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Contingent Lives: Honoring Caroline Bledsoe's Mark on Anthropology

November 17, 2022

Contingent Lives: Honoring Caroline Bledsoe’s Mark on Anthropology
(Featured Session, American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, November 12, 2022) 

A virtual session honoring the work of Caroline Bledsoe, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and the Melville J. Herskovits Professor of African Studies at Northwestern University was held Saturday, November 12 at the 2022 American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting. Several of Professor Bledsoe’s former students and colleagues spoke at this session. The important way that Professor Bledsoe asks students and scholars in anthropology and demography to question the interpretive frames they take for granted was stressed by many of the participants. She urges ethnographers to linger longer on the social categories and processes that we take as given, and her career, which spans nearly four decades, has been devoted to unsettling the landscapes upon which we base our understandings of kinship, reproduction, migration, the life course, and even time itself.  

Professor Bledsoe’s committed analysis of fieldsites across West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia) and its European diaspora have expanded the scope and impact of anthropology. Setting her gaze on themes of reproduction and fertility central to demography, Bledsoe’s work stretched the scope of the discipline itself. Reframing anthropological understandings of the body and aging, she invites us to reconsider the sorts of questions cultural anthropology is positioned to answer. A self-proclaimed “steely cultural relativist” Professor Bledsoe has a knack for presenting her interlocutors’ struggles and searches for dignity as fundamentally human pursuits, while simultaneously drawing attention to cultural puzzles so curious that the dire need to reframe our understandings of the issue are made plain. Beyond the discipline, she and other socio-legal scholars interrogated the organizational contingency of research involving human subjects in terms of anticipated risk (Bledsoe et al. 2007). Through institutional service and academic theorization, she championed the ethical and practical reimagination of research oversight in the social and behavioral sciences. Via an analysis of university institutional review board (IRB) activities, they demonstrated that the bureaucratic processes in place ultimately depend upon subjective interpretation of federal regulations on the local institutional level. In this way the IRB serves to regulate research design rather than protect populations deemed vulnerable or in need of purported protection. Not only does this create barriers to access research communities that are underrepresented, but paradoxically contributes to these social groups continuing to exist on the margins of scientific research and also the ethnographic record. 

Session Participants:  

Matilda Stubbs (Instructor, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, University of Chicago; Lecturer, Anthropology, Northeastern Illinois University) Session Organizer 

Chelsie Yount-André (Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute of Security and Global Affairs, University of Leiden) Session Organizer 

Natalie Bump-Vena (Assistant Professor, Department of Urban Studies, Queens College, CUNY) 

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg (Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology, Carleton College) 

Amal Fadlalla (Professor of Anthropology, Women’s and Gender Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan) 

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science, Professor of Demography and Sociology, University of California Berkeley) 

Arturo Marquez Jr. (Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Drake University) 

William Murphy (Lecturer Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University) 

Helen B. Schwartzman (Professor Emerita of Anthropology, Northwestern University)