Meet Alma Gottlieb, the Restless Anthropologist

June 20, 2012

Alma Gottlieb, a 1982–83 AAUW Constance L. Tomkies Endowed Fellow, came of age in the late 1960s. She describes her generation as one that questioned everything in society. As a young woman, she was passionately involved in anti-Vietnam War protests and the women’s and civil rights movements. She read anything she could get her hands on, from Malcolm X’s autobiography to the Tao Te Ching. Her efforts to find more equitable societies than the United States led her to read about historical utopian communities and then to explore different societies around the globe — a journey that brought her to anthropology.

Gottlieb’s AAUW fellowship helped support her while she wrote her dissertation about religion and gender among an ethnic minority group in West Africa. She credits the experience with boosting her confidence. When her name was printed in the New York Times as the winner of a dissertation writing fellowship, an editor at a major scholarly press contacted her and expressed interest in publishing her finished work. Although Gottlieb ended up with a different press, that first editor’s inquiry encouraged her to pursue publication. Since receiving her AAUW fellowship, Gottlieb has received many grants from other organizations, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Her list of published work continues to grow.

Her new book, The Restless Anthropologist: New Fieldsites, New Visions, was conceived when Gottlieb was faced with the emotionally difficult task of choosing a new field site after spending 25 years studying and writing about the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa. When the country was plunged into a 14-year political and economic crisis that at times turned into civil war, it was too risky to return with her husband and their two children.

Yet Gottlieb had such an intellectual and personal investment in the Beng that it was hard to walk away. She had documented their language — her fourth book was a Beng-English dictionary — spent much of her professional career studying their lives, was adopted into a family, and felt a profound connection to the community. Nevertheless, after getting over the initial emotional hump of contemplating a different research project elsewhere, she was excited by the prospect of studying something new.

When she found few resources available to guide her through that process, Gottlieb planned a panel presentation at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association that focused on choosing new field sites and research concentrations. She recruited prominent scholars to share their experiences. Gottlieb recounted it as “the most moving session I had ever organized — by the end, many people were in tears.” Her own story of how she moved from research among the Beng of Côte d’Ivoire to working with diasporic Cape Verdeans with Jewish ancestry living in Western Europe and New England is detailed in her book. Although it focuses specifically on the careers of anthropologists, the book speaks to all fields in which people face change, challenges, and new joys through their work.

Gottlieb has stayed in contact with the Beng people, even though her professional focus has shifted to working with Cape Verdeans. Her next book, Braided Worlds, will be published in September. It was co-written with her husband, fiction writer Philip Graham, and chronicles their last trip living among the Beng. All the proceeds will benefit the Beng, to whom Gottlieb feels she owes a lifelong debt for helping launch her successful career!

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Elyssa Shildneck.

AAUWguest By:   |   June 20, 2012

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