Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought

Under the Kapok Tree-Paperback Front Cover

Under the Kapok Tree was published in cloth by Indiana University Press (1992) and in paperback by the University of Chicago Press (1996).

Some sections and chapters appeared in different form in American Ethnologist, Man, and Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation.

Selected reviews of Under the Kapok Tree:

“Richly detailed. . . . This book offers a nuanced descriptive analysis which commands authority.”
-Elizabeth Tonkin, Man

“[An] evocative, rich ethnography . . . Gottlieb does anthropology a real service.”
-Misty L. Bastian, American Ethnologist

“[An] excellent study. . . . Breathes new life into . . . systems of thought and social organization.”
-John McCall, Journal of Folklore Organization

“This book merits a number of readings . . . . [Gottlieb’s] portrayal of the Beng world is rich and detailed . . . [A ] demonstration of what good ethnography can be: where penetrating description generates interpretation and scoial theory, all of which are substantiated by a variety of case studies, myths, texts, symbols, and metaphors . . . An experiment in ethnography that future projects might well emulate.”
-Clarke K. Speed, American Anthropologist

“Exemplary . . . . Gottlieb’s observations on identity and difference are not confined to rituals or other special occasions; rather she shows that these principles emerge with equal force during daily social life.”
-Monni Adams, Journal of African Religion

“… based on excellent ethnography . . . Gottlieb does not speak in jargon; readers will appreciate the readability and presentation of her text . . . the author’s personality appears implicit, installed under the village kapok tree, in her rightful place between our world and that of the Beng.” [my translation from French]
-Ariane Deluz, Journal des Africanistes

“. . . the ethnographic data are described in a lively fashion . . . poses new issues that should further interest anthropologists in the future.” [my translation from French]
-Charles Pradelles de la Tour, Africa

“Alma Gottlieb’s study of a little-known group in Côte d’Ivoire, the Beng, is a well-written, entertaining, provocative, and conceptually elegant ethnographic study placed partly in a postmodern theoretical framework. . . Gottlieb uses ‘cases’–stories from fieldwork–that are set apart in the text and illustrate points she is discussing. This is a very successful format for integrating field work data into the study. . . . Under the Kapok Tree is . . . thought-provoking in many of the chapters. It is so clearly written that even in the midst of the complexities of lineage and alliance systems, the reader is at ease with the writing.”
-Kathryn Green, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“Gottlieb’s work represents a major contribution to the field of cultural anthropology, and is a positive addition to the already existing works on various West Africa cultures. In addition, her approach, influenced by postmodern theory represents a growing critical self-reflexivity present in both fieldwork and writing by some ethnographers. . . the author effectively challenges cultural stereotypes present in anthropological and popular theory as well as those present in studies of African cultures. The author exposes such stereotypes by showing the self-reflexivity present in the ‘other,’ by depicting the ‘other’ as active shapers and participants in their own world views, by providing evidence that loss of cultural identity does not accompany western commodification, and finally, by pointing out that reactions to Western goods and technology are not universally similar and should therefore be treated as distinct events. Gottlieb’s study, echoing postmodern discourse, is interspersed with personal narratives from various members of Beng culture. These narratives do not merely serve as anecdotal substitutes for analysis, but instead inform and guide the ethnographic process, provide insight through example, and give indigenous explanations for certain cultural phenomenon. The author’s method thus gives credence to the voices of the Beng themselves as well as drawing attention to the presence of the ethnographer and her interaction with a variety of individuals. . . . Gottlieb insists on showing the Beng as they have constructed and identified themselves, not as the ‘other,’ conveniently pigeonholed by some outside investigator. . . she privileges textual interpretation, language, and multivocal dialogue . . . Gottlieb’s work provides an impressive model in reflexive anthropological discourse. . . . Gottlieb’s work represents new paths and developments for the organization and presentation of anthropological material.”
E Ojo Arewa, Reviews in Anthropology

Circular Plan of Houses & Fields

Under the Kapok Tree on Amazon

Under the Kapok Tree on the University of Chicago Press website