Bio, C.V., & Contact
I’m a cultural anthropologist, researcher, author, and teacher impassioned by understanding all things human. As a scholar, I aim to use my research to promote tolerance and reduce injustice by analyzing relations among systems of power, thought, and experience in my publications; as a teacher, I aim to use scholarly research to promote tolerance and reduce injustice by training students to be both skilled seekers and critical analysts of information. I specialize in migration/diaspora; religion/ritual; the family/child-rearing; gender/sexuality; and issues of representation/ethnographic writing. My major research has taken me to West Africa and the contemporary African diaspora in Europe and the U.S.
I received my B.A. in anthropology and French from Sarah Lawrence College (where I studied with Sherry Ortner and Irving Goldman) and my M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia (where I studied with Victor Turner, David Sapir, and Christopher Crocker).
A past president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, I promote humanistic perspectives on the human condition through my research and publications, and my teaching. My research is based on long-term commitments with African communities. I started my research career spending many years living with, and writing about, the Beng people in Côte d’Ivoire. Although firmly located in the modern world, the Beng have also held tightly and proudly to many indigenous cultural and religious traditions. My early work in rural communities in the rain forest especially documented social and religious structures, in a series of articles and in a book rooted in my dissertation, Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought. A later ethnography of Beng childcare practices, The Afterlife Is where We Come from: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa, was listed as the Highly Commended Runner-up for the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland). A Portuguese translation recently appeared in Brazil as Tudo Começa na Outra Vida.
With my Beng research team (back row, left to right: Bertin Kouakou Kouadio, Augustin Kouakou Yao, Alma Gottlieb, Yacouba Kouadio Bah; front row: Dieudonné Kwamé Kouassi, Amenan Véronique Akpoueh) (Asagbé, Côte d’Ivoire, August 1993)
In a linked pair of fieldwork memoirs co-authored with Philip Graham, I have also narrated the challenges and pleasures of conducting deep ethnography in this setting. The first of these memoirs, Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa, won the Victor Turner Award in Ethnographic Writing (1994) and has been taught at over 200 colleges and universities nationwide and abroad. We recently published a sequel, Braided Worlds. All royalties from these two books are dedicated to the Beng people, via the Beng Community Fund, a non-governmental organization we co-founded and co-direct. Our most recent project funded the repair of the broken water pump that supplies all water to one village (a pump whose repair we had previously funded in 1993).
This young Beng woman is operating the pump that supplies all water for her village (Kosangbé, 1980)
“Colliding Genres, Collaborating Spouses,” a podcast in which Philip Graham and I discuss the process of writing Parallel Worlds (at the NonFiction Now conference at the University of Iowa, 2005), can be heard here (skip to the 51-minute mark).
Over the years, my research and writing on the Beng have found support from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Social Science Research Council, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, American Association for University Women, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and many other sources.
My research on gender issues among the Beng led me to expand my interest in comparative gender systems. An early book (co-edited with Thomas Buckley) explored menstrual practices cross-culturally. Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation was listed by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Title for 1988; fourteen years later, it won the first Most Enduring Edited Collection Award from the Council for Anthropology of Reproduction. The volume continues to be taught regularly in anthropology and women’s studies courses. Sadly, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent reference to journalist Megyn Kelly “bleeding from her . . . wherever” reminds us that the issues we raised in Blood Magic remain as relevant as ever.
My research on child-rearing among the Beng has similarly led me to expand my interest comparatively, this time to parenting systems. A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies (co-edited with Judy DeLoache) crafted a creative genre of imagined parenting manuals based on well-documented ethnography. The collection has been taught in courses at over 85 universities in over six countries and 18 disciplines. An entirely new second edition of this book, updated for the 21st century, appeared in January 2017 from Cambridge University Press. (In August 2015 my co-author and I were in residence at Marbach Castle [Germany], supported by a grant from the Jacobs Foundation [Zurich], where we completed work on this virtually-all-new edition.)
A large (and pleasurable) part of conducting research about Beng babies included holding and befriending them (Asagbé, Côte d’Ivoire, 1993)
In more recent years I have begun researching a dramatically different project: working with Cape Verdeans who have Jewish heritage. Because Cape Verdeans are an acutely mobile and diasporic people, to date the project has taken me to three continents (Africa, Europe, and North America) and six nations (Cape Verde, Portugal, France, the U.S., and–virtually–the Netherlands and Israel).
I am currently at work on a book about this intriguing group of people, tentatively titled Africa across the Seder Table: Jewish Identity in the Cape Verdean Diaspora .
Researching the history of Cape Verdeans with Jewish ancestry has taken me to Portugal to explore the experiences of “crypto-Jews” who felt motivated to secretly continue the religious practices of their ancestors while hiding them from the Inquisition’s prosecutors. This synagogue in northern Portugal recently re-opened after some 500 years of religious persecution.
After completing this book, I plan a second book from my engagement with the diasporic Cape Verdean community, tentatively titled Women’s Travels, Women’s Traumas: Engendering the Cape Verdean Diaspora. A future research project, tentatively titled A Century of Stories, will focus on the life experiences of Cape Verdeans of extreme advanced age (100+ years).
To date, my research and writing about Cape Verde have been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, European Commission, and other sources.
Making the switch from Côte d’Ivoire to Cape Verde inspired me to assemble a collection of essays on the career challenges of changing research fieldsites. The Restless Anthropologist: New Fieldsites, New Visions has been listed as one of 12 Core Anthropology Titles for 2012 by YBP Library Services. In the book, I explained:
“When I contemplate my career to date, I am struck to realize how my field trajectory embodies that of the discipline writ small. From the malarial zone of West Africa to the flu zone of western Europe . . . from a small village to a capital city . . . from a local, ancestor- and spirit-based religion to a conjoined Judeo-Christian monotheistic one . . . from an insistently isolated and localized population to an insistently diasporic and mobile one . . . from a singular racial identity to a complex multiracialized one . . . from the neocolonized south to the former-seat-of-empire north . . . from a single fieldsite to a multisited community . . . from peasants raised in the oral tradition to economic and political middle-class workers and even elites . . . the list of transformed, and transformatory, themes in my professional biography, as in the discipline’s, goes on. In short, as cultural anthropology has come to terms with a globalized world, so have I.”
My work has appeared in over two dozen articles published in scholarly journals (including Africa, American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Anthropological Quarterly, Anthropology and Humanism, Anthropology Today, Ethnology, Journal des Anthropologues, Man: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Mande Studies, and others), and some four dozen chapters in edited collections, encyclopedias, and reprint anthologies. Specific works have appeared in French, German, and Portuguese translations.
To expose broader readerships to the world of anthropological research, I have also written short pieces for general audiences in publications such as the New York Times, Huffington Post, and Christian Science Monitor, and I have appeared on television and radio shows to speak about assorted cultural issues of relevance in the U.S., Africa, and internationally (including Ray Suarez, “Talk of the Nation,” NPR; Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC; Malachy McCourt, “On the Line,” PRI—“The World;” WGBH-AM–rebroadcast on 116 NPR stations nationwide; Monitor Radio, for Christian Science Monitor Broadcasting Company; and Voice of America).
You can listen to an interview with me on a local NPR radio station concerning Blood Magic/the anthropology of menstruation here.
Beyond doing my own research and writing, I also enjoy finding great work by colleagues to publish in the book series on Contemporary Ethnography that I co-edit with Kirin Narayan for the University of Pennsylvania Press. Since I joined the series in 2010, the terrific books that have appeared in the series include:
- Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market by Rachel Black
- Healing Secular Life: Loss and Devotion in Modern Turkey by Christopher Dole
- Confronting Suburban School Resegregation in California by Clayton Hurd
- Matching Organs with Donors: Legality and Kinship in Transplants by Marie-Andrée Jacob
- Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India by Sarah Pinto
- Along the Bolivian Highway: Social Mobility and Political Culture in a New Middle Class by Miriam Shakow
- Rituals of Ethnicity: Thangmi Identities between Nepal and India by Sara Shneiderman
- Along an African Border: Angolan Refugees and Their Divination Baskets by Sónia Silva
I am currently Professor Emerita of Anthropology, African Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Visiting Scholar in Anthropology at Brown University. I’ve also taught and held research appointments at Princeton University, the École des Hautes Études (Paris), Katholieke University of Leuven (Belgium), the Instituto Superior da Ciências Sociais e Políticais (Lisbon), and elsewhere. In 2011-13 I served as an Ambassador for the European Union’s PromoDocs Program, promoting doctoral programs across the EU to college students in North America.
Before retiring from full-time teaching, I was honored to have been listed 23 times on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent at the University of Illinois for teaching 17 different courses. I was likewise honored to have received the Outstanding Graduate Mentor Award from the Graduate College at the University of Illinois, and two Graduate Mentor Awards and two Distinguished Service Awards from my home Department of Anthropology.
I have closely supervised 17 advisees at the University of Illinois who have completed their doctorates in anthropology. Collectively,these advisees have won 50 predoctoral, doctoral, and postdoctoral research grants, fellowships, and prizes in national competitions (an average of three/student). Of these former students, five have achieved tenure, one is on a tenure-track position, and two have administrative positions at U.S. universities; one works as an applied medical anthropologist for a US government agency; four are visiting assistant professors at U.S. universities; three work internationally as consultants and researchers; and one is working as a librarian.
And here’s a 35-minute podcast interview I did in October 2016 with Kate Clancy for her podcast series about menstruation, Period. In honor of my analysis of candidate Donald Trump’s comments about menstruation, Kate titled this podcast: “Blood Coming out of Her Wherever.”
Speaking at a panel about the work of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Urbana, IL)
Contact Alma Gottlieb:
You can find my current C.V. here.