Sociology and Anthropology: A Department Oriented to Public Scholarship

20 June 2019

When Professor Annette Nierobisz describes her own academic path to applied sociology—her preferred form of civic engagement—it’s always as “rather circuitous.” For many people, their paths to public scholarship are inherently so; there’s no clear way to foster what Imagining America defines as “diverse modes of creating and circulating knowledge for and with publics and communities,” which is part of what makes the field so interesting, innovative and exciting.

Throughout Annette’s tenure as the Broom Fellow for Public Scholarship, she’s supported and highlighted some of the many indirect routes to civic engagement on campus — from practitioners finding meaning in exploring identity, to those who start from grant opportunities or senior thesis work and still other projects inspired by local newspaper articles.

While perhaps roundabout, it’s no surprise that a trained sociologist’s path has led to the fulcrum of reciprocity, civic responsibility, public knowledge and creativity; in her own words, Annette asserts that public scholarship is the “bread and butter of sociology and anthropology.” After all, the Broom Fellowship itself was established by a family of prominent sociologists! And so, as a last hurrah and an homage to a department that has so shaped Annette’s time as Broom Fellow, she presents a series on the unique ways that members of Carleton’s Sociology and Anthropology Department sit at this fulcrum actively practicing public scholarship.

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology

Although much of Pamela’s research is aimed at academic audiences, her work emerges from community collaborations and engages with public scholarship. Pamela deals with broad public issues of health, migration and gender while critically examining the relationships between immigrants and social service providers. Through projects with community partners such as HealthFinders Collaborative and Owatonna Hospital, Pamela combines public scholarship in medical anthropology and refugee studies with teaching. In her own words:

“I hope my work promotes a greater appreciation of human diversity—that rather than being representatives of a particular culture (e.g., the Bamiléké of the western highlands of Cameroon) or a particular category (e.g., migrant mothers), each individual has her unique life history and desires. I work against gendered and racialized stereotypes of the abject migrant without sugarcoating the challenges migrants face. At the same time, patterns and contexts help others understand the structural factors that drive the lives of the people they encounter, and to reflect about how those same factors affect their responses to difference.”

Beyond human-focused research and increasingly accessible narrative writing, Pamela acts as an expert witness in refugee asylum cases. In these situations, she similarly focuses on each person’s humanity: “I listen carefully, in the moment, to people’s concerns, questions, and stories.”

Jerome (Jay) Levi, Professor of Anthropology

Jay’s involvement in applied anthropology began early on in his academic career, when, after writing his undergraduate thesis on the concepts of time and space among the Kumeyaay in Southern California, he was asked to draft part of a testimony for on behalf of the Navajo nation. In part of an effort against Public Law 93-531, he combined his anthropological knowledge with the knowledge of Navajo elders to advocate against relocation.This experience drew him to applied anthropology. Jay explains: “it was extremely gratifying to me to think that this thesis that I wrote without any intention of it having any practical application could, with a little tweaking here and there, be made useful in Washington DC.”

Levi’s most recent work again focuses on the Kumeyaay Nation, synthesizing the insights of cultural authorities, observations of anthropologists through the years, and his own research notes to complete a new book, Coyote Takes the Heart: A Synthesis of Kumeyaay Philosophy and Worldview, which he was asked to undertake by elders of the Kumeyaay nation.

Annette Nierobisz, Professor of Sociology and Broom Fellow for Public Scholarship

In Annette’s sociological work, influenced by previous roles in public organizations like the Canadian Human Rights Commission, she seeks to “help people make sense of their lives,” both on a micro and on a broader, policy level.

One way of doing this is by making sociology more accessible. Commenting on the approachability of traditional sociology, Nierobisz admitted that “even I don’t enjoy reading that work anymore.” Instead, she said, she’s been inspired by journalists and sociologists like Arlie Hochschild and Matthew Desmond, who express their work in beautiful, compelling narratives for public audiences. She explains:

“I just think there’s a way of telling a story that everyone can understand. We must make that story accessible. I think it’s what we need to do, because our work, as sociologists, is very important and there are lots of communities and groups and individuals who would appreciate knowing what we’re doing.”

In her own work, she uses her parents — Polish immigrants whose second language is English — as a barometer. “I always try to think of them as my audience,” she says, “If they can read and understand what I’ve written, then I’ve done my job.”

Liz Raleigh, Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of Sociology

Liz’s work centers around race and family; in particular, she studies the racialized adoption market to more broadly understand American conceptions of race and family. In her most recent book, Selling Transracial Adoption: Families, Markets, and the Color Line, she prioritized comprehensibility. She explains: “More than anything, I hoped that one day some adopted person, who’s transracially adopted, would pick [my book] up and feel like it was accessible, and something that spoke to them, rather than this very scholarly text.”

Beyond accessible scholarship, Liz often serves on panels, speaks at conferences and presents her work in multifaceted ways. Most recently, she was spotlighted on NPR’s Academic Minute.

Ahmed Ibrahim, Robert A. Oden, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Liberal Arts and Refugee and Migration Studies

While academic theorists on Somalia and Islam initially drew him to anthropology, today Ahmed works hard to ensure his work goes beyond academic spheres. His current work builds on previous research completed in Mogadishu, investigating the effect of the policies and practices of the War on Terror on Somalian political participation in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Ahmed’s work is critically contemporary and he often visits community organizations and interfaith groups to share his findings. This work often also involves dismantling–through history and anthropology — prejudices about the Somalian community. Although placing his work in public spheres is something he struggles with, it’s integral to his role as an academic:

“You have to be able to navigate both worlds: to simultaneously go to these academic conferences and talk about the category of religion, and what it might mean, but then [in community organizations] you also have to respond to questions about ‘Where is Somalia?’ or ‘What is Sharia?’ Dealing with both worlds, rather than completely shutting yourself off in academia, is part of what it is to be an intellectual. But it takes some learning.”

As her time as Broom Fellow comes to a close, Annette’s thanks extend beyond the SoAn department. The generous and continued support of the Office of the Dean of the College and the Center for Civic and Community Engagement have allowed her to flourish in the role. As public scholarship continues to grow at Carleton, these profiles serve as some of the many paths to involvement, no matter the discipline!