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Peacock, ‘great citizen,’ honored with Massey Award

JAMES PEACOCK RECALLS A CONVERSATION with Julius Chambers, director of the Center for Civil Rights in the School of Law, who spoke of two kinds of scholars.

Jim Peacock, 2008 Massey Award winner, with his portrait which is on display at the Fedex Global Education Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Jim Peacock, 2008 Massey Award winner, with his portrait which is on display at the Fedex Global Education Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The first spend their entire careers doing nothing but scholarly research and getting it published. The second balance their scholarly endeavors with something else for which they have a purpose or passion. The legacy this second group leaves extends well beyond the library shelf.

Peacock’s long, distinguished record of scholarship and service at Carolina leaves little doubt into which category he would fall – except maybe with Peacock himself.

When notified last spring that he had been one of six people chosen for a 2008 C. Knox Massey Award, his first reaction was that they had surely gotten the wrong guy.

Peacock had nominated someone else for the Massey who he thought to be far more deserving of the award than himself, just as he had throughout his 42 years at the University.

One of the people who knew otherwise was the late Ron Hyatt, a longtime friend of Peacock’s and a Massey winner himself. Hyatt was among a handful of faculty colleagues who through the years doggedly nominated Peacock for the award.

Hyatt, in his nominating letter, spoke of Peacock’s “quiet and unassuming manner” that endeared him to the faculty combined with a willingness to listen that marked him as a leader.

Hyatt also described his friend as a Methodist, a Rotarian and a “lover and supporter of UNC” who, along with his wife, Florence, had long supported the arts in Chapel Hill, the University library and the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

Then Hyatt called Peacock what so many others have called him: a great citizen.


Peacock’s interest in anthropology was planted in his imagination by a book about British cavemen that his father sent home from England in 1944 just before he was sent to fight on D-Day.

Peacock was 6 at the time and his family lived with his grandmother in rural Alabama. It was here Peacock pretended to be a caveman himself, running after wild beasts with a club made of a stick and rock he had tied together to look like the clubs pictured in the book.

peacock-1968A friend rekindled Peacock’s interest in the subject years later when he invited Peacock to join him for an annual anthropology conference in Washington D.C. Peacock was an undergraduate at Duke University, about to graduate magna cum laude in psychology.

The conference unveiled a way of studying the human condition, with the world as a laboratory. Peacock launched that quest at Harvard University, where in 1965 he earned his Ph.D. in social anthropology.

But he found his real laboratory three years before, the day after he married Florence, when the couple took off for Surabaja, Indonesia. There, during the next year Peacock completed his field research for his dissertation.

It was not much of a honeymoon, but for a young scholar, he said, Indonesia proved to be romantic in its own way.

His task was to capture life under Sukarno, who became the first president of Indonesia in 1945 after it won independence from the Netherlands. The couple lived in a slum with a family of 12 children during what could arguably have been one of the most desperate and dangerous periods in the country’s history.

“Right after we left, they had a sort of massacre of maybe a million people who were alleged Communists,” Peacock said. “They were killed by the Army. Many others were imprisoned, including people I had been working with.” (The 1983 movie “The Year of Living Dangerously” offered a glimpse of that violence, he said.)

In 1965, Peacock was hired to help start Princeton University’s anthropology department, but left after two years when he was lured to Carolina to join the anthropology department.

Peacock returned to Indonesia in 1969 and 1970 to do field research on the Muslim reformation in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and he went back many times in the following decades.

But Chapel Hill was the place he called home. In 1973, Peacock was named a full professor and in 1987 became Kenan Professor of Anthropology. In 1990, he served as chair of the anthropology department, and from 1991 to 1994, was chair of the Faculty Council.


Last November, during a conference of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, someone put together a review of his life’s work.

Peacock, however, wasn’t impressed. “I don’t have a cure for cancer,” he said.

Maybe it is this humility about his work that compelled him to contribute in so many ways apart from it. When pressed, Peacock awkwardly acknowledged that he came up with “two or three useful ideas” within anthropology.

This spring, at a conference of the Association for Asian Studies, a scheduled speaker will present a paper titled “A Man Ahead of His Time” about Peacock.

“OK,” Peacock said, “what I presumably did ahead of my time was to recognize the rise and importance of Islam in Indonesia and other parts of the world. That was back in the early ’70s, so I sort of nailed this emerging trend.”

Peacock is quick to point out that the potential for violence is inherent in all religions, not only Islam. And he does not let Christianity off the hook. Still, he draws comfort from something his friend Bill Peck, professor emeritus in religious studies, once told him.

“Bill said that Christianity is somewhat distinctive in the idea of original sin. The main point is that it assumes people are guilty, sinful, and therefore, we tend to blame ourselves instead of always blaming others.”

Peacock is also credited with grasping the significance that symbols play across all cultures. “That may seem trivial because it is so obvious to most anybody, but there was a time when that was not appreciated adequately by anthropologists or others,” Peacock said.

A third contribution lies at the intersection where citizenship and scholarship sometimes meet and become one, a place Peacock has often put himself. Peacock spoke about that in 1995 while serving as president of the American Anthropological Association in a speech he titled “Public or Perish.”

“What I tried to say in that talk was to address issues of significance in society,” Peacock said. “Be relevant. That is so obvious, yet at that time for a lot of reasons there was a tendency to demean people, within my field and other academic fields, who tried to do that.”

By then, Peacock had long been practicing what he preached.

As faculty chair at Carolina in the early 1990s, for instance, he established the 12-member Executive Committee, which remains a vital instrument for faculty governance.

At that time, he also helped lead the faculty effort to reach out to the state legislature in a constructive way. “The relationship with the legislature before then had been to criticize them or to protest,” Peacock said. “We decided to go to Raleigh and actually meet them and find out what they were up to.”

In 2002, while serving as head of the University Center for International Studies (now the Center for Global Initiatives), Peacock led the push to make Carolina, in partnership with Duke, a Rotary Center for International Studies.

The Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies, one of only seven in the world, has produced some 50 graduates who are now working across the globe to deal with obstacles to international cooperation and peace such as famine, poverty and disease.

But to Peacock, none of these achievements quite measures up to being worthy of winning a Massey. “I don’t deserve this thing because it is a service award and there are people doing far more incredible things than I,” he said, characteristically.

What makes the Massey so special is that it can be won by anyone on campus, he said. In that sense, it has become one of those symbols of the “UNC ethos” that both the citizen and the scientist in him can fully appreciate.

Originally published by University Gazette: Feb. 4, 2009

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