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. She has also had visiting appointments at Northwestern University, first as Preceptor of the Institute of Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities (1993-4) and then as Melville Herskovits Distinguished Visiting Professor (1999). More recently, she was appointed a Mellon Foundation Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (2014).
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, awarded by the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre (2000) won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association of the USA. The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics (2007) won the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association. Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel (2012) won the Paul Hair Prize of the African Studies Association of the USA and the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources.
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. In the same year she received a University Award for Excellence in Doctoral Researcher Supervision. She served as the British Academy's Vice-President (Humanities) 2008-10, and Council Member 2007-10, having been elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003. From 2006 to 2014 she was editor and then co-editor of Africa, the journal of the International African Institute. She still plays a minor editorial role on the journal as well as serving as a Trustee of the International African Institute. She was President of the African Studies Association of the UK (2000-2002). In 2001-3 she was awarded a 2-year British Academy Research Readership. She has been given a Yoruba chieftaincy title, and is the Iyamoye of Okuku.