Sydel Silverman was an anthropologist known for her work as a researcher, writer, academic administrator, and foundation executive. Her career in anthropology began with her graduate studies at the University of Chicago (1952-1957) and Columbia University (1957-63). After graduation she started teaching at Queens College in New York (1962-75) and became Executive Officer of the CUNY Ph.D. Program in Anthropology (1975-86). After leaving CUNY, she moved on to the Wenner-Gren Foundation, serving as president of the Foundation from 1987 to 1999.
Silverman was born on May 20, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois. Sydel, the youngest of seven siblings, was raised in the Jewish neighborhood of Lawndale on the west side of Chicago. Silverman credited her Uncle Hirschel for inspiring her to learn about foreign cultures and traditions, writing that her time spent with him reading about mysticism and oriental religions "may have been the beginnings of what became my interest in anthropology" (Silverman 2008).
Silverman graduated from high school in January 1951 and entered the University of Illinois at Navy Pier as a pre-med student. At the end of her second year at the University of Illinois, she entered the University of Chicago's program in Committee on Human Development, which combined study in biology, psychology, and sociology-anthropology. The program allowed students to enter with only two years of college with a special exam, which Silverman passed. She completed her Masters in 1957 and enrolled in the PhD program in Anthropology at Columbia University, during which she decided to focus her research on central Italy.
Silverman's first experience in Italy was in 1955 when she spent a year traveling through Europe with her first husband, Mel Silverman. They moved from city to city, beginning in Naples and then Rome, the city that Sydel writes was "the instant beginning of my love affair with Italy" (Silverman 2008). Upon their return from Europe the couple moved to New York. Sydel began working as a secretary but she soon decided to go back to school. She "picked anthropology, because it was the closest thing to being multi-disciplinary while still having a label, and Columbia was the obvious place to go in New York" (Silverman 2008). She was inspired to focus on the Mediterranean for her fieldwork because of Conrad Arensberg's cultural anthropological work in Europe.
In August of 1960 Sydel left for Italy to conduct a community study of the village Montecastello di Vibio. Silverman confessed in her memoirs that she was "never good at fieldwork," but she formed relationships with many of the locals who helped her collect data for her dissertation. Her research in Italy was one of the first social-anthropological studies of Central Italy and is known for its description of the traditional agrarian system of that area (the mezzadria) shortly before it was abolished by law. Silverman's dissertation research resulted in a book,
Three Bells of Civilization
, and numerous journal articles. She was awarded her Ph.D. in 1963.
Silverman's subsequent research in Italy included a study of a land reform area in the South (1967) and several field seasons (1980-85) devoted to a comparative study of competitive festivals in Central Italy. Most notable from this work are her publications on the Palio of Siena.
Silverman's other primary research interest has been in the history and practice of anthropology. She edited
Totems and Teachers
(1981, rev. 2004), a text about prominent anthropologists, and co-authored
One Discipline Four Ways
(2005). Her book
The Beast on the Table
(2002) analyzes twenty-five international symposia that she organized and led while at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and is a record of the living history of anthropology. She later became interested in parallels between the history of anthropology and that of the movies, which she presented as the 2006 Distinguished Lecture to the American Anthropological Association (published in
The American Anthropologist
Volume 109, Issue 3). In addition, she initiated an effort to save the primary documents of anthropology, co-authoring with Nancy Parezo the book
Preserving the Anthropological Record
(1992, rev. 1995) and co-organizing CoPAR (the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records).
Silverman's career as an administrator began in 1970 when she was elected as departmental chair at Queens College. In 1975 she was chosen as the Executive Officer of the CUNY Ph.D. Program in Anthropology, and under her leadership the program went from disarray and the threat of elimination to being cited as one of the ten top anthropology doctoral programs in the country. She also led a successful effort to retain full anthropology departments at all the senior CUNY colleges during the New York City budget crises of 1965-76. In 1987 she was appointed president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and acted as the spokesperson for the Foundation, overseeing fellowship and grant funding and advocating for the field of anthropology. She retired from Wenner-Gren in 1999.
Silverman died of cancer on March 25, 2019 at age 85.
Silverman, Sydel. 2008. "Memoirs." Sydel Silverman Papers: Box 42. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Roberts, Sam. "Sydel Silverman, 85, Dies; Defended Anthropology in Academia."
New York Times
, April 5, 2019.
Born May 20 in Chicago, Illinois
January: Entered University of Illinois at Navy Pier, pre-med, through August 1952
Entered University of Chicago, Program in Human Development
December 27: Married Mel Silverman
September: Entered Columbia University, Department of Anthropology
Received M.A. from University of Chicago
Conducted fieldwork in Montecastello di Vibio
September: Began teaching classes at Queens College, CUNY
Fall semester: Acting Chairman, Dept. of Anthro., Queens
Tenure awarded, Queens College
Department Chairman, Anthropology, Queens
March 18: Married Eric R. Wolf
Executive Officer of Ph.D. Program in Anthropology, CUNY Graduate School (through June 1982)
Festival research and travels in Italy: Siena, Perugia, Gubbio, Rome, Florence, Geneva
September: Acting Dean of the Graduate School, CUNY
President of Wenner-Gren Foundation
Eric R. Wolf died
Retired from Wenner-Gren presidency
Silverman died of cancer on March 25 at age 85
Silverman, Sydel F. "Agricultural Organization, Social Structure, and Values in Italy: Amoral Familism Reconsidered."
70 (February 1968): 1-20.
Silverman, Sydel F. "'Exploitation' in Rural Central Italy: Structure and Ideology in Stratification Study."
Comparative Studies in Society and History
12 (July 1970): 327-339.
Three Bells of Civilization: the Life of an Italian Hill Town
. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
Silverman, Sydel. "Anthropology and the Crisis at CUNY."
17, no.10 (December 1976): 7-10.
Silverman, Sydel, ed.
Totems and Teachers: Key Figures in the History of Anthropology
. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
Silverman, Sydel. "Anthropological Perspectives on Suicide." In
Suicide: The Will to Live vs. The Will to Die
, edited by Norman Linzer, 225-233. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1984.
Silverman, Sydel. "Anthropology and History: Understanding the Boundaries."
19 (Summer 1986): 123-126.
Silverman, Sydel and Nancy J. Parezo, eds.
Preserving the Anthropological Record
. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1992.
The Beast on the Table: Conferencing with Anthropologists
. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.