Influential Women of and for Anthropology

AN’s contributing editors were asked to identify the ethnographies (and other works) most influential to them, their careers, and their work. Below are descriptions of those ethnographies, ethnographers, other works, and their impact.

Precarious Japan by Anne Allison
Kelly Alexander is author of “What’s Your Beef” and an upcoming Opinion column on anthropology of food
One afternoon in the fall of 2013, Anne Allison was on NPR discussing her new ethnography Precarious Japan; I was driving to a dental appointment. I was also applying to Allison’s department to pursue my doctorate, yet was unsure of my path in anthropology—for reasons to do with stamina (I was a mom) and experience (I was a journalist). I had not yet met Allison, but here was an introduction. I listened as she described the conditions of post-WWII life in Japan to the present, focusing on people dealing with a burst economic bubble and the constraints of a rigid ideological model of middle-class life. Her talk of this “precariat” (the word was new to me) and their melancholia was so gripping, I pulled my car over.… just in time to hear about the hikikomori, the young people who withdraw from life, unable to come to terms with their profound feelings of social diminishment. Allison went on to theorize what “home” might mean in uncertain times, while I realized that much of my work as a food writer engaged the same issue. I used my phone to order Precarious Japan: If anthropology had room for projects like Allison’s, there might be room for mine. When Precarious Japan arrived, it was better than it was on the radio. Four years later, the “Home and Hope” chapter in particular remains a theoretically useful and elegantly expressive guide for me in thinking through relations between everyday life and the state. It’s also a model of a feminist analysis of social conditions, aligning geopolitics with affect and embodiment. All I knew then was that if Allison could produce such a book, I wanted to be close to her. Today other grad students ask me how I, an anthropologist of food doing fieldwork in Western Europe, came to work with a scholar of Japanese political economy; the answer is simply Precarious Japan.
Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society by Lila Abu-Lughod
Sindre Bangstad is the Opinion columnist for”Anthropological Publics, Public Anthropology
As Anthropologists we are not only the products of our lived experiences in and out of the field, but also of our readings. Asked by AN’s editorial team to name one woman anthropologist whose work has been formative for me, the name and the title that first came to mind was Lila Abu-Lughod and her Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society first published in 1986, and recently re-issued in a 30th anniversary edition.There have been many other works–for sure–but Lila’s work was what as a young student of anthropology at the University of Bergen in Norway – demonstrated to me what a masterfully written, richly textured and detailed ethnographies about the ordinary (and extraordinary) lives of female ‘others’ could do in enriching one’s understanding of human diversity and difference. I credit it with inspiring me to pursue an academic career in the field known as ‘the anthropology of Islam’ – properly conceived of as being about ‘Muslims’, rather than ‘Islam’ – and to do ethnographic fieldwork among Muslims in South Africa. The world is what it is, but Lila’s work remains for me a touchstone for anthropology at its very best and most humane.
Margaret Mead’s Many Manuscripts
Ioulia Chuvileva is a contributing editor for Culture and Agriculture

ca. 1960
Margaret Mead—an anthropologist, a social activist, a mediator. Her academic work reminds us that all humans are equally human, despite their cultural differences in attitudes and practices. Her pioneering public engagement encourages us to get beyond our professional comfort zones to make our work relevant to the improvement of society. Her infamous words urge us to not discount ourselves as too small for even the largest problems facing the world today, for, as she had noted: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Shell Bed to Shell Midden by Betty Meehan
Bob Muckle is the Opinion columnist forArchaeology in North America
Shell Bed to Shell Midden (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1982) has been central to my development as an anthropologist. It was written by Betty Meehan, based on her ethnographic fieldwork among the Gidjingali in northern Australia, focusing on the shellfishing and the role of women in the economy. Some would likely prefer to classify it as a work of enthnoarchaeology, but there is much that allows it to be considered as ethnography.  As an archaeology graduate student studying shellfishing this work was crucial. It normalized, early in my career, the important roles of women and children. It also normalized the important work being done by women anthropologists and archaeologists around the world. I had been provided relatively little consideration of gender in my undergraduate education, and am grateful for finding this work to counter the male biases pervasive at the time. It has continued to influence me in my archaeological field projects, where I routinely consider gender; my work on contemporary Indigenous peoples, where I seek out perspectives of Indigenous women; and my teaching where women and women’s activities are normalized in the curriculum of all the courses I teach.
Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Rachel Hall-Clifford is a contributing editor for the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology
One of the ethnographies that has most shaped my thinking about ethnographic writing and fieldwork is Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ now classic Death Without Weeping.  As a student, I was struck by how she deftly weaves deeply empathetic ethnography with historical context, interspersing her own personal history with and connections to the study community.  As a researcher, I admire her rigor and ability to build strong academic arguments without adopting a dispassionate approach – providing a guiding example of balancing scholarship with activism.  Finally, as a professor at a women’s college, I love working through this text (yes, the whole text!) with students, seeing it anew through their eyes.  What they and I most often pick up on is Scheper-Hughes’ engagement with women’s issues and her sometimes challenging but always self-aware position as a woman in the field.
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
Adam Hodges is the Opinion columnist forTrumped Up Words
Although not an ethnography per se, I would select Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) as a book that has not only influenced my own constructivist approach to discourse analysis, but continues to shape numerous conversations both within and outside academia. Butler helped expose the way commonsense notions about the world may seem “natural,” but are actually naturalized through an iterative process of “incessant and repeated action of some sort.” She emphasized “that gender ought not to be conceived as a noun or a substantial thing or a static cultural marker,” setting the stage for viewing identity as an interactional accomplishment, as linguistic anthropologists Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall detail in their analytical framework. In today’s political debates over “bathroom bills” and transgender rights, Butler’s ideas remain as relevant as ever as we listen to politicians like former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory and pundits like Tucker Carlson search for definitive biologically determined definitions of “sex” and “gender” to justify their politics of exclusion. “Strategies of exclusion and hierarchy,” Butler reminds us in her conclusion to Gender Trouble, “persist in the formulation of the sex/gender distinction and its recourse to ‘sex’ as the prediscursive.”
A Poison Stronger than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community by  Anastasia Shkilnyk
Ed Liebow is executive director of the American Anthropological Association
A game changer for me was Anastasia Shkilnyk’s 1985 book, A Poison Stronger Than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community. This was a compelling account of mercury pollution discovered in the watershed adjacent to Grassy Narrows, a small Ojibwa village in northwestern Ontario, and the massive damage done not just to the environment, but to the people of the Grassy Narrows Band. Shkilnyk documents the community’s relocation in 1963 into harm’s way, and the subsequent rapid disintegration of the community through illness, violent death, and shattered families. Miki Crespi told me about this book as I was preparing a syllabus for a course I would teach on social impact assessment, just as I was finishing my graduate studies, and I was instantly engaged in the world of environmental health. I had spent the previous 10 years working on social and environmental issues in Indian country. After reading this book and investigating the basic scientific models of environmental health, I spent the next 27 years working at the intersection of environmental and health policy, with a specific focus on indigenous communities and the development of appropriate risk prevention and mitigation approaches.
Skin: A Natural History by Nina Jablonski
Agustín Fuentes is a current advisory board member for AN 
“Our skin mediates the most important transactions in our lives. Skin is key to our biology, our sensory experiences, our information gathering, and our relationships with others.” The anthropologist Nina Jablonski opens her classic book Skin: A Natural History with those words and showed me, explicitly, how to simultaneously do robust and rigorous research and reach beyond the walls of the academy.Anthropological knowledge is critical to the world, but most of it remains bound inside the scholarly discourse of our articles, book chapters and monographs. Jablonksi’s adept writing illustrates an amazing skill at wrangling the diverse biological, social, emotional, historical and political facets of our skin and producing a cogent, meaningful and important result. She taught me that it is possible to do good anthropological science, to avoid oversimplification, to draw from diverse sources and to engage a range of readers. And she did this by talking about what we see, touch and experience every day.
What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village by Janet Spector
Jane Eva Baxter is a current advisory board member for AN 
Archaeological writing by women often offers a very different type of narrative than what is considered traditional or typical archaeological writing, particularly works informed explicitly by feminist perspectives. Such narratives reflect different ways of interpreting and presenting the past, and often also reveal alternative approaches to archaeological practice in the present. My first encounter with such writing was Janet Spector’s 1993 book, What this Awl Means. Her interpretation of excavations at the site of Little Rapids, a 19th century Dakota Village near present-day Minneapolis, featured stories of women and children as well as men, and offered a notably human and personal interpretation of life in the past. Her interpretation of the site had actual human actors whose lives I could follow through the material worlds they left behind. The work also spoke to the possibilities of an archaeology that valued the contributions of all members of an archaeological project (thanked by name at the end), the essential input of Native perspectives in archaeological work, and the importance of teaching when writing by offering careful, thoughtful, and accessible prose.
Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating Law into Local Justice by Sally Engle Merry
Ryan Thoreson is a contributing editor for the Association for Queer Anthropology
It’s hard to overstate how much my work has been influenced by Sally Engle Merry’s Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). I read the ethnography as an undergraduate and it fundamentally shaped how I think about human rights law as a cultural system – recognizing the human dimension of supranational lawmaking, the ways that meanings change as laws are communicated and implemented transnationally, and how grand pronouncements of law actually play out in practice. As I’ve engaged with human rights as a scholar and a practitioner, I’ve become even more appreciative of its insights, both as an impressive piece of multisited anthropological research and as a trove of insights about advancing justice transnationally in a sensitive, substantive way. After ten years and many re-readings, it’s still one of my favorite ethnographies.
Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa by Katherine Dettwyler
Kathrine Starkweather is a contributing editor for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society
As a junior in college, working part-time and going to school part-time, contemplating transferring to another school to take advantage of my remaining years of eligibility as a college athlete, I had half-heartedly decided on a major in Psychology, but, I was flailing – unsure of the career path I should take and terrified of ending up in a 9-to-5 desk job that bored me to tears. Then in an Intro to Cultural Anthropology course, I chose to read Dancing Skeletons for my term paper. As I – a reluctant, unmotivated student – poured over the pages of that ethnography, I could imagine Dettwyler traveling from village to village in Mali. She describes so vividly the joys and struggles she faced as an ethnographer, from celebrations to reunions to deaths. Dettwyler was a woman traveling alone, but for her young daughter, through Africa. The work was hard, exhausting, unforgiving, emotionally draining, and beautiful. For the first time, I could imagine myself in a career – this career. The travel and the science intrigued me, but the connections Dettwyler felt to the people are what sold me. That class and that book set me solidly on the path towards becoming an anthropologist – an ethnographer. When I went to the field as a PhD student, I went armed with Dettwyler’s Dancing Skeletons for inspiration and for comfort.
I Am My Language: Discourses of Women and Children in the Borderland by Norma González
Cathy Amanti is a contributing editor for the Council on Anthropology and Education
An ethnography that has impacted me and influenced my work is the award-winning I am my language: Discourses of women and children in the borderlands (2006), by anthropologist Norma González.  An exploration and dynamic vision of the language practices of Mexican-origin women and children living in Tucson, Arizona, González powerfully illustrates the manner in which language shapes our lives and identities.  While this ethnography speaks to us on many levels, as someone who has worked in and with public schools throughout my whole career, González provides a counternarrative to deficit views of minoritized households, highlighting the investment women living between multiple worlds make in their children’s education.
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict
Aaron Miller is this Opinion columnist forThe Power of Sports
When I first read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by Ruth Benedict, it made a huge impression. I was an English teacher in rural Japan then, and flipping through its pages I felt I had finally found a teacher who could explain why the people of “my town” did what they did: why they bowed when they bowed, why they gifted what they gifted, and why they stuck to their so-called “proper station.” And while I have questioned the arguments and assumptions of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in my own work, much of its insight remains. To see why one must understand the context: Benedict was living during a time in which international conflict was the norm, and she wanted to harness anthropology’s sensitivities in a way that could more effectively understand the distinct characteristics of any foreign culture. Toward the beginning of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, in which she examines the defining aspects of Japan’s “national character,” Benedict writes, “There has never been a time when civilization stood more in need of individuals who are genuinely culture-conscious, who can see objectively the socially conditioned behavior of other peoples without fear and recrimination.” These were admirable aspirations then, and in our age in which people too often fail to even seek objective perspective, remain so.
Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America  by Cecilia Menjivar
Alayne Unterberger is contributing editor for the Committee for Human Rights’ “Human Rights Monitor”
As a PhD student immersed in the daunting task of understanding transnationalism, migration and gender, my reading list was enormous and the authors were mostly male.  Recommended by a member of my committee, Fragmented Ties (2000), by Cecilia Menjivar, was an unexpected but necessary part of my journey as an anthropologist.  This ethnography of Salvadoran women in California (and beyond) simultaneously challenged and supported the findings of my ongoing research between a sending community in Mexico and the receiving community in Florida. Menjivar’s critical analysis and interrogation of social networks jarred my own views on immigrants’ social networks as beneficial (but somehow static), and shifted the paradigm of my research frame, allowing me to better understand the complicated and ever changing nature of social ties, traditional gender roles and how these networks cannot only protect and help but also expose members to violence or exploitation.  I remember having a few “aha moments” that helped me understand that what I saw as conflicting data was actually complimentary, because both could be “true” at the same time, depending upon ever-changing variables. For that I say, “Thank You” to Cecilia Menjivar!
Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence by Diana E. Forsythe
Jan English-Lueck is the chair and contributing editor for the Society for the Anthropology of Work
Among the legion of outstanding women who contribute to the anthropology of work, Diana. E. Forsythe stands out to me.  Her work, Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence, published by Stanford University Press in 2002, set the stage for a reflexive and nuanced examination of the work of the scientists and engineers who shape the world around us.  Forsythe set her sights on the people who develop artificial intelligence, a timely topic today, and she revealed the structures by which men dominate that field.   She inspired a cohort of anthropologists to apply our anthropological gaze to science and technology work.  After her premature death in 1997, our section joined the General Anthropology Division to co-sponsor a book award in her name, honoring innovative anthropologists of work and technology who embrace a feminist stance.   One of the most meaningful moments of my professional life was to be granted her prize in 2007.  Diana’s laugh, her ironic quips, and fierce sense of justice continue to remind me why we do this work.  Each time I encourage the next generation of work anthropologists to study researchers, those who study us, it is a quiet homage to Diana Forsythe.
“Ire in Ireland” by Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Oguz Alyanak is the Opinion columnist forNew Turkey Chronicles
“So you’ll be writing these bad things about us in your book?” Having recently chosen a pious path, the young gentleman sitting across me did not entertain the idea of an anthropologist sharing with others the bad deeds of Muslim men of the Turkish community in Strasbourg. Some secrets, no matter how public they already were, had to be kept untold.

This exchange from last summer’s fieldwork made me revisit Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ “Ire in Ireland,”—a delightful reflection on her fieldwork on madness in a disintegrating rural Irish community. The article was written as a response to the critical reception her book, Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics (1979) got, especially by locals of the “Ballybran” community. While I am not a medical anthropologist, I find Scheper-Hughes’ work, and especially this article, particularly compelling as her writing forces me to rethink my responsibilities in and outside of the field to not only the people that I study, or to the academic community, but also to myself, an ethnographer who found himself, in her words, in a collision between two worlds and cultures, and to my work, which will try to make sense of my field experience in a highly disciplined, and subjective manner. I am particularly intrigued by the question she raises, “Is there a politically correct way of doing anthropology?” and somewhat haunted by it as I often find myself agreeing with her, that there is none, but her answer sounds so unorthodox, yet also tempting and rebellious. 

Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms by Shirley Brice Heath
Daniel Ginsburg is the American Anthropological Association Professional Fellow
Describing a  working-class African American community in Ways With Words, Shirley Brice Heath narrates an episode in which Darett, an older boy, grabbed a bottle from sixteen-month-old Teegie. Teegie knew that screaming and crying would not get him what he wanted. Instead he made fun of Darett—impersonating his walk, his attitude—stuck out his hand, and uttered the phrase he was using for all purposes that week: “Go on, man.” “Darett found the performance highly acceptable,” Heath writes, “and gave the bottle back, tickled Teegie, and said, ‘You gonna be all right, boy, you be just like me.’”

As an urban public high school teacher, I had realized that underprivileged children aren’t trying and failing to be the white middle class. Rather, their culture gives them different strengths, but those are often not valued in school. While this was easy for me to say, I myself am a product of the white middle class, and it was hard for me to identify those assets specifically. Reading Ways With Words, I understood how a teacher might pathologize Teegie’s small vocabulary while overlooking his sense of humor. I also saw ethnography making marginalized practices visible, helping communities to advocate for themselves.

“Writing in my Father’s Name: A Diary of Translated Woman’s First Year” by Ruth Behar
Gina Athena Ulysse is a current advisory board member for AN 
Ruth Behar “Writing in My Father’s Name: Diary of Translated Woman’s First Year” in Women Writing Culture edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon (University of California Press, 1995).   The conference occurred my first year of grad school and the book was published a few years later so it was quite influential.  In retrospect, I had no idea how much the talk/chapter had influenced me.  Back then, what clearly and quickly resonated was recognition that first and foremost, anthropologists, are not as independent as we may want to be. Also coming from a Caribbean household, I was hyper-aware as a burgeoning feminist, I, too, would eventually be writing in my father’s name. Ruth showed courage with her insistence to confront the messiness of ethics, responsibility, self-making and truth-telling without allowing silence to become yet another structure of power that disciplined her. I learned the significance of one’s academic work had other invisible precedents. No matter whom I worked with, what work I did, where and how I did it, I would always be writing as an extension of my kinfolk and would have to negotiate that relationship. Concerns regarding whose stories we tell, when we tell them and who is affected by how we tell them remains an awareness, which I put into praxis that continues to impact my writing and performance projects to this day.  Years later, I would finally make peace with this and publically admit that I grew up under a dictatorship and have a difficult relationship with silence.
Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century by Catherine Lutz
Sarah Hautzinger is a contributing editor for the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Catherine Lutz’s Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century (Beacon, 2003)  provided our most prescient glimpse of what militarization in American society would quickly become. Researched in the period leading up to 9/11 in 2001 and published just after, the book chronicles how Americans spent the latter half of the 20th Century honing war preparedness. As historical anthropology meeting ethnography at its best, this book framed how military life was marked by sharp inequalities, undergirded by racial and sexual violence. The volume became a charter for me when, along with my coauthor Jean Scandlyn, we were swept into writing a “history of the present” (2014) on the domestic impact the so-called Wars on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan almost a decade later. Lutz’s question then, “Are we all military dependents,” reads even more pointedly in 2017.
Number Our Days by Barbara Myeroff
Sallie Han is a current advisory board member for AN 
During my graduate studies at the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity of taking a course, “Blurred Genres,” with Ruth Behar. One of the books we read was Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days. I confess I have not read it since then because, to be quite honest, the book—and Lynne Littman’s Academy Award-winning documentary film based on it—left such an impression on me that I have not wanted to somehow chase away that afterglow. I remember the spirit, generosity, and genuine love and respect that seemed to be written into those pages. Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, I was wearing red and working on the March 2017 issue of Open Anthropology—which is on the theme of aging—when I googled “Number Our Days” and came across a short clip from the 1977 Oscars broadcast. The host of the awards show that year was Jane Fonda, who introduced the playwright Lillian Hellmann by reminding the audience of Hellmann’s blacklisting after she refused to testify against other Hollywood figures during the infamous hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hellman then presented the award for best short documentary film to Littman for “Number Our Days.” It is well worth watching in these times and during Women’s History Month.


Would you like the ethnography by a woman anthropologist—or scholar influential to anthropology—that has influenced you represented in this list? Pop it into the a comment below or tweet at @news4anthros. 








We are what we read. This might as well have been entitled “Influential WHITE Women Of and For Anthropology.” This, not much has changed since A. Lynn Bolles pointed out the absent presence of Black and other women of color in citations by white women anthropologists. They study our people but they don’t read what we write. So how about my own Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics and Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America; A. Lynn Bolles’ Sister Jamaica; Brackette Williams’ Skin Folk, Not Kin Folk; France Winddance Twine’s Racism in a Racial Democracy and Transracial Mothering– anthropology must broadened the lists of what it teaches, especially white women anthropologists or you simply replicate what men did for centuries, except you are doing it to us women anthropologists of color.

Interesting, not unexpected, that these ecomenia praise particularly the authors’ writing style, of empathy, sensitivity, and reflection on the writer’s own privileged life. The style contrasts with the dominant, hegemonic style of “scientific objectivity”, purging first-person usage from narrative. In effect, the dominant style cut out a humanities standpoint, rendering other humans into mute animals observed from the standpoint of an intelligent master ordering data into his classifications. There were men anthropologists who felt keenly the wrongness of obliterating the humanity of their field teachers and companions, but before 1970s postmodernism, published their personal experiences as nonfiction narratives or essays rather than labeled Anthropology. For example, Clark Wissler’s “Indian Cavalcade” and Cornelius Osborn’s “Winter” (a powerful book about fieldwork with Dene).

Some excellent books already mentioned. I’d like to add “Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist” by Hortense Powdermaker. This book clarified the matter of “stepping in and out” of ethnographic situations as a participant and observer. I had done this unknowingly for years – – to the consternation of some friends and family. After reading Powdermaker’s book, I celebrated this matter and used it in some of my research regarding ethnicity and material culture vis-a-vis personal and group identifications. I would like to have met Hortense Powdermaker!

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