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Remembering Oscar Salemink (1958-2023)

by Ellen Bal, Freek Colombijn, Ton Salman, Irene Stengs and Marjo de Theije

Our friend, former colleague, and eminent anthropologist Oscar Salemink passed away on 23 September 2023, 64 years young. He left a lasting impression not only on us but also on many other friends, his former PhD students and scholars around the world.

Oscar obtained his doctoraal diploma (Master of Science) at Radboud University in 1987 and his PhD at the University of Amsterdam in 1999. His dissertation was titled Beyond complicity and naiveté: contextualizing the ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders, 1850-1990 and addresses several of his major research interests: the anthropology of Vietnam, the colonial and postcolonial context in which much ethnography has been produced, and his desire to probe deeper, going “beyond” accepted views.

Oscar completed his PhD while he worked at the Programme Office of the Ford Foundation in Bangkok and Hanoi (1996-2001). He returned to the Netherlands to work at the anthropology department of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam starting in 2001, where he began as an assistant professor, but in 2005, he was appointed as full professor à titre personnel, that is, a chair was created especially for him. He left the VU in 2011, having accepted the Professor in the Anthropology of Asia position at Copenhagen University, where he stayed until his early death. He also held an honorary position as an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Religion, Politics and Society of the Australian Catholic University of Melbourne.

Little more than a week before his death, an event was organised in Copenhagen, “Celebrating Oscar Salemink” with twenty-plus speakers and far over a hundred other participants from all over the world, both online and in situ. The event was an impressive tribute to his work and his personality. The many speakers from Vietnam, some occupying top positions as deans of faculties of social science at the best universities or director of the National Museum of Ethnology, testify to his impact on anthropology in Vietnam. He has pushed Vietnamese scholars from a conventional study of folklore to a more adventurous study of contemporary Vietnam. Others referred to his work on the anthropology of religion, decolonization, and modernization, or his enthusiasm for anthropology and open, lively debate, which stimulated young scholars to stay in Academia. And speakers almost invariably mentioned his generosity and commitment towards his colleagues close by and far away, his strong and special sense of humour and his loud laughter.

In our obituary, we would like to concentrate on his role in the anthropology department at the VU. He arrived together with three other assistant professors when the department was seeking a major rejuvenation in 2001. While Oscar did not change the department single-handedly, he certainly played a significant role in reinvigorating the department and making it arguably the most vibrant anthropology department in the Netherlands. He put his own stamp on the curriculum, the research program, and the general atmosphere.

At the time Dutch universities changed the old four-year doctoraal programmes to the Bachelor-Master structure introduced throughout the European Union. Oscar was one of the architects of the Master’s programme and urged us not to take simply the fourth year of the old doctoraal programme as the Master’s programme, but to really think out the Master’s as an independent programme of one year, including a three-month period of fieldwork. The result was a tough but strong and coherent programme, which was doable but with tight deadlines. He was adamant that the length of the theses was restricted to prevent students from waffling. Notorious were his speeches to the Master students at annual the departure for the fieldwork ritual: “You think you have worked hard the past months? Wait until you are in the field! And when you have returned, you will have to work even harder to write your thesis in time”, or something of this kind.

Oscar also played a key role in developing “human security” as the central theme of the departmental research. The theme brought together the department’s two main historical research foci: the anthropology of religion and developmental studies. The “human security” theme raised questions about practical security issues and existential questions about what may make people feel secure. Oscar was instrumental in bringing top scholars as temporary research fellows to the VU, like James Ferguson and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who found a stimulating environment partly because of Oscar’s presence. Eriksen joined the department as a visiting professor and helped develop the idea of human security, remarking that some people do not seek security but freedom.  The Department thus succeeded in problematising and enriching the concept of human security.

Oscar had a major impact on the atmosphere in the department. Oscar was demanding of himself, his students, and his colleagues, but also generous with his time and support. For instance, he urged all staff to attend the whole one-day seminars where Master students presented their research proposal (ending in the farewell ritual just referred to) and later in the year their theses, and he mobilised the PhD students to attend staff meetings. The result was a department where people felt included and dedicated to their work and the team.

Despite his academic achievements, we will remember him first and foremost as a friend. The years with Oscar were the years with the most trips, visits, and outings, which could easily continue until the wee hours. He was famous for cracking jokes and his roaring laughter. He was fond of telling anecdotes, such as the seminar where he was discussing the work of Michel Foucault, and the audience looked in awe at him because of the physical resemblance between the two. Oscar had an inimitable way of twisting the Dutch language, which immediately made any email of him recognisable as one written by him. The fact that he continued to speak of “our department” years after he had left testifies to his commitment to the anthropology department at the VU.

Few people enjoyed life more than Oscar, but he also set an example by graciously accepting unavoidable death after a prolonged illness. He had -of course, as always- the final word at the Celebrating Oscar Salemink event in Copenhagen on 15 September. After an opening joke about feeling like attending his own funeral ceremony, he ended with an enthusiastic expose of the papers he would not be able to finish. He talked about the latest insights he was working on as if instructing his listeners to finish those projects. The strength to speak and convince his audience returned to him one more time. Oscar is survived by two daughters, one granddaughter and his wife Edyta Roszko.

Featured image: Tariq Mikkel Khan, Independent Research Fund Denmark

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