Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil | The Ethnologist

Prof. PhDr. JUDr. Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil, Ph.D. DSc.

Leopold Jaroslav Pospisil is a well-known professor of comparative law, who has held an influential position at Yale University for more than two decades. Leopold Pospisil is one of the pioneers and founders of a type of field study in anthropology, called legal anthropology. He was born in Olomouc in April 26, 1923, in former Czechoslovakia. He studied law at Charles University in Prague and philosophy in West Germany. During the Second World War, he was devoted to farming to avoid forced labour in Nazi Germany, then he briefly acted as a lawyer. Pospisil emigrated to the United States in 1948, where he studied a master´s degree in sociology in Oregon. His doctorate of philosophy in anthropology was received at Yale University. Furthermore, he achieved the honour and title of ´candidate of science´ at the Faculty of Law of Charles University in Prague.

From 1956 to 1983 he worked at Yale University as a professor of anthropology and curator of the anthropology department of the Peabody Museum at the same time. In 1984 he was appointed as a member of the National Academy of Science. He used to work among others as a senior human rights adviser to US presidents and has lectured at over 50 universities around the world. After 1989, he returned to Czechoslovakia, to talk at Charles University or in his hometown Olomouc, when he received the Prize of the city of Olomouc for his lifelong work. In 1994, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles University.

Professor Leopold Pospisil based his own studies on his rigorous anthropology field research, for example the Hopi Indians in Arizona, Kapauku in Papua New Guinea, and Eskimos of Nunamiut in Alaska or the Tyrolean village in Obernberg in Austria. He is author of a number of anthropological studies. The most important include: Kapauku Papuan Economy, New Haven, 1963; Kapauku Papuans and Their Law, New Haven, 1958; The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea, New York, 1963; Anthropology of Law: A Comparative Theory, New Haven, 1971. Pospisil has contributed and deeply influenced the anthropological discipline with his research and by using so called ´legal pluralism´ as well as the nature of ownership and overall interest in economic anthropology.

Professor Pospisil, when did you become interested in anthropology?

I had had a number of friends during Masaryk´s Czechoslovakia before the Second World War. I had many German friends, because at that time Olomouc was a German city. However, some of these friends rapidly changed within one year after the arrival of Hitler and they became SS men. They were decent guys from decent families, sometimes even Catholics and these people would kill me just because I am Czech. Then I began to wonder, how this is possible? How is it possible that from the decent young people came such a beast? Well, through this it all began.

This was, therefore the first impetus for your studies?

Yes. I studied biology and medicine myself, but I wanted to proceed to social science, but it had not been available, so I ended up with medicine and I began by studying law at Charles University. This was in 1945, and in 1948 I received a doctorate in law. I was not fully satisfied with only studying law, so I also studied in Olomouc. Moreover, I even taught Chinese in Prague.


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