Campus & Community

Beatrice Blyth Whiting, anthropologist, dies at 89

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Emerita of education at Graduate School of Education

Beatrice Blyth Whiting, a leading anthropologist of childhood and professor emerita of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, died on Sept. 29 of pneumonia at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. She was 89.

Whiting was a pioneer in psychological anthropology and the comparative study of child development, and was one of the first women to be appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard University. She investigated the activities, relationships, and learning of children and women in diverse cultures, particularly in developing countries. She devised a naturalistic approach to the observation of child behavior that was influential in child development research. Her methods combined the anthropologist’s knowledge of local communities and families with the psychologist’s systematic assessments of child behavior and development. Her research was as concerned with the changing lives of women throughout the world as with the development of their children.

Whiting’s book with Carolyn P. Edwards, “Children of Different Worlds: The Formation of Social Behavior” (1988), based on field studies in 14 diverse communities, was a landmark study of children’s social lives and the development of gender roles. Her forthcoming book with Edwards, “Ngecha: A Kenyan Community in a Time of Rapid Social Change,” focused on the lives of Kikuyu women in Kenya, will be published by University of Nebraska Press later this year.

Whiting’s long-term collaboration with her husband of 60 years, John W.M. Whiting, a fellow anthropologist and professor at Harvard who died in 1999, formed the basis of a unique research-training center for more than 30 years (1952-85). She was the devoted mentor to many students who became her long-term collaborators in cross-cultural research projects.

Whiting was born in New York on April 14, 1914, and raised on Staten Island. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1935, Whiting became one of the first women to study anthropology at Yale. She did fieldwork among the Paiute Indians in Oregon and received her Ph.D. in 1943; her dissertation was published as a book, “Paiute Sorcery: A Study of Social Control” (1950). She lectured at Brandeis University and conducted research at Wellesley College prior to joining Harvard as a research associate in 1952; she became a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1973 and retired in 1980. She was a distinguished fellow at the Henry A. Murray Center for the Study of Lives at Radcliffe College from 1980 to 1985.

In 1954, the Whitings initiated the Six Cultures Study of Socialization of the Child, involving field studies on three continents, with collaborators from Yale and Cornell. In 1966, they founded and directed the Child Development Research Unit at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and conducted fieldwork in a rural Kikuyu community. They and their students carried out field studies there and brought Kenyans to Harvard for graduate training from 1966 to 1973. After their retirement, the Whitings directed the Comparative Adolescence Project, including studies on four continents, with Irven DeVore from 1980 to 1985.

Whiting was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1978-79. The Whitings jointly received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association in 1982 and the Career Contribution Award of the Society for Psychological Anthropology in 1989. In 1987, Beatrice Whiting received the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award from the Society for Research in Child Development.

The Whitings remained active in the Martha’s Vineyard community, where Mr. Whiting was born, and Mrs. Whiting served on the Board for Community Service for many years.

Her husband, John W.M. Whiting, and her son, William Bradford Whiting, predeceased Whiting. She is survived by her daughter, Susan Whiting of Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard, and Stuart, Florida.