Q&A with Setha Low '69

SETHA LOW '69 is president-elect of the American Anthropological Association, the world's largest professional organization of anthropologists. After Pitzer, Setha completed a PhD program in medical anthropology at University of California, Berkeley. In the years since, she has successfully instituted several cross-disciplinary programs, carried out significant anthropological research, and written voluminously about her work. She is currently at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she continues to emphasize the interdisciplinary perspective that was, and to this day remains, a major component of a Pitzer education.

Research Professor of Anthropology Lee Munroe was recently in touch with Setha and engaged in the following Q&A session with her.

What influence has a Pitzer education had on your career choice and your professional interests?

We were encouraged to create our own majors, so I combined comparative anatomy and physiology with Daniel Guthrie, psychology courses and physical anthropology with Bob Sharer and cultural anthropology with you. I then joined Sharer's archaeological dig in El Salvador where I became fascinated with Latino urban life, which led to my doctoral fieldwork on medical systems (Culture, Politics and Medicine in Costa Rica) and later public space (On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture) in Costa Rica, and housing and community (Children of the Urban Poor, with F. E. Johnston) in Guatemala. Living in a rural hacienda with barbed wire and a guard later emerged as a chilling image in my research on gated communities (Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America).

The interdisciplinary focus nurtured by Pitzer faculty also led to my participation in the PhD program in medical anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, and my current position in the PhD programs of environmental psychology, anthropology and Women's Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. My first job at University of Pennsylvania was in multidisciplinary landscape architecture and regional planning, city planning and anthropology. Crossing disciplinary boundaries has provided the ability to contribute to conversations where anthropologists are usually not heard.

Perhaps you recall that when you were a senior, I had you read Marvin Harris' Rise of Anthropological Theory, a book much maligned in anthropology. Has it harmed you in any way?

The only harm might be that I developed an intolerance for history and ethnography that does not expose its theoretical claims and for turgid anthropological writing. But I also learned that I prefer a public anthropology that addresses contemporary problems. The focus of my American Anthropological Association presidency will be “engaged anthropology,” which I hope to promote through a Commission on World Anthropologies, an initiative for teaching anthropology K to 12 and increasing inclusion for practicing anthropologists.

What are your plans for future research?

As director of the Public Space Research Group, I am completing an ethnographic study of middle-class co-ops in New York City. The project began when European colleagues asked why I thought that private gated communities reinforced exclusion and increased social isolation, when co-ops—also a form of private governance—are perceived positively. We are finding that co-op residents feel safer than gated residents because they live with “people like themselves,” but they also share some of the negative aspects of gating. Moral minimalism, an increase of “laissezfaire” racism and a lack of representation contribute to coops not being necessarily more democratic places.

I am also writing a book titled Toward an Anthropological Theory of Space and Place based on my past fieldwork. I argue that anthropology requires an embodied theory of space and place, as well as one that traces the social production and social construction of places. It draws upon my work on plazas, parks (Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity, with D. Taplin and S. Scheld), privatization of public space (Politics of Public Space, with N. Smith) and on the new emotions of home.

My latest project, however, is taking me in a new direction. In Pitzie style, I have become a ceramic artist with a Web site (www.Anthroart.net), galleries (The Crazy Monkey, and New Century Artists), and a new circle of artist friends on the East End of Long Island. I think it is this career that will carry me into a distant future where I hope my intellectual, emotional and aesthetic talents will blend.