Written by Jessica Andrea Chelekis


Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira was born in São Paulo, Brazil, on July 11, 1928. His father was a coffee exporter, who made and lost not one but two fortunes in the coffee trade (de Amorim 2001). His mother envisioned for him a career at the Bank of Brazil, where one of his cousins held a respectable position in upper management; however, encouraged by a friend already immersed in academia, Cardoso de Oliveira had decided at age sixteen on an academic career in philosophy (Fausto et al.2003). He married Gilda Cardoso while they were both students at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) in the early 1950s (de Amorim 2001). After graduating, Gilda gave birth to their first child, and she subsequently abandoned her career plans in favor of raising their children (four in all) and supporting her husband in his career, allowing Roberto to dedicate himself to his career (de Amorim 2001).


With a career that spans over 50 years, Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira is considered by many to be the founder of modern anthropology in Brazil. He participated in the creation of no less than three anthropology graduate programs, trained an entire generation of Brazilian anthropologists, and his theoretical contributions have had a lasting impact on the discipline of anthropology. In this sense he might be considered the Franz Boas of Brazilian anthropology. Although he officially retired in 1991, Cardoso de Oliveira continues to publish articles, edit books, advise doctoral students, actively participate in the international anthropological community through lectures and conferences, and answer random emails from American graduate students.

Academic Training and Intellectual Influences

In 1950 Cardoso de Oliveira enrolled in the philosophy program at Universidade de São Paulo. As a philosophy student in São Paulo, RCO (as I will refer to him from now on) was guaranteed to receive a heavy dose of French influence in his education. He focused specifically on the epistemology of the social sciences, and was a student of Gilles-Gaston Granger, Marcel Gueroault, Claude Lefort, Roger Bastide, and Lívio Teixeira (Corrêa 1991; de Amorim 2001; Fausto et al. 2003). RCO’s inspiration for this focus was Jean Piaget and his study of psychology (Corrêa 1991). While working on his master’s degree, he sought to broaden his knowledge of the social sciences, and in 1953 began working with the sociologist Florestan Fernandes on two of his theoretical works. As a result, RCO began his studies under Fernandes, and in 1966 obtained his doctoral degree in sociology. (de Amorim 2001).

However, RCO made the definitive switch to anthropology before even receiving his Ph.D. After completing his master’s degree in 1953, he was invited by Og Leme, an economist who was also good friends with Darcy Ribeiro, to a conference on the situation of Brazilian Indians (de Amorim 2001). There he met Ribeiro, at the time the most well-known Brazilian anthropologist, who invited him to come work at Serviço de Proteção aos Indios (Indian Protection Service—SPI) in Rio de Janeiro (de Amorim 2001; Corrêa 1991; Fausto et al.2003). 1954 he was admitted as an ethnologist to the Museu do Indio, created by SPI, where his job was to analyze the annual reports of the regional inspectors from the Indian posts that were set up all over the country (de Amorim 2001; Fausto et al2003). At the Museu do Índio RCO met Eduardo Galvão, the only Brazilian anthropologist at the time who had received his Ph.D. outside of Brazil, at Columbia University, as a student of Charles Wagley (de Amorim 2001; Corrêa 1991).

Thus RCO began his training in anthropology at the Museu do Índio. Despite working under the tutelage of Dary Ribeiro and Eduardo Galvão, he did not receive from them their disciplinary influences of North American culturalism; instead, he constructed his own reading list based primarily around British social anthropology (Corrêa 1991). RCO spent most of 1954 and 1955 doing nothing but reading, studying, and discussing with Ribeiro (Fausto et al.2003). In working with the reports on indigenous affairs that were coming in from all over the country, RCO has said that he felt he was receiving a complete picture of the indigenous populations, which gave him a sense of “holding Brazil in my hands” (Fausto et al. 2003).

In sum, Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira drew upon varied sources of intellectual influences. Immersed in the French Mission tradition as an undergraduate philosophy student, particularly Levi-Strauss, he sought out Florestan Fernandes for training in sociology.  Exposed to American anthropological thought through Darcy Ribeiro and Eduardo Galvão at SPI, RCO largely rejected this line in favor of British structural-functionalism through readings he conducted largely on his own. In developing his theory on interethnic friction, he was influenced by the work of Frederick Barth, Balandier’s studies on black Africa, and Pablo Casanova and Rodolfo Stavenhagen’s writings on internal colonialism (Fausto et al.2003; Ruben 1992; Corrêa 1991). Although first inspired by Piaget for his focus on the epistemology of the social sciences, later in his career RCO was influenced by Jurgen Habermas and Karl Otto-Apel to discuss anthropology as a science, focusing specifically on theoretical actions and practices (de Amorim 2001).

Professional Career and Influence on the Discipline

In July of 1955 Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira conducted his first ethnographic fieldwork among the Terêna, an indigenous group located in the central state of Mato Grosso do Sul (de Amorim 2001; Corrêa 1991).  His research focused on the assimilation of the Terêna into the national society, and in 1960 he published his first book based on this research, O processo de assimilação dos Terêna. RCO returned to the Terêna in 1966 to conduct research for his Ph.D. under Florestan Fernandes, this time focusing on urbanization processes (de Amorim 2001).

In 1958 Luiz de Castro Faria offered him a position in the Anthropology division of the Museu Nacional, and as he was increasingly at odds with the director of SPI, RCO accepted the offer (de Amorim 2001). This move to the Museu Nacional marked the beginning of his anthropological independence from former mentors, in which he established his remarkable career. He designed and taught two courses on social anthropology at the Museu Nacional, then under the auspices of the Anthropology Division of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), then known as the Universidade do Brasil (de Castro Faria 1992; de Amorim 2001). After three years of teaching anthropology courses, RCO took on the project of developing the anthropology graduate program at the Museu Nacional, known as the Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social (PPGAS) in 1968 (de Castro Faria 1992; Corrêa 1991).

Beginning in 1962 RCO, along with his students, began a large-scale project in which he developed the notion of “areas of interethnic friction,” which would come to be considered one of his greatest theoretical contributions to anthropology (Ruben 1992; de Amorim 2001). Drawing on his experience at SPI with the reports from regional indigenous post officers—reports that often contained stories about clashes and conflict—RCO rejected British functionalism and American culturalism that stressed equilibrium and consensus and ignored the relationships between indigenous groups and national societies (Corrêa 1991; de Amorim 2001). The theory of interethnic friction begins with the presupposition that contact between indigenous groups and the national society is characterized by competition and conflict, giving rise to a syncretic social system between “dialectically unified ethnic groups” (Corrêa 1991; de Amorim 2001). Relying heavily on Lévi-Straussian structuralism yet grounded in empirical research, his approach moved the Indian-white opposition from the level of separate “events” of conflict to a structural level (Corrêa 1991). With no less than eight impressionable young students working on this project—the majority of whom based their dissertations on this work—Roberto Cardoso had a heavy hand in imprinting structuralism into Brazilian anthropology as a national discipline. Although Levi-Strauss himself had founded the anthropology department at USP and taught in Brazil for some time, his name was relatively unknown in the country until this point (de Barros Laraia 1992). In other words, RCO was more effective in disseminating Lévi-Straussian structuralism than Lévi-Strauss himself.

After finishing their work on the interethnic study, his students Roberto da Matta and Júlio Cézar Melatti joined RCO in collaboration with the American anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis and his students on a large-scale study known as the Harvard-Central Brazil Project (Corrêa 1991; de Amorim 2001). As the director of the anthropological division of the museum, he acted as the link between the American researchers and the Serviço de Proteção do Índio (Corrêa 1991).

In 1971 Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira received a fellowship from the Ford Foundation to study for a year as a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University (Corrêa 1991; Fausto et al.2003). At this time he moved his focus from interethnic friction to ethnic identity. Until RCO got his hands on the subject, the notion of ethnic identity had been confined largely to the realm of psychology, where it was treated on a purely individual level as part of the identity of a person (Ruben 1992). RCO elaborated a structuralist formulation of ethnic identity, which could be applied universally to the study of any society, in his 1973 article “Um conceito antropológico de identidade” published in the journal Alter: Jornal de Estudos Psicodinamicos (Ruben 1992). RCO considered the access he had to the Harvard libraries essential to his work on ethnic identity, and he returned several times throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a researcher and visiting scholar (Corrêa 1991).

After returning from the United States, the president of the Universidade de Brasília (UnB), Amandeu Cury, offered him a position with the express mission of creating a graduate program in anthropology there (Fausto 2003; de Castro Faria 1992). He remained the department chair at UnB for fourteen years, during which time he turned back to his academic roots and wrote profusely on epistemological issues in anthropology and ethnicity in the urban Amazon (de Castro Faria 1991). Inspired by the old French journal Année sociologique,  he also founded the journal Anuário Antropológico at UnB, with the goal of representing original scholarly works by anthropologists outside of the “metropolitan areas” of Europe or the United States (Corrêa 1991).

In 1984 a former student of his, Mariza Corrêa, asked RCO to participate in a panel for a course she was teaching on the history of anthropology in Brazil at State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in São Paulo (Samain and de Mendoça 2000). During this visit, Corrêa and then director of the Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas (IFCH) André Villa-Lobos invited him to teach at Unicamp, which he accepted the following year (Samain and de Mendoça 2000). Here he began a line of research concerning anthropological knowledge called “Intellectual Itineraries,” in which he examined what he termed “the disciplinary matrix of anthropology” (Corrêa 1991). In pursuing a study on the historical epistemology of the discipline, he wrote two books on the works of Lévy-Bruhl and Rivers, Razão e Afetividade: O Pensamento de Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1991) and A Antropologia de Rivers (1991) respectively (de Amorim 2001).

In his most recent project on the epistemology of anthropology, O trabalho do antropólogo (1999), RCO discusses how knowledge is produced not just in the moment of research, which is later expressed in the writing; rather, the very act of writing, what he calls the “textualization of culture,” constitutes a crucial component in the moment of discovery (de Amorim 2001). As RCO put it, “…At least my experience indicates that the act of writing and that of thinking are so inextricably linked that, together, they form practically the same cognitive act” (de Amorim 2001:58) [author’s translation]. Returning to his project on the work of Marcel Mauss, which was published in 1979, RCO returned just this year to conduct further research on Mauss’ life, focusing especially on his correspondences. In addition to continued theoretical contributions, RCO is currently working on a comparative study in Latin American frontier regions on the theme of identity, ethnicity, and nationality among indigenous and non-indigenous populations. However, this work appears to be carried out largely by the doctoral students RCO continues to mentor, as three out of his four most recent students, all of whom began their research in 2005, are working on themes of ethnicity and identity in frontier regions: Álvaro Musolini, whose dissertation is entitled “Migration, Identity and Palikur Citizenship in the Oiapoque and Southeast Littoral Frontier of French Guiana;” Mariana Cunha Peireira, working on “The Imaginary Bridge: The Ethnic Transition in the Brazil-Guiana Frontier;” and Rosani Moreira Leitão and her work on “School, Ethnic Identity and Citizenship: Comparing Experiences and Discourse of Terêna (Brazil) and Puhépecha (Mexico) Professors.”

In a way, this most current research mirrors the project he conducted in the 1960s with his first generation of students on interethnic friction, in which each student focused their work on a specific indigenous group, that in turn formed the basis of his or her dissertation. This coincides neatly with the full circle his anthropological career has made, from his initial interest in the epistemology of the social sciences as a philosophy student, to his theoretical contributions of interethnic friction and ethnic identity based on empirical research, and back toward the production of anthropological knowledge; “while before he sought to study the contact between peoples in Brazil and the national society, now he studies “the contact between societies of anthropologists” (Corrêa 1991:342). In the end, there are three great themes of his career: 1) areas of interethnic relations, 2) epistemology in anthropology, and 3) the examination of ethics in anthropology (de Amorim 2001).

Conclusion: To Retirement…and Beyond

Although he officially retired in 1991, Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira remained at Unicamp as emeritus professor until 1997. Since his retirement he managed to publish twenty-four articles, write five books, (three of which he co-authored) and co-edit two additional book. In 1995 he returned to UnB as a visiting professor, thus splitting his time between the two universities for two years until he finally settled down at UnB, where to this day he probably still keeps office hours. On the subject of retirement, RCO had this to say:

The thing that gives me most pleasure is to have contact with young students, to debate, engage in dialog, and carry out the duties of a professor. Retirement for me is all about an absolute distance from the administrative side; you don’t have to administer anything anymore, and in the best case scenario you only have to administer you own life, which is already complicated enough. (Fausto et al. 2003) [author’s translation]


His work in the past decade has focused on the production of anthropological knowledge, ethics within the discipline, and national, peripheral anthropologies. Over the course of his career RCO has received international recognition for his work and his role in shaping the discipline. In 1979 he received an award form the International Organization for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination—based in London—for the promotion of human understanding. He was awarded the International Prize for Ethnographic Study in 1997 by the Internazionale di Etnostoria in Palermo Italy, and in 2001 he was elected as fellow to the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).  Aside from serving as treasurer in the 1950s, secretary in the 1960s, and president in the 1980s of the Associação Brasileira de Antropologia (ABA), he also served as president of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Antropología from 1993 to 1997, which was created during a meeting of ABA.  In 1978-1979 he served as vice-president of the Conseil International de La Philsosphie Et Des Sciences Humaines (CIPSH) in France, and as vice-president of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) in Great Britain from 1988-1993. And the list actually keeps going.

When he is not busy serving as vice-president of one or another international organizations, RCO spends his time abroad as a visiting scholar at universities and editing journals. To name just a few: he has been a member of the international editorial board of the journal Ethnology: International Journal of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Pittsburg, PA since 1980; he has been on the advisory board for Cultural Survival, Cambridge, since 1980; and he has served on the consulting committee of the journal Runa, of the Faculdad de Filosofia y Letras de la Universidad de Buenos Aires since 1984.  He has maintained his ties to Harvard University through David Maybury-Lewis, and has repeatedly traveled there as a visiting professor since his post-doctoral position in the 1970s; during the 1980s he traveled frequently to Paris to conduct research at the archives of the Groupe d’études durkheimiennes in the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, where he maintains ties to this day; in 1989 he was made an honorary fellow at the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI); his ties to the Mexican university Centro de Investigaciones Superiores go back to 1979, when he taught a graduate course there; and he is an external member of the advisory board for the graduate program in social anthropology at the Universidad Nacional de Misiones (de Amorim 2001).

One result of his jet-setting all over the world is that he has drawn foreign anthropologists to Brazil to lecture and conduct research at the graduate programs where he has worked (de Amorim 2001). Thus, Cardoso de Oliveira not only played a significant role in establishing anthropology as a professional discipline in Brazil, he has also made significant contributions to the international anthropological community and has brought recognition to the work of other Brazilian anthropologists as well. Maria Stella de Amorim (2001:83) elegantly sums up his lasting impact on Brazilian anthropology:

At least 3 generations of anthropologists—today employed in higher education in various states of Brazil—benefited from his efforts toward the advanced formation of professionals. This was—and still is—his life project as a person and as a pioneering professional in the institutionalization of Brazilian anthropology. [author’s translation]


1962       Estudo de areas de fricção interetnica no Brasil. America Latina, 5(3): 85-90.


1964       Urbanização e tribalismo: A integração dos índios Terêna numa sociedade de classes. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.


1966       A noção de colonialismo interno na etnologia. Tempo Brasileiro, 4(8):105-112.


1972       O índio e o mundo de brancos. São Paulo: Editora Pioneira.


1972       O contacto interétnico e o estudo de populações. Revista de Antropologia 17/20(1): 31-48.


1976       Identidade, Etnia e Estrutura Social. São Paulo: Livraria Pioneira Editora.


1979       Marcel Mauss (Introduction and organization). São Paulo: Editora Atica S.A.


1981       Étnia e estrutura de classes. Anuário Antropológico 79(1):57-78.


1986       O que é isso que chamamos de antropologia brasileira? Anuário Antropológico, 85(1):227-246.


1988       Sobre o pensamento antropológico. Rio de Janeiro: Edições Tempo Brasileiro/CNPQ


1991       Razão e afetividade: O pensamento de Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Campinas: Unicamp.


1993       O movimento dos conceitos na antropologia. Revista de Antropologia, 36:13-31.


1998       O trabalho do antropólogo. Brasília, São Paulo: Paralelo 15 and Editora da UNESP


2000       Peripheral Anthropologies “versus” Central Anthropologies. Journal of Latin American Anthropology. 4(2)-5(1):10-30.


2000       Os (des)caminhos da indentidade. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais, 15(42):7-21.


2003       Identidade étnica, identificação e manipulação. Sociedade e Cultura, 6(2):117-132.


2005       Nacionalidade e etnicidade em fronteiras. (edited with Baines). Brasília: Editora UnB.



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