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What young people owe Velho

The researcher from Rio de Janeiro was a pioneer of urban anthropology in Brazil



Nowadays, subjects such as drugs and sex are common in theses and academic research. However, it was the pioneering spirit of Gilberto Velho (1945-2012) that enabled young people to study societies freely. To achieve this, 113 articles in periodicals and 28 books were necessary, including Desvio e divergência (1985), Individualismo e cultura (1987), A utopia urbana (1989), Nobres e anjos (1998), and Juventude contemporânea: culturas, gostos e carreiras (2010). The path was not easy. As a young professor, he heard from one intellectual: “What’s the use of studying prostitutes and homosexuals? Anthropologists have to study Indians.” Gilberto Velho died on April 16 in Rio de Janeiro, at the age of 66.

“I wanted to expand matters, get some fresh air in. My pioneering achievement was to study our own society,” Velho used to say. The son of an intellectual military man, he fell in love with anthropology at the Colégio Aplicação school and was interested in the Brazilian middle layers, which were overlooked in other research. He graduated in Social Sciences from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 1968 and then moved into a bed-sitter apartment in Copacabana [a district of the city of Rio de Janeiro]. “It was the work of chance, but it was what I needed: I managed to carry out a case study in my building, with 500 people. ‘The urban Utopia,’ my master’s degree dissertation, from 1970, was created thanks to this bed-sitter.”

His master’s degree was completed at the University of Texas in the United States. That was where he met the American anthropologist Anthony Leeds, who studied urban anthropology, which at that time was unknown in Brazil. Gilberto, therefore, pioneered the introduction of this area of anthropology in our country, with analyses of the rapidly modernizing urban society. “What interested me, at that time, was the dissemination of drugs in the upper middle layers, the ‘aristocracy of the middle status;’ the research yielded, in 1975, my doctoral thesis, Nobres e anjos [Noblemen and angels], which later turned into a book from the University of São Paulo.” His thesis advisor was Ruth Cardoso.

Gilberto Velho focused on social “transit” among Brazilians. “I studied the relations between the levels of culture, between the elite and the popular layers, between the middle layers and the elite; in sum, the issue of mediation, the transition between various groups and domains. This is a phenomenon found in any society, but in a large metropolis it is a priority issue; it is important to study it, especially in Brazil,” he stated in one of his interviews. Living in Rio de Janeiro, he also studied the effects of the absence of security in the book Mudança, crise e violência.

The researcher encouraged a generation of anthropologists to think about the alternative Brazil of criminals, of sex, of the popular religions and of transgression. His dialogue with Georg Simmel innovated thinking on individualism. He furthered the institution of social sciences in Brazil and the consolidation of the postgraduate program at the Museu Nacional museum. He was a restless thinker who cultivated critical thinking, which he believed was threatened by conformism. “Thinking that is more critical and broader has lately started to be regarded as something pernicious that must be stopped. But critical thinking never stops,” he stated in one of his last interviews. His work is living proof of this struggle.