Professor Karin Barber did her first degree in English at Cambridge. She then went on to study social anthropology at University College London before doing a PhD at the University of Ifẹ, Nigeria (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University). Her doctoral research was based on 37 months’ field work in Okuku, a Yoruba town, where she studied the role of oral poetic performance in everyday life. She then became a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ifẹ, where Yoruba was used as the teaching medium.
While working at Ife, she did research on Yoruba popular theatre, joining the Oyin Adejọbi Theatre Company, travelling extensively with them and performing in their improvised Yoruba-language plays, both on stage and on television. After eleven years in Nigeria, Karin returned to the UK and was appointed to a lectureship at the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, where she went on to become Professor, and now Emeritus Professor, of African Cultural Anthropology. In 2018 she took up a three-year position as Centennial Professor in the Anthropology Department, LSE.
Several of her books have won prestigious prizes. Her first monograph, I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town (1991) won the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology. The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre (2000) won the Herskovits Award, and Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel (2012) won the Paul Hair Prize.
In 2019 Karin received the President’s Life-time Achievement Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In 2018 she received the Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the UK. She was appointed a CBE for services to African Studies in 2012. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003 and served as the British Academy’s Vice-President (Humanities) 2008-10. She was editor of Africa, the journal of the International African Institute, 2006-14. She was President of the African Studies Association of the UK (2000-2002). She has been given the Yoruba chieftaincy title Iyamoye of Okuku, as well as being made an Honorary Citizen of Ọṣun State.
Throughout her career Karin has created and delivered courses on aspects of African culture. She pioneered a Yoruba language course for beginners which took language learning as a point of entry into the culture of the Yoruba, and was built around her own course text, later revised in collaboration with Dr Akin Oyetade and re-published as Yoruba Wuyi (1999). A memorable feature of this course was the annual play in Yoruba, created and performed by the students.