(click for additional essays)

Dissertation Grants 1985 General

1985 Fullbreight Dissertations

The Writing of Anthropological Dissertations Starting in 1985

This study is based on an accidental sample of eight persons, who received dissertation research grants for their dissertations in anthropology in 1985 from US funding institutions. It is hoped that by looking at the dissertation projects that got funded in 1985, a picture of the trends in anthropology in that year might emerge.

All these eight anthropologists are women, and there might be the first important trend of the anthropology of 1985.

Of these eight women, two are not mentioned in the Dissertation Abstracts, and I could not locate them or their dissertations anywhere else. Of the remaining six, whose abstracts I found, I got the actual dissertations of three.

Of those six, two are teaching anthropology, one at Malaspina on Vancouver Island, one at Vanderbilt, and one is at a Health Research Center in Nepal; I could not find the other three. At least one author has published a book based on her dissertation, and three have published numerous articles. One author has just published a new book in 1998 (which, by the way, is not mentioned in any citation index).

Some authors needed two years after they got these grants to finish their dissertation, while one got her degree in 1998. One author had done her fieldwork before getting the grant, but most used it to do fieldwork.

Looking at the material on hand, I will look at three issues:

- What were the dissertations about? (Topic)

- What main theories did they apply? (Theory)

- How were they written? (Style)


Not surprisingly, topics vary widely, not only in fieldwork locations, but also in fields of interests.

Fieldwork locations are: Peru, Brazil (2), Swaziland, Mozambique, Nepal, Indonesia, and the USA (Brooklyn).

Fields of interests are: recreational dance, patterns of health and disease, peasants and class formation, impact of industrial water pollution, lesbian kinship relations, customary law and land management, organization of irrigation, and maintenance of ethnic identity.

From the fieldwork locations, one might draw the conclusion that neither Europe, Australasia, nor Native North America were at the center of attention of North American anthropology in 1985. Research concentrates on South America, Southern Africa, and Southeast Asia. The Brooklyn fieldwork location might be an indication of a reflexive approach to anthropology - "bringing anthropology home". The same is true for the study done in Nepal by a researcher from that country, even though this is not bringing anthropology "home", but rather specifically taking it home. While the first author is specifically changing anthropological tradition, in applying it to a "Western" context, the second is following it, appropriating, but not changing it.

All of the studies, including the one in Brooklyn, are addressing "classic" anthropological groups - small, or at least "pure" community situations. This is also true in a sense for the study on land rights in Swaziland, I would argue, as the Swazi, regardless how diversely described by the author, are probably seen as one distinct culture in North America. The exception to this seems to be the recreational dance study, which was apparently more interested in a melting-pot situation than in one specific cultural setting (or rather the changes leading from one to another). Unfortunately, this was one of the dissertations I could not even find an abstract of. However, none of the theses are "classic" monographs, even though the one on ethnic identity gives such a wealth of information about the people studied that it comes close to that. They are all dealing with a certain aspect of a community, thus highlighting these issues and making them more readily available for cross-cultural comparisons.

One possible pattern in the fields of interest distribution is that most deal with topics that are potentially useful to applied anthropology, and development issues. The exceptions to this are the recreational dance, the lesbian kinship relations, and maintenance of ethnic identity. The kinship relations study can, I think, be included in the "applied", or even the "development" category. It has a clear political motive, and although its theme is not the development of the group studied, in some ways it is the development of the people living with, if not to say "around" that group.

This interpretation would, of course, fit nicely with the fieldwork location distribution - the countries chosen are all "classic" development countries. Exceptions to this are the USA and possibly Indonesia: it is there that the recreational dance and the lesbian kinship relations studies are situated. This conclusion would also explain why Native North America, Europe, Northern Asia, Australia, etc. are not included in this sample - these were not the areas where development work was concentrated in 1985.

The applied interest is clearly visible by following up on further publications of the authors. At least three published articles dealing with political issues: development and anthropology, ecopolitics in Amazonia, and land tenure issues in Africa.

In fact, the recreational dance study is the only "uninterested" study that was funded in this sample (by "uninterested" I mean a study that is "only" based on personal academic interests, not having any obvious connections to political or social interests). Already in 1985 North American anthropology, it seems, had to be applicable and "interested". The lesbian kinship study and the ethnic identity study are both "interested", in that both are studies of groups close to or the same as the authors' social group of origin.


Following the diversity of the themes, the theories used are also distinct from one another.

It is obvious that the lesbian kinship relations study is employing the then emergent gender theories and general theories of kinship structures for comparison (Eleanor Leacock, Sylvia Yanagisako, David Schneider, amongst others). The land tenure study is using theories of law, political economy, and reciprocity (Laura Nader, Hilda Kuper, Max Gluckman). The irrigation study of course draws upon irrigation theory, and includes group and community relationship theory, development theory, and theory of group organization. The study on the patterns of health and disease in Amazonia uses theories of shamanism, the relationship between belief and physiological/social phenomena, mythology, and the body and its social significance. Accordingly, the peasants study looks at theories of social and cultural identity, productive relationships, power, and class, while the ethnic identity study is focusing on ethnicity and caste (Frederik Barth, Edmund Leach, Gerald Berreman, Abner Cohen).

All three dissertations that I could read are describing the personal situation of the researcher in the field and go into some details on the situation of the informants. The most detailed is the study on ethnicity in Nepal, whose author gives a detailed explanation on how she came to study the topic, this people, and this village. This is not, I found, a "confession", but a very useful introduction to the dissertation, which is also setting the broader situation for the reader. By reading this introduction, one learns a lot about the people and their perception that one would not get to know otherwise. This study and the one on lesbian kinship structures also give some detailed biographical information on their main informants, while keeping their anonymity.

Assuming certain by no means timeless, but seemingly so, formal requirements for an academically successful product, the use of theoretical approaches in these dissertations is not necessarily pointing to 1985. The same use is still made today, and was made in 1970.

The theories employed are not necessarily relevant to the year the studies began - 1985 - but are rather relevant to the field of interest. Some fields of interests, of course, might have been in special vogue in the mid 1980s, as I have tried to argue above. Theories of development or gender, for example, could therefore have had a great influx and at the same time a great impact on new studies. But I would hope that none of these anthropologists chose their field of interest just because one theory or another was coming to its heydays. The topics were most often developed over years, interests building up towards their final concretion in a dissertation. The diversity of topics in this small sample, even though some general trends are discernible, seems to support this argument.

As the actual dissertations were finished over the range of eleven years (1987 - 1998), the theories and theoreticians they use are also diverse in their timeframes. I would in fact hold that as everybody is trying to incorporate the most recent relevant theoretical approaches to her field, the theories used in the dissertations could really not point to 1985. To find the relevant theories of 1985, one would have to look at the dissertations finished in that year. Even if one would start out on a theoretical dissertation influenced by the theoretical approach of the year, by the time one finished his dissertation, it would have been influenced thoroughly by the theories having emerged during this period. This holds true especially if it takes an average of five and a half years to finish the dissertation.



All of the dissertations seem to have been written in a rather conventional style: description of the problem and the setting, description of methodological and theoretical departure, fieldwork account with data, conclusions.

As I have mentioned above, the most reflexive theses are the one on lesbian kinship relations and on ethnicity; both authors are in some ways native anthropologists, one from the country studying her neighbors, the other studying her own social group. Both have rather detailed descriptions of their personal situations and of the situation at the fieldwork location, their interactions with their informants, their informants' situation, etc. Their dissertations, however, follow the classic scheme. It is interesting that both authors have different motivations for their reflexive introductions. While one is trying to defend her position as an anthropologist researching her friends in her own social group, the other is explaining her long connection to the people she studies and the changes in that connection.

1985 ?

In conclusion, one might be inclined to say that the cultural anthropology of 1985 centered on development and gender issues, showed a tendency towards situational reflexivity, but retained an overall conventional style, and were in the majority "interested".

I would, however, warn of such a conclusion. It would be an essentialization of an essentialization. Reading the dissertations, I can see the above mentioned trends, but I doubt if they cry "1985" out at me. Like all writing, these dissertations are influenced by their times, of course. But like most writing, they are also distanced from their times. This is not only true because writing is an analysis of current issues, at the same time taking them up and distancing itself from them. The authors also brought different experiences with them, and into the dissertation process, which set the topics, the theories, and the writing apart from a specific year.

Amongst the authors are, for example, a 48-year old woman and somebody who had already degrees in philosophy and Indian history. I hold that personal experiences over many years are just as formative for the dissertation topic, theory, and style that ends up being chosen and ultimately written as the year the dissertation is started (in one case, the fieldwork was, or rather the fieldworks were actually done before the 1985 grant).

All the dissertations, I think, show trends that became more important in the eighties, but they at the same time are embedded in traditions that go back far longer. Essentializing a discipline that stands against essentializiation to a few specific trends of a specific year is as much futile as discarding all evidence that trends actually exist in anthropology. These dissertations, in the exact form they were written, are all a product of the eighties, but most of them could have been started in only slightly, almost inconceivable different forms in the seventies or nineties. Trends take longer than a year to actualize themselves in dissertations, and not all dissertations follow the same trends, or follow trends at all.

The following is a summation of dissertation grants from 1985

by Sebastian F. Braun

1985 is a year that sadly enough is almost lost in the dust of history - the most influential thing that happened in 1985 and immediately springs to my mind was the publication of John Mellencamp's "Scarecrow" record (wasn't Gorbatchev elected chairman of the General Committee in 1985?). Yet, there is something about 1985, not as easily pinpointed to as "1984", but almost more important. My guess is that is has something to do with its being the middle of the eighties: the world was still easily classed in dichotomies (or that was what we were told), and Thatcher, Kohl and Reagan told us that we could get whatever we wanted if we only worked hard enough (and this possibility still seemed somewhat real). The war in Afghanistan was still in the headlines, and May Day demonstrations and Easter Marches were well attended, while those four or five years older than me fought the establishment out on the streets in legendary battles with the riot police.

However, in 1985, something else was going on, too: people got funded for their dissertation research in cultural anthropology. That alone would not make 1985 a remarkable year - all considered, people also got funded in 1984 or 1986. But maybe there is something uniquely "1985ish" to be found by looking at what they got their funds for. Dissertations are supposed to be on the edge of all scientific research, after all, on the pulse of the avant-garde, and should give an insight into the state of the art. By looking at dissertation proposals from 1985, one should therefore be able to look at the issues that dominated cultural anthropology in that year, runs the assumption.

What, then, did the cutting edge of North American cultural anthropology look like in 1985? This essay is based on a study of dissertation projects receiving funds in 1985, as far as they got to be available. The projects were split up in the class, each student looking at eight or nine proposals and what became of them. I will therefore not only draw upon the proposals that I looked at, but also upon the data from the class as a whole. Rests to say that this is an absolutely qualitative and personal essay, and that all mistakes committed are mine. If I misrepresent the anthropology of 1985 in any way, this is due to my own mythical outlook of my (non-North American) past and the very unhistorical approach to this problem.

Theoratical Trends

The first trend that caught my eyes was that a majority of the people who got funded were women. This seems to be very much in line with the general gender situation in professions and studies in the 1980s. Encouraged not only by feminist theories of action that tried to translate feminism from an interesting dinner conversation into actual empowerment, as well as the neo-liberal appropriation of these theories that declared women to be as able to contribute to the gross domestic income as men, more women were allowed and took the freedom to take more career steps. Even though these career steps did most often not include the ones to the top, doing a dissertation got to be socially acceptable for women. And as some of my professors repeatedly pointed out, cultural anthropology with its holistic and flexible thinking is generally more suited to the way women are socially programmed to think than how men are. It should come as no surprise, then, that women excelled in this field as soon as limiting social restrictions began to fall. And it should not surprise anybody, either, that some of these women began to get interested in women in other cultures. After all, the men who had predominantly been doing anthropology before had generally been interested in the men of other cultures.

Feminist and gender issues are apparent in proposals for studies on gender roles in Barbados, women in Indonesian Muslim societies or Turkish villages, or the emergence of lesbian kinship patterns in Brooklyn.

Another reason for this, and this ties right in with the trends of 1985, I think, might be that anthropology became more and more thought of as a way to help the un- and underrepresented, the ones oppressed by the dominant discourses. To do this, one should have at least some empathy with such people, and I guess that the women who began their dissertation work in 1985 could draw on a lot of that - more, in general, than men, at least.

Departing from this, and taking into account the sway of neo-liberal politics, the believe that the world could be made a better place if one only tried, and the experiments in translating theories into action, the trend in development anthropology is perfectly accountable for. The growing trend towards application got to be applied anthropology, and at least a relative majority of the dissertations were either directly applicable or at least potentially contributing towards application. Something like pure academic (or intellectual) interest was considered utterly reactive, and a clear minority of the studies are not otherwise "interested". Not only had it been shown that pure intellectual interest did not exist, but in the age when clearly something had to be done to save the world, it would have been absolutely unacceptable to take the privileged luxury and follow one's interests, anyway. That would have been an affront to the underprivileged. The socially engaged went out into the world and did something useful - when I was getting into anthropology at the end of that decade, the ideal was to go and drill wells in Africa, for example.

Studies on the impact of industrial water pollution on fishing communities in Brazil, on land management in Swaziland, Zapotec weavers, or the ties between range economy and the transportation system all fit into this trend. They also fit into a larger trend of growing importance for environmental and ecological anthropology. The interest in studying ecological behavior of and environmental impact on cultures should not surprise. It is the normal thing to do for a culture that has just been forced to realize (and there was still an actual realization of this in the eighties) that it is apparently destroying its own environment (and that of everybody else).

Fieldwork Locations

The trends in fieldwork locations might also be a result of the funding agencies looked at, but in connection to the theoretical trends, I think some clear patterns emerge.

There seems to be a clear trend towards Latin America and Southeast Asia, with some studies on Africa; these are regions that are not only "classic" development areas, but also areas that had been in the political (and other) cross wires of the United States. Southeast Asia seems to be especially interesting, if one looks at the eighties as the age when the U.S. were starting to catch up with the way they had defended their interests in that region. Ten years after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh, nobody worked in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, but there might be connections to this political, moral, and social remembrance and rethinking from the work done all over the rest of the region. After all, the political involvement of anthropology in Southeast Asia and South America was still giving enough reasons to think on ethical issues, too. The weight on Nepal, on the other hand, might also be explained by the eighties' interest in the religious messages coming from there.

More conspicuous, however, is this trend if one looks at what regions are not represented: Native North America, Australia, and Siberia. These are some of the classic areas of academic anthropology, but most of them are politically in generally "developed" countries, so they apparently fell out of consideration. Studies in North America and Europe are either concentrating on "traditional" or out-of-the-way regions (Shetland, Lapland) or on specific social situations (Sikhs in London, lesbians in Brooklyn).

Approaches and Styles

Apart from one experimental dissertation in diary form, the dissertations that resulted from the studies that got funded in 1985 are rather conventional in style. Some include more biographical material on informants than the "classic" ethnographies, even in the form of short (incognito) biographies. In the general outline, however, they mostly follow the usual academic form: description of fieldwork situation and problem, theoretical discussion, fieldwork data, conclusions.

The inclusion of detailed descriptions of fieldwork situations and informants, as well as an account of the authors' personal situation I see as an outgrowth of the general eighties self-consciousness and reflexivity. It seems to me that there was a general break in the outward activism and a phase of critical reflection on what the "West" had actually achieved, and how it could change itself so that these achievements would not have catastrophic consequences. The Cold War had reached its limitations and was degraded to an economic armament race, and people were growing really tired of that situation, anyway. Several problems could no longer be ignored, be it the destroying of natural resources, or the real alienation of the younger generations, and that generated a reflexive discourse on how one could change one's own society to start with, not others. The description and analysis of one's own culture thus became more important.

Through the growing peace movement and the growing empathy for the former archenemies, it became very obvious that any position was situational. There was no objective reality, anymore; there was a reality, but it became clear that depending one the context it was seen in, it was receipted differently. Knowledge became situational. In order to be understood, one had therefore to situate oneself. This was not yet the feeling that one could not understand the other at all. One still could understand others, but one self was only understood if one's situation was made clear. And before going out to study others, one had to be sure that one understood oneself. Only that way, something close to honest and intelligible descriptions could be achieved. This was the last ditch effort to save the reality in social studies from being declared subjective meaninglessness; by laying bare all external factors, the experiment could not be reproduced, but it could be tested. <I>Gn&ocirc;ti sauton</I> became the slogan of anthropology. It was not Malinowski's study your culture by studying the other, anymore, but it was study yourself - as a person - before being able to study the other and learn about your own culture. Only by being conscious of one's own situation is one able to see the situation of others. And only by declaring the anthropologist's situation, the informants' situations, and the fieldwork situation could somebody else really be enabled to make sense of the fieldwork data.

And that lead to the fall of another anthropological dogma. If anybody was different in personal experiences and situation from anybody else, e.g. if there was a distance between any two persons, then why should anthropologists only be able to study different cultures so that they could see the cultures as a whole - the forest, not just the trees? Their own cultures are what anybody, and that includes anthropologists, knows most about, anyway, and these are also the cultures that other anthropologists don't know as much about. Studying your own culture also eliminates to a certain point the reproach of cultural exploitation. So, "Western" anthropologists began to study their own groups. At the same time, academics in the countries traditionally studied by anthropologists began to get interested in anthropology, themselves, and they began to do anthropological studies in their own countries.

Examples of these approaches can be seen in the study on lesbian kinship patterns in New York and in the study on ethnic identity maintenance in southern Nepal. There are some structural differences in this reflexivity, however. While the first dissertation spends quite some time to legitimize the study of the author's own social group, the second spends a lot of time legitimizing the author herself. Both, however, keep to a style that suggests that these same studies could have been pursued and written by different authors, even though they give detailed information about the personal and social circumstances of the fieldwork.


Although this might be a misconception, I see the eighties more as an age of practice, or of the transformation of theory into practice, the implementation of a theory of practice, maybe, than as a theoretical decade. Even the reflexive theories are more a trial to translate an insight into action than a theoretical debate, or at least both. In that sense, the dissertations fit right in with their time of beginning, I think. Almost every dissertation in anthropology is more practical than theoretical, because most deal with fieldwork, but by saying that there is a trend towards development and applied anthropology, it is obvious that there is also a trend towards practice.

As for what specific theoretical approaches were trendy in 1985, I don't think that the dissertations can help with that question. Every author of a dissertation tries to incorporate the most recent theories in her/his work, but they are the most recent theories up to the time the dissertation is actually written, not the time it was started. As the dissertations took from two to thirteen years to finish, they include theories from 1987 to 1998. If one wanted to look at specific theories that were in trend in 1985, one should probably look at dissertations that were finished in 1986.

Where it came from...

In my interpretation, the eighties were an age of calm before the storm, a decade of realization, of reflexivity and self-consciousness, perhaps even of preparation. The theories had been thought up in the late sixties and the seventies, now it was time to get them to work. Theoretical discussions were not going to save the world, anymore; it was time to do something. "There is no time", said Lou Reed a few years later. And there was none. No time for hesitation. No time for ideological and theoretical barter. In that sense, it might have been a decade of beginning relativism. Looking at politics, one might get a very different picture, but I rather think of the spirit of the people. It was a time of balance - seemingly balanced economies, a seemingly balanced armament race, and the urge to re-balance the ecosystem. No wonder political ecology was one upward trend in eighties' anthropology.

Anthropology in the eighties, therefore, was not the place for grand new theories, either. They had been generated earlier, and could now be put to use, tested, refined, maybe. Basically, they were just tools. Tools for the analysis of cultures and one's own society. But this analysis, in contrast to the seventies, was not just an intellectual process, anymore. It was a process of action. Analysis was not the goal, and it did not satisfy. Change was the pressing need and seemed a necessity, and therefore a possibility. Some tried to change the world by neo-liberal economic reforms, or by working hard. Yuppies and DINKs were those who followed the road to change the world everyone for his own. Others tried to change the world by practicing the opposite ideologies. Action Directe (what a speaking name), CCC, and the new Red Army Fraction were those who took that road to the extreme. Peace activists tried to practice peace.

And anthropologists tried to change the world by putting anthropology to practice.

...and where it went

Who knows, where it could have ended. Following my myth of balance and of practical anthropology, anthropology could be in a different situation, as could the world. But the balance was broken, illusions deprived, and critique became deconstruction. Creation was not destruction, anymore, because the counterweight, that which can destroy and create, had been lost, and there was no other way but to refer to deconstruction, instead. A more theoretical approach, again. A more theoretical practice, a slightly disillusioned turning back from the world. Anthropology and the world began to frantically search for radical newness. Something new was promised, a new structure, a new order, but most of what came were reiterations of old themes in new packages.

The anthropology of 1985

Parting from the funded dissertation projects of 1985, what, then, was the cultural anthropology of that year like? I doubt that I can point to it - the anthropology of 1985 probably does not exist. But there is an anthropology of the 1980s. Trends are like waves; they begin imperceptibly, build up and finally crest. The whole process takes at least three years, and there is always a simultaneous selection of trends out in the ocean of academia. The diversity of those dissertation projects speaks for this, I think, as well as it speaks for anthropology.

Trying to come up with the anthropology of 1985 is trying to come up with the culture of anthropology in 1985. And constructing cultures, I have learned, is a risky business - as Kroeber remarked, one should ideally make cultural maps without boundaries between the cultures. Chosen centers can be seen as peripheries, and vice versa. If I apply that important anthropological insight to this study, then I would prefer to say that there are two recognizable cultures of anthropology, one of the seventies and one of the eighties, but I can't detect a boundary between them. Cultures are dynamic. And taking survivals into the concept, or the possibility of some progressive or prophetic individuals, gives the possibility that some of these dissertations could have been written in the seventies, or the nineties.


Constructing the anthropology of 1985 and declaring it for real, then, would be about the same as constructing the culture of the Nuer and declaring it for "real". In an age of deconstruction, this would be a futile exercise, I guess. But deconstructing 1985 to the middle of the eighties - the imaginary cultural center, so to say - has given me a quite definable anthropology of 1985. One, I hope, that is not just an imaginary construction, but perhaps bears some, maybe even close resemblance to reality, even if my reality in the eighties was not the same as the realities of the authors of these dissertations.

1985 Fullbright Hays grant recipients

by Kathleen Costello


I began with six Fullbright Hays grant recipients, and one recipient of a Charlotte Newcombe fellowship. I received six of the dissertations from this group. One was an ethnoarchaeological analysis of bone refuse production by a culture group in East Africa. The purpose of this dissertation was to look at the ways that a contemporary culture produced bone waste in order to give researchers insights into the ways the behaviors of past cultures contributed to the formation of archaeological sites. Since the ultimate goal of this research was to lend insight to the doings of archaeologists, and not necessarily a method of ethnographic inquiry, this dissertation does not really fall into the scope of this essay. The other dissertations, to one degree or another, deal with contemporary cultures, and all use ethnographic field methods.

The fieldwork for these dissertations was begun in 1985. However, the time it took for the research to be completed and the dissertations to be published took a number of years. The earliest was completed in 1987, and the most recent in 1994. The authors of these dissertations were drawing on theoretical material that was being written after they returned from the field. Because of this temporal "seeping" some of the sources cited by authors are not from the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, the overlaps in sources span across the body of work, show something of shared perspectives and resources that cover the relatively diverse range of field research that was begun in 1985. In the following section, I discuss briefly the dissertations as individual works. Then I discuss the common theoretical aspects that appear in the dissertations resulting from grants given in 1985.

The Dissertations:

Lorraine Aragon. Divine Justice: Cosmology, Ritual, and Protestant Missionization in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

Topic: Aragon’s dissertation, as the title suggests, discusses the Protestant missionization of indigenous peoples in the central highlands in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Her ethnography provides historical and contemporary analyses of the process of missionization in one area. She discusses in some detail the ways that Indigenous Tobaku people have integrated aspects of their traditional religion with Protestantism. Her conclusion is that while the form the Christian religion takes in Sulawesi is not orthodox by the standards of Western people, the faith of the Tobaku is no less valid, and their experience of Christianity is no less genuine.

Theory: Aragon discusses the aim scholars of postmodernism, namely Clifford, have for Anthropology in the chapter of her dissertation devoted to theoretical issues. She then positions herself within in this debate or forum. The statement she makes is that while postmodernist theory and writing methodology highlight the importance of acknowledging the effect an ethnographer has on the reader’s understanding of the subject at hand, she also believes that an ethnography should not be a confessional for the author. Thus, while she details carefully the ways she feels her role affected the nature of the material she collected, in the ethnographic discussion in her book, Aragon avoids highlighting her presence in the narrative flow.

One of the major points Aragon makes in her dissertation is that the practice of missionization locally in Sulawesi must be linked back into the global significance of Christianity as world religion. She compares it to Islam in Indonesia, arguing that current understandings of the recent introduction of these religions into the region show that only the indigenous culture is changed. In contrast to this notion, Aragon states that the local process of conversion will link back into the global movement and change it over time. One of the way that Aragon gets at this situation is to discuss in one section of the book "related issues of Political Economy." She writes about missionization and conversion as a situation of "value exchange". She also looks, in the historical analysis, at how the reproduction of the cultural hierarchy through the direction of history is achieved.

Style: Considering Aragon’s position on postmodernist practice, it is not surprising that the style of the dissertation is not wildly experimental. She provides thorough analyses of theoretical, historical, and ethnographic data, in well integrated but distinct sections.

Robert Carlson. Haya Worldview and Ethos: An Ethnography of Alcohol Production and Consumption in Bukoba, Tanzania. University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Topic: Carlson’s dissertation is an ethnographic study of the production and consumption of low-alcohol content beer by Haya people in Tanzania. This dissertation includes ethnographic field data and archival research.

Theory: The dissertation looks at beer production and consumption over time, and links it into the process of colonialization in East Africa. His dissertation first discusses theoretical issues and relevant literature on his topic. He gives a historical analysis of Haya culture as it underwent the process of colonialization. Then he discusses his ethnographic field data. His assertion is that beer "is a mediator" in social interaction. He also argues that beer is used as a metaphor in the enacting of social relationships. According to Carlson, being able to control behavior while experiencing stages of intoxication through analogy represents the entire human experience by showing self-control, and the loss of it. He also argues that this analogy can be linked to metaphor. Drinking leads one through a series of states of consciousness, therefore, it requires experiencing transition. Because of this, the activity can be "projected" on to other transitional experiences, such as rites of passage in the human life cycle. Banana beer, according to Carlson, also mediates human relations that cross various strata in society. These mediations include negotiating, as tribute, between people and the king. They also act between people and ancestors as sacrifices, as well as between men and women, and so on. While metaphors are commonly viewed as figures of speech, in Carlson’s analysis, banana beer itself serves the same purpose speech metaphors do. They both link two parallel domains together. Carlson takes this analysis further and argues that beer offered in situations where it acts as metaphor also plays a role in the cultural practice of reciprocity.

Carlson’s theoretical analysis draws heavily on T. Turner’s work on mediation and symbols. He also writes that a session given at the AAA meetings in 1987 on metaphor and culture influenced the theoretical analysis he gives (personal communication, April 1999). The contributors to this session included a number of scholars besides Turner, including James Fernandez, who later edited the papers as a collected volume on Metaphor and culture. Works by J. van Baal, Sapir, Sahlins, Mauss, and Levi-Strauss are also discussed. Carlson points out that his analysis of alcohol production and use in East Africa provides starting points for research into other culture areas in the world.

Style: Carlson seems to have written his dissertation with an awareness of the influence of postmodernism on contemporary scholarship. By this I do not mean that his work shows the hallmarks of the methodology and philosophy of Postmodern Anthropology, but that he wrote against that particular influence.

Jonathan Church. Political Discourse of Shetland: Confabulations and Communities. Temple University.

Topic: Church conducted his research in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK. His topic is, broadly, a discussion of identity, authenticity, community, and culture. His dissertation tracks the ways these categories have developed and been rearranged in relationship to one another through and by the political activity of local government officials and citizens.

Theory: In some ways, Church’s ethnography is ahead of its time. He writes about nationalism and nationalist discourse before the recent explosion of literature on the topic. His citation of sources on nationalism Benedict Anderson’s publication of 1983, Imagined Communities, as well as Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition (1983). He develops these theories and discussions of nationalism, however. He argues that nationalism is not monolithic, but instead fractured and dialogic, an idea Verdery develops as well. His discussion of the ways that local government in the Shetlands essentializes the identity of the community is similar to Herzfeld’s (1992) (1997).

Church also draws heavily on the theory of the Political Economy discussion. His book even employs the keyword of "fetishization", and develops also the idea from psychology of "confabulation", or inventing or imagining identity where there was a perceived "gap" before. Church’s argument is that the members of the local and national government over time fetishized, commodified, and, to use a word Church does not, attempted to essentialize identity in Shetland. He gives local archival historical examples of public discussion, such as editorials, as well as ethnographic data to support this point. He also discusses the ways that this "fetishized" identity is contested and resisted by local people, thus developing his point that culture generally, and identity specifically is not cemented, but the issues or parameters that are contested exist. Identity is created in the dialogue around these debates.

Style: The organization of Church’s dissertation is organized around themes and the examples, historical and ethnographic, and ethnohistorical, that illustrate the theory he writes about. He does not give a major literature review, or a Here’s-my-Conclusion finishing. Neither does he draw on twentieth Scottish history texts, even though he links his local discussion to national politics. He does not state if this because the literature that was available was not relevant, or if he felt it was not necessary. He does not explicitly state it anywhere, but the sense the reader gets is that Church made these choices after considering the postmodern project. The author’s presence doesn’t flood the main chapters of the dissertation, but in his last section, he asks if he has created Shetland in his work as much as it has created him. This reflection also points to the considerations of the concern postmodern scholarship has with the authority of the ethnographic voice.

Helen Lee Peeler Clements. On a Small Scale: Weavers and History in Nineteenth-Century Oaxaca. University of Texas, Austin.

Topic: Clements provides an ethnohistory of the community of Zapotec weavers in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico. She uses historical documents and ethnographic techniques to "recover" parts of Mexican history that she writes have been ignored, ignored and underprivileged. She argues that with the rise of capitalism in Mexico and the expansion of textile mills specifically, the practice of weaving by hand, as well as other artisan and subsistence agriculture activities did not die out.

Theory: Clements is very explicit about the theoretical background of her dissertation. She writes that her goal is to consider Eric Wolf’s argument in Europe and the People Without History (1982), using the French Annales school of history, especially the work of Braudel and Lauderie. Specifically, Clements refers to the book Montaillou, a history of religious heretics in 14th century France (Lauderie, 1978). She looks at the ways capitalization in Mexico affected Zapotec people. She also discusses how a specific set of historical circumstances influences a particular place and time. She looks at the structure of the historical record, and how this informs our understanding of the particulars of the Zapotec culture in 19th century Oaxaca. Her goal is to link local experiences to regional ones, regional to national, and then to see if the connection can be made between the process of industrialization in Mexico to that of other Third World countries. Similarly, she wants to show that cloth is meaningful to cultures in significant ways, and that this meaning is linked to other, broader social issues, in this case, the process of capitalization and industrialism. To make her local-to-global link, she draws on examples of the industrialization of textile production in other countries. Finally, Clements draws on the work of Jane Schneider to make her point about the significance of cloth.

Style: Clements’s organization of her dissertation is such that her thorough historical and ethnohistorical data and analysis are easily accessible to the reader. The chapters deal with the practice of weaving, changes in landholding in Mexico, and changes in the weaving industry in Oaxaca. She does not depart radically from straightforward presentation of her material.

Steven Parish: Hierarchy and Person in the Moral World of the Newars. University of California, San Diego.

Topic: Parish’s dissertation discusses, as the title suggests, the relationship between the individual, social hierarchy, and moral behavior in a Nepalese civilization. His work relies on ethnographic methods, including participant observation and informant interviews.

Theory: Parish does not draw heavily on one theorist in his work. Because he is writing about moral personality, it is not surprising that he draws on the work of those involved in Psychological Anthropology. In his vita, he cites Obeyeskere, Spiro, and Levy as influences in this subfield. He also cites D’Andrade as an influence on his study of culture and mental health. The general goal of his dissertation is to discuss and then develop further the idea that Hindu cultures are organized in a hierarchical (caste) system. While Parish agrees with the assertion that hierarchy is not the only predominant mode of social organization in Newar culture, he disputes the idea that Newar culture is by any means monolithically committed to this situation. He draws on the work of Dumont (1980), who appears to make this essentializing argument. Parish’s ethnography shows that, in fact, Newar people are aware of, negotiate, and even in some cases contest the supposedly concrete values of hierarchy, conformity, and group identity. He also works to show that the concepts of equality and individualism are not only conceived of, but also practiced in certain situations in Newar culture. His conclusion is that, while moral behavior in Newar culture tends to be defined in line with the more traditional idea of "Hinduness", his informants would express agreement with these conflicting modes of self-awareness and ideas of personhood depending on the circumstances. Ultimately, Parish seems to argue that Newar moral personhood is defined around debates and contested values, rather than around a monolithic, essentialized definition as Dumont originally suggests.

Style: Parish, in this dissertation, writes an introduction with theoretical concerns and literature background. The rest of the book is written about his field data, and also draws on literature published on his area and method of study.

The Common Threads and Topics of 1985:

Political Economy and Colonialism

A number of the dissertations in this group look at how capitalism and the colonial encounter changed local situations. Some of them also take on the task of contributing to the "raising of historical consciousness" in the region in which they studied. (Class notes, Feb 1999). These include Aragon, who analyses the process of conversion to Christianity in Indonesia from the beginning of contact with Dutch colonizers in the 20th century. Clements also looks at how the process of capitalization of production and industrialization worked historically in Mexico. Not only was she looking at colonialization and issues of exploitation, she also states explicitly that her project goal is to "recover" historical information about these processes, and in he end, to contribute to the historical consciousness of the region.

Church's dissertation also draws heavily on the interests of Political Economy, and uses vocabulary that is specific to the subfield. He talks about fetishization, and commodification of culture in Shetland. He also discusses the recent history of the region, and how capitalism, specifically the boom in North Sea oil production has acted to essentialize cultural identity in the Shetland Islands. His study, while not looking at "colonialization", does take into account the relationship of capitalism and economic exploitation in a region of Great Britain that suffered from depopulation and economic depression. Carlson's also looks at culture change and the colonial experience, and integrates historical analysis into his work. Clements, especially, but Aragon and Church as well all draw from Eric Wolf's discussion in Europe and the People Without History. These authors also refer to Arjun Appadurai's work on culture and commodities.

Global to Local Connections

Several authors also wrote about the connection between their specific area of study and global trends or phenomena. Aragon refers to missionization by members of "world religions" in Sulawesi. She compares the role of Christianity and Islam in Indonesia, and then suggests that over time, local culture will not only be effected by, but will also affect the shape of these major religions. She tries to show that in fact, local cultures have "agency" to act on global movements, and that the transmission of change does not necessarily have to be one-sided. Again, Clements takes on the task of linking her theoretical assertions back into the global process of capitalization and exploitation of local cultures. She asserts that the situation in Oaxaca as it was industrialized in the 19th century can be usefully compared to other regions in the 3rd world. Parish compares traditional, essentialized views of "Hindu" cultures as set in opposition to the West, and then goes on to look at how the local situation of the Newar in Nepal resists these categorizations. Carlson believes his research can be a useful beginning point for further research in other places around the world. With the exception of Parish, all of these authors include archival research in their work to look at the processes of colonialization and globalization.


One of the issues that was brought up in the roundtable symposium on 1985 is the fact that Ph.D. students from this time were becoming "polarized" around the issue of postmodern scholarship (Rick Wilk, class discussion, May 1999). This issue, while not explicitly argued by any of the people covered here, is addressed in some ways. Aragon does not make a strongly polarized statement about postmodernism, but she does situate herself as a "moderate" in the discussion. Carlson writes that he does not believe that his thesis is "postmodern in any sense," which, although made recently also speaks to his awareness about the issue of postmodern methodology (personal communication, 1999). Asli Baykal also made the statement in symposium that scholars writing dissertations at this time also seemed to have made the choice to use largely contemporary theory for their discussions of their material (Baykal, class discussion, May 1999). This is the case with some of the dissertations discussed here. While some draw from theorists writing before the 1970, some also rely heavily on scholarship, anthropological and otherwise, from contemporary sources.

Metaphor and Identity:

Robert Carlson's work on metaphor and culture, and Johnathan Church's writing on identity and nationalism are not directly related to the other topics covered in the group of dissertations. However, both are related to topics that were heavily discussed during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s. Carlson’s dissertation takes part in the discussion at a very well attended panel at the 1987 AAA meetings. The issues of nationalism, political discourse, and identity in Europe were just becoming a topic of noted discussion at the end of the 1980’s. As discussed elsewhere on this site, the Society for the Anthropology of Europe was founded in 1987, and has grown significantly in the intervening decade.

1985 and Beyond
Some of the themes, locations, and theories treated by the authors of these dissertations are still relevant, while other situations seem to have changed considerably in the last 15 years. As stated above, Church’s dissertation was published just as the topic of nationalism and identity in Europe was beginning to attract a good deal of attention from anthropologists and scholars in other disciplines. Since finishing his fieldwork, the amount of literature on nationalism generally, and minority separatist movements specifically has increased dramatically. Colonialism and post-colonialism, industrialization, and capitalization are current topics, as well. During the roundtable, the point was made that recent dissertations and grant proposals seem to have considerably more space devoted to reviews of current and past literature on the area and theory being written about (Lavoie, Wilk, class discussion, May 1999). The tendency towards a full account of primary historical sources, but little in the way of published secondary sources, as well as a somewhat atheoretical approach was apparent in a couple of the dissertations presented here.

There is no one particular topic, theory, or writing style that marks these dissertations in such a way that a reader would be able to say "aha! They must all be Fullbrights!" However, almost all of these dissertations share with one other some aspect of theme, theory, or style. If one were to visualize these connections as rings, they would not be totally interlinked. Instead, they would be linked in a line or, overlapping in a circle, sharing enough characteristics to be related in some way, but not so closely that they appear to come from the same starting point, or to have the same goal in mind. This visualization makes sense, when one considers that these grant recipients come from different institutions, and explore a variety of types of topics and field areas. It also speaks to the plurality of the discipline of Anthropology’s concerns as a whole.

Richard Wilk's Home Page | Theory Main Webpage


Use this table of contents to navigate to different sections of the site


Anthropology Journals

Associations & Organizations


Disciplines & Subdisciplines

Theory Through Time


Richard Wilk

Anthropology Department

Indiana University Bloomington

701 E. Kirkwood Ave. SB 242

Bloomington, IN 47405


This site  is generously sponsored by the IU Department of Anthropology and IU Campus Instructional Consulting and was designed by Cierra Olivia Thomas-Williams.