluk. He worked in a tailor shop, owned by Arif, a master tailor and a municipal commissioner. Because the shop was conveniently located in the town’s center, a steady stream of men called on Arif to discuss town business. I visited the shop frequently to talk with Arif and Mustafa. We drank tea together and they introduced me to their many visitors. Mustafa was single and about my age. Because my wife had not accompanied me to Susurluk, I was temporarily “single” and spent much of my social time with Mustafa and his bachelor friends. Mustafa was born and grew up in Susurluk. Many townspeople knew him and liked him. Although he was not a politician, he was elected to a responsible office in the local major party. We never tired of conversing with each other, dining and drinking raki together with his many friends. Owing to his depth of knowledge about the town, he would either answer my numerous town-related questions or put me in touch with someone who could. We became brothers, and without his kind help I would not have understood the town to the degree that I did. Thanks to my Turkish mother, Mustafa, and other godsends, the research went extremely well, resulting in some lifelong friendships, treasured memories, a dissertation, several published articles, and a well-received book (Magnarella 1974).

The Susurluk adventure also led to another anthropological endeavor that enriched me with dear friends and fond memories. A Georgian friend in Susurluk put me in touch with Ahmet, a Georgian friend from Bursa, who had married a woman from a mountain village that had been settled by Georgian refugees from the Eastern Black Sea. Ahmet had a strong interest in Georgian culture and its preservation. He invited me to his wife’s village, a remote settlement without electricity or piped water. As a result of this visit, we agreed to work together to eventually publish a book describing the village’s history, its contemporary state, and the recent migration of some of its residents to Europe for work. Thanks to Ahmet, I was able to visit the village over the next few years, each time staying in the home of a large extended family and performing agricultural work with them as a participant observer. The result was a book entitled The Peasant Venture : Tradition, Migration and Change among Georgian Peasants in Turkey (1979).

7. After Fieldwork

After my Susurluk fieldwork, I returned to Harvard University to analyze my collected data and compose the doctoral dissertation. During this 1970–1971 period I enjoyed the good fortune of working again with Dr. Zekiye Eglar. While in Susurluk I had tape-recorded extensive interviews with my Turkish “mother” about rural folk practices surrounding life-cycle rituals and [about] women’s fertility practices. I read to her from Turkish books on these subjects and she elaborated on the practices, especially explaining local variations of them. I had also recorded interviews with a local imam, a mahalle muthar (ward chief), some craftsmen, and others. Dr. Eglar was especially helpful in translating Turkish colloquialisms into English. Mr. Derwood Lockhard, the co-director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and Professor Richard Robinson were also very supportive.

Joining the Peace Corps and teaching English in Turkish public schools constituted turning points in my life. Without these experiences I might have become a wealthy property lawyer, rather than a modestly salaried anthropology professor. The Turkish Peace Corps experience helped me appreciate foreign cultures, foreign travel, and the foreign students at my own university. It also enhanced my appreciation for American history, especially the Euro-colonial, Native American, African slave, and immigrant phases. Living and working overseas as a Peace Corps volunteer alerted me to the cultural ignorance and ethnocentrism of some international agency development experts. Consequently, I have become rather cautious of those grand schemes to “improve” other people’s lives that lack the input of knowledgeable sociocultural scientists. Having witnessed the meager consumption levels of Turkey’s villagers, I am disappointed by the disregard many Americans show for resource conservation. In my courses, I try to disabuse students of the notion that conspicuous acquisition, consumption, and display are equated with personal worth. I also try to improve their ability to empathize with fellow humans living under poverty conditions through no fault of their own. In short, the Turkish Peace Corps experience constituted the sine qua non of my anthropological career choice. It has recast me as a person and has positively influenced my orientation to life and the world around me.

8. Post-Harvard

After teaching for six years at the University of Vermont (1971–1977), I accepted a full professorship in anthropology at the University of Florida. The famous anthropological theorist Marvin Harris soon joined the department, and his book—Cultural Materialism (1979)—influenced my thinking. However, because I thought that his theoretical paradigm assigned too little agency to people, I developed an alternative paradigm that placed influential actors in the infrastructural component of sociocultural, econo-political systems. My book—Human Materialism (1993)—describes that paradigm or research strategy with actual applications.

While teaching at the University of Florida, I earned a doctoral degree in law and had the opportunity to serve as an expert-on-mission with the UN Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, the Netherlands. I also spent time in Arusha, Tanzania at the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (Magnarella 2000). In 2004, I joined Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts college near Asheville, North Carolina. At Warren Wilson, I created and directed the Peace and Justice Studies Program and published extensively in those areas. My major work was Human Rights in Our Time (2011). Throughout these years, I maintained a strong interest in Turkey. A fellow Turkish anthropologist (S. Aygen Erdentuğ) and I joined efforts to publish a comprehensive, historical study of Turkish anthropologists and anthropological departments in Turkish universities (Erdentuğ and Magnarella 2000). Earlier, Turkish rural sociologist Orhan Türkdoğan and I published a study on ritual relations in Eastern Turkey (Magnarella and Türkdoğan 1973).

In 2014 I retired from Warren Wilson, and two years later Sharlene and I returned to the University of Florida where I taught seminars on law and anthropology as an adjunct professor in the College of Law. During these years I was preparing legal petitions on behalf of an African American civil rights activist who had been unjustly imprisoned. This work was published as : Black Panther in Exile : The Pete O’Neal Story (2020). Along the way, Sharlene and I raised three wonderful children (Christine, Mark, and Brad), who have succeeded in their own careers.


I began drafting this intellectual autobiography on February 2, 2023. I thank Dr. Ali Sipahi for inviting me to examine those life experiences that influenced my thinking and anthropological writing.

References cited

Eglar, Zekiye. A Punjabi Village in Pakistan. New York : Columbia University Press, 1960.

Erdentug, Nermin, A Study of Social Structure of a Turkish Village. Ankara : Ayyildiz Matbaasi, 1959.

Erdentuğ, S. Aygen and Paul J. Magnarella, “Türkiye’deki Üniversitelerde Sosyal Anthropoloji’nin Dünü ve Bugünü : Biyo-Bibliyografik bir Değerlendirme [Social Anthropology in Turkey’s Universities Yesterday and Today : A Bio-Bibliographic Assessment] Folklor/Edebiyat [Folklore/Literature Journal, Special issue on Social Anthropology] v.6, n. 22, pp. 43–104 (2000).

Harris, Marvin. Cultural Materialism : The Struggle for a Science of Culture. New York : Random House, 1979.

Magnarella, Paul J. “Regional Voting in Turkey,” The Muslim World 57:3–4 : 224–34, 277–87 (1967).

Magnarella, Paul J. “The Turkish Bridewealth Practice in Transition,” The Muslim World 59:2 : 142–52 (1969).

Magnarella, Paul J. “From Villager to Townsman in Turkey,” Middle East Journal 24 : 2 : 229–40 (1970).

Magnarella, Paul J. Tradition and Change in a Turkish Town. Cambridge : Schenkman/ N.Y. : John Wiley, 1974 (revised ed. Schenkman, 1981). Published in Turkish as : Bir Türk Kasabasında Gelenek ve Değişim. Istanbul : Dorlion Press, 2020.

Magnarella, Paul J. and Orhan Türkdoğan, “Descent, Affinity and Ritual Relations in Eastern Turkey,” American Anthropologist 75:5:1626–33 (1973).

Magnarella, Paul J. with Ahmet Özkan, The Peasant Venture : Tradition, Migration and Change among Georgian Peasants in Turkey. Boston : G.K. Hall, Cambridge : Schenkman, 1979. Translated into Turkish as : Bir Köyün Serüveni. Türkiye’deki Gürcüler Arasında Gelenek, Göç, ve Değişim. Istanbul : Sinatle Press, 1997.

Magnarella, Paul J. Human Materialism : A Model of Sociocultural Systems and a Strategy for Analysis. Gainesville, FL : University Press of Florida, 1993.

Magnarella, Paul J. Justice in Africa : Rwanda’s Genocide, Its Courts, and the UN Criminal Tribunal. Aldershot, England : Ashgate Press, 2000. (Recipient of the Association of Third World Studies ‘Book of the Year 2000’ Award.)

Magnarella, Paul J. Human Rights in Our Time. Peace and Justice Press, 2011.

Magnarella, Paul J. Black Panther in Exile : The Pete O’Neal Story. Gainesville, FL : University Press of Florida, 2020. (Recipient of the Silver Medal in the 2020 Florida Book Awards General Nonfiction Category.)

Mansur, Fatma. Bodrum : A town in the Aegean. Leiden : E.J. Brill, 1972.

Stirling, Paul. Turkish Village. New York : John Wiley, 1965

Yasa, İbrahim. Hasanoğlan : Socioeconomic Structure of a Turkish Village. Ankara : Yeni Matbaası, 1957.

[1Ali Sipahi’s (A.S.) note : Here, Magnarella refers to the nation-building process led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s–30s upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the concomitant ruling nationalist and secularist ideology called Kemalism.

[2For the biography of this remarkable woman, see : Beena Sarwar, Introduction, Biography and Conclusion for The Political Economy of a Punjabi Village in Pakistan by Zekiye Eglar, commissioned by the Institute of Intercultural Studies, New York ; Oxford University Press, 2011.