Renowned anthropologist Sherry Ortner will deliver the Charles Seeger Lecture at SEM 2013. A scholar of Sherpa communities in Nepal and more recently of class relations and late capitalism in the United States, she is also known for her contributions to feminist anthropology and her essays on anthropological theory. Prior to her appointment as Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA in 1996, Professor Ortner taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, and Columbia University. She has received awards from the National Science Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Professor Ortner received her PhD in 1970, at a time when her teachers at the University of Chicago, including David Schneider and dissertation advisor Clifford Geertz, were doing much to define the field of symbolic anthropology. In subsequent years she would coin the phrase “practice anthropology” to characterize the mix of Geertzian approaches and the practice-oriented theories of Pierre Bourdieu and others that has characterized her work in recent decades. In a nod to Bourdieu, her lecture for SEM is entitled “The Cultural Production of a Field of Cultural Production.”
One of Professor Ortner’s most notable attributes has been her ability to identify, respond to, and often initiate shifts in themes and paradigms within anthropological research. Such shifts are apparent in her series of monographs on Sherpa society that spans three decades. In the 1960s, when symbolic anthropology was at its height, she conducted dissertation research on ritual life in Sherpa villages, published as Sherpas through their Rituals (1978). As synchronic studies became integrated with historical methods and concerns, she published High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism (1988), an account of the founding of Sherpa monasteries. Finally, she examined the fraught relationships between international mountain climbers and their Sherpa guides in Life and Death on Mount Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaneering (1999), which was awarded the J. I. Staley Prize in 2004. In the 2000s Professor Ortner then turned to a very different field site: graduates of her own New Jersey high school class. In New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of ’58 (2003) and a host of articles, she scrutinized class relations in the United States and the ways that they have often been refracted through ethnicity, race, and gender. Her most recent book, Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream (2013), examines the role of independent filmmakers in critiquing current American society.
Outside anthropology, Professor Ortner has perhaps been best known for her writings on gender relations. Her first published article, provocatively titled “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” (1972), sought to explain what she viewed as the universality of female subordination. Republished in the seminal collection Woman, Culture and Society (1974), the article became a classic of feminist anthropology. Shortly thereafter, she set aside universalist arguments in her introduction and contribution to the co-edited volume, Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality (1981), one of the most influential texts for a generation of scholars in the anthropology of gender. Several of her essays on gender, addressing societies as varied as those of the Middle East and West Asia (“The Virgin and the State”) and indigenous Hawai‘i (“Gender Hegemonies”), were later reprinted in Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture (1997).
At various points throughout her career, Professor Ortner has also paused to explicate, assess, and rework prominent concepts and trends in essays that have placed her at the center of anthropological thought and practice. In one of her most important articles, “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties” (1984), she reviewed major anthropological paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s, from cultural ecology to structural Marxism and political economy to symbolic anthropology, before advocating strongly for an approach more attentive both to individual agency and to social asymmetries. Examining the writings of Raymond Williams, Anthony Giddens, Marshall Sahlins, and Pierre Bourdieu, she dubbed what she viewed as a new synthesis in the field “practice anthropology,” a term that was quickly adopted by other prominent researchers. In “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal” (1995), she took on the often romantic propensity of scholars to locate “resistance” in various realms of everyday life, arguing instead for more nuanced readings of the complex and often ambivalent ways that socially situated actors respond to oppression and exploitation. Most recently, in “Subjectivity and Cultural Critique” (2005), she has reworked the notion of subjectivity through a revisiting of both Geertz and practice theorists as a means of assessing the particular “structure of feeling” of late capitalism. These and other recent essays are brought together in Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject (2006). Finally I would mention a short review essay, “On Neoliberalism,” that appeared in the inaugural issue of the online journal Anthropology of This Century (2011). As in her previous writings, Professor Ortner takes the pulse of anthropology and pinpoints the historical moment in a way that is useful to all of us within ethnomusicology.
- Jane Sugarman