Anthropologist awarded NEH stipend for field research

Posted on April 16, 2014 by Jennifer McManamay

Professor of anthropology Deborah Durham is one of the relatively few scholars nationwide and one of three in Virginia to receive a 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend. The $6,000 award will provide support during eight weeks of research in Botswana.

Durham is beginning a new project in Botswana, where she previously conducted anthropological field research on cultural identity and democratic liberalism, and on youth and youth groups, between 1988 and 2000. The work she will start this summer, “Elusive Adulthood in Botswana,” will reacquaint her with some of the youths she knew in the early 1990s.

Professor Deborah Durham Professor Deborah Durham

“The idea that adulthood is elusive — that people can’t grow up, can’t become adults — is suddenly heard around the world,” Durham says. “My larger [interest] is [curiosity] about what processes underlie the recurrence of this complaint in such widely different places as South Asia, East Asia, the U.S., parts of the Middle East, and Africa, while also noting the profound differences in ways in which people think about adulthood and recognize it in themselves or others.”

She notes that the languages spoken in Botswana, both the dominant Setswana and Otjiherero, which Durham spoke, lack words that directly correlate to “adult” or “adulthood.” This doesn’t mean there is no sense of being grown up, but they identified life stages in different ways and with different terms, with emphasis on kinds of “elderhood,” or seniority, she says.

“My work in the 1990s showed that people in Botswana could claim to be youths at certain times and for particular reasons specific to them for a considerable part of their lives. Similarly they could bid to be part of the circle of seniors — if often unsuccessfully — at quite young ages.”

Social change has put pressure on these traditional perceptions of life stages, however. English, the official language, is more commonly interspersed into Setswana, for example. In addition, ideas about adulthood are inscribed into the educational system, new urban lifestyles, including “neolocal nuclear families,” and in health discourse, especially related to AIDS, Durham says.

“During this project, I will talk to youth I knew in the early 1990s about their own lives, when they felt they became adults, whether they think others have grown up or not and why, what they think about their children’s age status; I will also meet with people in organizations based in schools, churches and business circles to discuss their ideas.”

Durham plans to combine the research with her previous writings on youth to write a book about Botswana. She also will work on an edited volume on the anthropology of adulthood that is under way.

According to the NEH website, Summer Stipends support individual scholars pursuing advanced research that is of value to humanities scholars, general audiences or both. The awards are highly competitive. Although the ratio of awards to applications can vary widely from year to year, the NEH reports that the previous five competitions resulted in an average funding ratio of 8 percent.

In order to obtain a research permit in the country, Durham will be affiliated with the sociology department at the University of Botswana while she conducts her fieldwork.