Esteemed educator and trusted advisor, your scholarship has shaped our perceptions of freedom, slavery, poverty, and even athletics. Your influence transcends the academy to make a vital difference in strengthening communities: in your birthplace, Jamaica, you have helped to direct aid and attention where they are needed most, from the shanty towns of Kingston to schools across the country. With reverence, joy, and more than a little awe, Yale presents you with this degree of Doctor of Social Science.
Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, is a scholar and public intellectual whose work has shaped society’s perceptions of slavery, influenced the study of modern and ancient slavery, and crossed over into fields beyond history and historical sociology to inform literary theory, feminist thought, Christian history and theology, prison studies, and the study of genocide.
Born in rural Jamaica to a seamstress mother and police detective father, Patterson credits his parents with imbuing him early on with a belief in the importance of education. While he was still a young boy, a library opened in his hometown, and he became a voracious reader. He received a bachelor of science in economics from London University’s University College of the West Indies (now the University of the West Indies) and a doctorate in sociology from the London School of Economics, subsequently holding faculty appointments at both institutions before joining the Harvard faculty in 1971.
Patterson, whose writing has been published extensively in scholarly journals as well as in the British and American press, is the author of eight academic books—including Slavery and Social Death (1982), Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991), and The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Post-Colonial Predicament (2019)—and three novels. He has been awarded the National Book Award for non-fiction, the American Political Science Association’s Ralph J. Bunche Award, and Jamaica’s Musgrave Medal, in addition to lifetime achievement awards from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the American Sociological Association. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and was a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, from 1978 to 1979.
“Cherish those whose gifts made your successes possible; cherish even more those whose successes you have had the privilege, in some way, to shape.”
From 1972 to 1980 Patterson served as special advisor for social policy and development for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. In this role he worked to improve conditions for the urban poor living in Kingston’s shanty towns. Currently he chairs the Jamaica Education Transformation Commission under the country’s present prime minister, Andrew Holness. With Patterson’s leadership, the commission recently issued recommendations to transform the Jamaican education system at all levels. The commission’s second phase, now under way, will focus on technical and vocational training in Jamaica and its integration into the regular school system. In his work as a public intellectual, Patterson has twice been invited by U.S. presidents to visit the White House and discuss policy issues—first by Gerald Ford in 1975 and later by Barack Obama in 2014.
Patterson, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Ernest W. Burgess Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, was a founding member of Cultural Survival, which advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, and has served on the board of Freedom House, a civic organization promoting global freedom and democracy. In 2020 he received the Jamaican government’s Order of Merit, one of the nation’s three highest honors. At Yale he chaired a panel for the European Studies Council’s 2014 conference, “The Emergence of European State Forms in Comparative Perspective,” and delivered the Hollingshead Lecture in 2017.
Patterson is married to Anita Patterson, a professor of English at Boston University, and has three adult daughters: Rhiannon (Yale College Class of 1990), Barbara, and Kaia.