Sidney Wilfred Mintz is a major figure in anthropology’s synthesis of the study of local people and places with world history, and he has contributed significantly to the anthropology of food, work, the Caribbean, and the African American experience. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1961. He spent most of his career at Yale University and the Johns Hopkins University, where he was William L. Straus, Jr., Professor of Anthropology. He was a stimulating and much beloved teacher. Mintz, together with Eric Wolf, William Roseberry, Eleanor Leacock, June Nash, and others, developed the neo-Marxist school in anthropology that is often called “political economy.”
Mintz was a member of an influential cohort of students of Julian Steward, who significantly advanced the cultural anthropological study of complex societies, and worked on Steward’s People of Puerto Rico project. Mintz studied an industrial sugar plantation region of the island’s south coast and, together with his close friend and fellow Steward student Eric Wolf, authored a key article comparing haciendas and plantations. This work pioneered the idea that the various social and cultural formations of Latin America and the Caribbean were shaped by their connection to world capitalism over long historical periods rather than being traditional societies only recently affected from the outside; the work anticipated and influenced “dependency” and “world systems” theorists of the global economy. Mintz also compiled a much admired life history of a Puerto Rican sugar cane plantation worker who was also his close friend, Anastacio (Taso) Zayas ( Worker in the Cane), contributing significantly to the anthropology of work, the study of political and religious change, and life history studies.
Mintz continued in Caribbean ethnography, working in Haiti and Jamaica among former slave populations-turned-free peasants and offering a variety of influential articles on market systems as forms of articulation, Creole languages, and so forth. This culminated in an innovative approach to African American cultural history in a coauthored book with Richard Price. Previous work either had seen slaves as being wiped clean of culture due to the oppression of the experience or had searched for specific African culture traits surviving in the Americas. Mintz and Price argued instead for specific cultural processes within the slave communities themselves, notably the development of shared African American Creole cultures. Mintz continues to explore the Caribbean experience, recently arguing that this region anticipated globalization in the sense of developing new and open-ended cultures as part of global connections from Columbus onward while at the same time maintaining an experience and ethos of local place.
In Sweetness and Power (1985), Mintz followed sugar from the production sites in the periphery (industrially organized plantations even during the slave era) to consumption sites, linking sugar as a “drug” to the changes in factory and household work caused by the core’s industrial revolution. Thus, he widened our understanding of capitalism, bringing into consideration pleasure and consumption as well as toil and also bringing into consideration geographic sites such as the Caribbean as much as Great Britain and other archetypically modern locales. Mintz continued to develop the anthropology of food in Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (1996), which explored the consumption of food as an arena in which people assemble cultures out of wide-ranging components and relationships in the world economy. Finally, he has articulately restated the case for in-depth ethnography, even as he is noted for his exploration of long historical and global-scale processes.
- Mintz, S. W. (1974). Caribbean transformations. Chicago: Aldine.
- Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Viking.
- Mintz, S. W. (1996). Tasting food, tasting freedom: Excursions into eating, culture, and the past. Boston: Beacon.
- Mintz, S. W., & Price, R. (1992). The birth of African-American culture: An anthropological perspective. Boston: Beacon. (Original work published 1976)