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Dr. George Kurian

Dr. George Kurian (1928-2018)

Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary


             George began life with ten siblings on a plantation in India owned by his father. He was encouraged by his family to further his education and attended the University of Bombay where he graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Arts, Economics, History, Political Science, English and Malayalam Language. After graduation, George took a trip to London, where he met some students from the Hague who encouraged him to apply to the Institute of Social Studies. He did so and was admitted in 1953 and went on to obtain a Master of Arts degrees: Sociology and Economics, in 1955 and a Master of Social Sciences in Sociology (1956).  After returning to India and rather than manage the agricultural properties in Kerala State, he returned to Europe in 1958 to obtain his PhD in Sociology at the State University of Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands in 1961.  His dissertation, The Indian Family in Transition: A Case Study of Kerala Syrian Christians, was internationally recognized and was published that same year by Mouton & Co.

             After completing his doctoral program, Dr. Kurian returned to India and took a position at an Agricultural college, Hyderabad in the Rural Sociology Department.  In 1963, Dr. Kurian took a position as Lecturer and Acting Head in the Department of Asian Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.  He was also attached to the Centre for Asian Studies.  After three years of teaching at Victoria University, Dr. Kurian moved to Canada and became an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary. He remained at the University of Calgary for the remainder of his career although he was a visiting professor at the University of Kerala in 1980.  He was named professor in 1976 and was given the title of Emeritus Professor when he retired in 1995.

By the time George came to Calgary, he was a seasoned traveler; having traversed Europe, Asia, South America and understood the different types of families throughout the world.  George wanted the scholarly community to understand that the North American model was not the only family model and that families throughout the world had different views and conceptualizations of what a family meant and how it operated.  His dissertation had cemented this idea as he was aware of such family models as the “joint family” and “undivided family”.  So, within two years of his coming to Calgary, George began to seek out other scholars who would support his vision.  To create a network of scholars to support his vision was an awesome task but the arrival on the campus of the University of Calgary of Carle Zimmerman from Harvard, who was well known for his work on the Family, was timely and he was the first to endorse Georges vision.

During his early years at the University of Calgary, he began to fulfill his vision—that of creating a new academic journal; the Journal of Comparative Family Studies.  George displayed a pioneering spirit and an entrepreneurial character as he planned to create this new academic outlet. He showed an ability to foresee new directions and new opportunities, and to grasp those opportunities. His business acumen began to merge with his academic expertise although it was not without risk.  Up until that time, the dominant journal (The Journal of Marriage and the Family) was based in the USA and was considered the major scholarly publication outlets for academics in family studies; focusing on the two-parent nuclear family.  But George understood that the “American model of the family” was inappropriate for many places in the world and so began his sojourn to create a more cosmopolitan academic outlet for scholars in the field of Family.

Dr. Kurian realized from the out-start that he would start small, publishing two issues a year and he knew that he had to have support from established scholars in North America and Europe to ensure the sustainability of the Journal.  He saw his task in the academy to mold, to balance, and to integrate the new and old, all within the principles of Sociology; ever aiming toward a better understanding of the family.  In that respect, he tried to ensure that the published research met the high standards of peer review and in the end, he garnished the support of well known scholars in the field such as Reuben Hill, Philippe Aries and Murray Strauss.  Moreover, he put together an international group of Associate Editors that spanned the world and he drew upon their expertise and advice over the years.  And, as you all know, the rest is history as the journal just celebrated its 48th year of publication.  As the back log of submissions began to grow, it has now expanded to four issues per year.

The journal recognized and legitimized the idea that the concept of family was not just based on a North American model.  His travels throughout the world convinced him that a more pluralistic approach to the family would best reflect the diverse forms of family and they are as viable (if not more common) than the North American model.  Today, most scholars would not disagree to the many forms of the family but at the out-start of his journal-nearly 50 years ago, there was considerable resistance to this kind of thinking.  Dr Kurian argued that given the different forms and structures of family around the world, there was a multitude of definitions of family and the realities of the time and place required a need for redefining the family.  He wanted to support the development of research on cross-cultural families and to encourage scholarship and elucidate the variety of family forms and their interaction with the social and political institutions of the state.  George was astute in identifying themes for research that were of national and international importance and he regularly published thematic issues.  These themes and emerging research on the family from different cultures captured the imagination of scholars from around the world.  It was partially through this innovative approach to the publishing of family research that scholars began to see the importance and impact of the Journal of Comparative Family Studies.  As a result, the Journal is now one of the leading scholarly outlets of research in family and has overtaken the lead of many other journals with longer histories than the Journal of Comparative Family Studies.

As a scholar, Dr. Kurian’s impact on the field began with the publication of his PhD dissertation.  A decade later, George published a seminal book titled The Family: A Cross Cultural View and that publication became a scholarly work that reflected his analysis of the family from a pluralistic perspective and gave legitimacy to investigate families their structure and function, from around the world.  He argued that family is a kinship unit and that even when its members may not share a common household, the unit may exist as a social reality.  While he published several books after his dissertation and The Family: A Cross Cultural View, perhaps his Women in the Family (1981) (with Ratna Ghosh) was one of the most important scholarly contributions made to family studies at the time.  It focused on gender long before it was considered a legitimate field of study and it provided the seminal roots for other scholars to build upon.  His many peer reviewed journal publications and chapters in books from around the world simply added to his illustrious career. 

George was also active in many national and international scholarly associations over the years. He was the first secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Society for Asian studies, president of the India-Canada Society, vice president of the Canadian Association for South Asian Studies, a member of the editorial board for International Journal of Critical SociologyKerala Sociologist, and a member of the ethnic minority and international sections of the National Council of Family Relations.  George was in demand as a reviewer for journals as well as for book publishers.  He was a regular reviewer of books for Pacific Affairs, Journal of Social Issues. and the Journal of Marriage and the Family.  Dr. Kurian also was sought after to provide reviews of applications and proposals for the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, Social Science and Humanities Research Council, The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and the Asia and Lee Foundation.

George was a cosmopolitan thinker and he built a vast international network within the scholarly community.  In short, he was an exemplar regarding his scholarly and professional activities.  In return, Dr. Kurian became a mentor and advisor to many students around the world; giving them scholarly advice, reading and critiquing their work to ensure publication, supervising their theses and dissertations as well as giving moral support to them when a submission was not accepted by a journal.  His mentoring efforts helped train students in the academy which in turn has allowed them to entre the social, political and economic institutions around the world. 

It should also be mentioned that Dr. George and his wife (Dr.) Susannah also have been supportive of academic ventures in a variety of ways through their philanthropic contributions.  They created a PhD scholarship in the Department of Sociology, a scholarship in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary as well as for the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute at the University of Calgary.  In addition, they have supported numerous international students that could not afford to study overseas due to limited financial means.  They continue to provide financial support at the Mandiram Hospital, funding the construction of the hospital’s medical laboratory building and establishing an endowment for scholarships for orphans for school studies.  In addition, they established an endowment for financial assistance for nursing students in Kerala.  George maintained many volunteer commitments over his life—all because he was genuinely invested in the vision, mission and values of each organization and the people and programs they served

For his scholarly contributions, Dr. Kurian was recognized by the Canadian Secretary of State for his contributions, a distinguished service award by the India Canada Association, and made a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society of England.  However, the most coveted award of all, the Jan Trost Award was given to Dr. Kurian by the National Council on Family Relations for his outstanding contributions to comparative family studies.  His own scholarly work was obeisance to the world of excellence

George lived by the principles to be proud and unbending in honest failure, to be humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, to have compassion on those who fail; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to cry; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.  He advanced knowledge in contributing to the sociological imagination and this is a testament in the knowledge and expertise he shared with the academy and the world.  George’s model was, in the words of R. L. Stevenson very simple:  “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant”. 

Written by Dr. Jim Frideres