Laureation address: Professor Anthony Cohen CBE

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Dr Mark Harris

Thursday 22 June 2017

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Professor Anthony Paul Cohen.

Anthony Cohen began his academic career as a research fellow at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. He had briefly studied at the University of Geneva and the University of Southampton, where he graduated with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and politics, and then a PhD in Anthropology. His first teaching post was at Queen’s University, Ontario, followed by eighteen years at the University of Manchester. In 1988, he was appointed to Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, where he was Head of Department for seven years. He also served as the University’s Convener of Postgraduate Studies, and from 1997 until 2002 he was the University’s Provost of Law and Social Sciences, and the Dean of Social Sciences.

In 2003 Anthony Cohen became Principal and Vice-Patron of Queen Margaret University College. Four years later, following the award of university title by the Privy Council and the Scottish Government, he became Queen Margaret University’s first Principal and Vice-Chancellor. Under his six years of leadership of Queen Margaret University, Anthony Cohen oversaw the development and relocation of the university’s main campus to a purpose-built new, green site at Craighall, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. More than 5,000 staff and students now work on the site, which was officially opened by the Queen in July 2008. In that same year, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, became the first British university to open a campus in Singapore.

Anthony Cohen was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2008 Birthday Honours list in recognition of his significant contribution to higher education in Scotland and the UK. He has also been elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

When he retired in 2009, he did so as Scotland’s most senior social anthropologist. Anthony Cohen was part of a lively group of British, European and North American anthropologists who established the anthropological study of western industrialised societies.

Professor Cohen conducted first-hand fieldwork in Springdale, Newfoundland, on town politics, and followed this by research on the Shetland island of Whalsay over a seventeen-year period, the longest sustained study of a rural British community ever undertaken.

He is the author and editor of ten books, and author of more than fifty published academic papers and chapters. His theoretical areas of interest include local-level politics, symbolism, and selfhood. He has made substantial intellectual contributions in two main directions: the first is in the anthropological study of society and culture within the British Isles; and the second in the study of identity, especially the relationship between individual and community.

Anthony Cohen has written: ‘If we do not do descriptive justice to individuals, it is hard to see how we could do it for societies’. His aim for social anthropology is to ensure that people have rights to their own identities as individuals. Not only does this sum up a unique voice that Anthony Cohen gave to anthropology worldwide, but also the ethos that he brought to bear on his personal relations with students and colleagues.

Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to Scottish academic and intellectual life, for his pioneering work in the anthropology of the UK, for his leadership of Queen Margaret University as its inaugural Principal, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Professor Anthony Cohen.

Dr Mark Harris
School of Philosophical, Anthropological & Film Studies


Professor Anthony Cohen's response

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Mr Laureator, graduates (much worthier than me), ladies and gentlemen.

First, I humbly thank the Senatus Academicus for the extraordinary honour of this degree. I’ve been privileged to have had connections, formal and informal, with the Department of Social Anthropology since its inception nearly 40 years ago.

As an old friend and colleague of its founding members, the inspirational, much missed David Richards, soon joined by the young and eternally youthful Professor Roy Dilley, later on by Professor Nigel Rapport, who somehow survived having me as his PhD supervisor to then develop his own exceptional and distinguished career.

From the very start, St Andrews anthropology immediately established itself as a distinctive centre of scholarship. In the unusual broad-mindedness of its theoretical approaches, in its fields of research, in its outreach to cognate disciplines. And, as I learned with pleasure, as departmental eternal examiner for several years, in its teaching. St Andrews graduates had then a wonderful breadth of learning, and no doubt that is evident in today’s graduates. And congratulations to the University of S Andrews, for its gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), published today.

Past and present members of staff and their students have embedded the tradition of reaching way past the conventionalities of contemporary scholarship. To make authentically original, enlightening and essential contributions, and long may this tradition continue. 

Chancellor, I’ve been retired for so long that as I listened to Dr Harris’s most generous remarks, it was like hearing someone else’s work described. An academic career always seemed to me a great privilege, to have pursued the second half of mine in Scotland, at Edinburgh, was a privilege. And then, for my final post, to been entrusted with leading the creation of one of Scotland’s newest universities, with, I may say, the constant support of Dr Brian Lang, then Principal of St Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university, a very singular privilege. 

Academic life was being made ever more difficult throughout my career, and now as I look on from the detachment of retirement, I do not envy the Principal and her colleagues the tasks which they face. 

One great measure of their success is in today’s graduates, who could not have had better grounding and preparation for what is to come. And I offer you my sincere congratulations and best wishes for your future success and happiness. And again, I thank St Andrews for this further association with the University which embodies the finest values of academic scholarship and education.