Scholars to explore the meaning of family and kinship in Sawyer Seminar supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (Nov. 29, 2018) – Amid growing national interest in genealogy and family history, scholars from around the world will explore past and present meanings of family and kinship in a year-long seminar led by Tufts University and supported by the Mellon Foundation through its Sawyer Seminar program.

“Defamiliarizing the Family: Genealogy and Kinship as Critical Method” will bring distinguished humanities scholars, artists, and writers to Tufts for a series of seminars and public events beginning in October 2019. The series will culminate with a closing symposium in April 2020. Funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through a $225,000 grant, the Sawyer Seminar will enable Tufts students and faculty members, led by historian Kendra Field, Ph.D., and anthropologist Sarah Pinto, Ph.D. ,to collaborate with researchers from universities, museums, and institutions from across the Boston area and around the world.

Tufts professor Sarah Pinto, will collaborate with researchers from universities, museums, and institutions from across the Boston area and around the world on the upcoming series.Tufts professor Sarah Pinto, will collaborate with researchers from universities, museums, and institutions from across the Boston area and around the world on the upcoming series.

Sawyer Seminars are, in essence, temporary research centers that draw upon the expertise of diverse institutions, including community colleges, liberal arts colleges, museums, and research institutes. This marks the second time in four years that scholars at Tufts have received a prestigious Sawyer Seminar grant from the foundation’s invitation-only award process. In 2015, the Mellon Foundation awarded  $175,000 to support Tufts’ first  Sawyer Seminar, which explored Comparative Global Humanities.

“We are grateful for the support of the Mellon Foundation to help expand scholarship in this fascinating and increasingly complicated component of our social fabric and culture,” said James M. Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. “The humanities are the center of so many aspects of our society and communities. Exploration of these frontiers is essential to better understand each other and our world.”       

The seminar,  which will include multiple  events, will be housed by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD) at Tufts and involve collaboration with the Center for the Humanities at Tufts (CHAT) and the Consortium for Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora (RCD). The seminar will build upon vast expertise on this subject  within and beyond Tufts, bringing together leading historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, sociologists, museum professionals, creative writers, filmmakers, and artists from within and beyond the United States.

The seminar will be led by principal investigator Field, an associate professor of history and Africana studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and co-directed with  Pinto, professor and chair of anthropology, both at the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts.

“At bottom, our seminar will situate growing interest in American genealogy and family history in relation to critical scholarly approaches to family and kinship,” said Field. “We are interested in the constructed nature of family history, lineage, and pedigree, and the largely unsung diversity of familial, sexual, and household relations upon which local, national, and global histories have proceeded and depended.”

Field and Pinto’s research is especially germane to this seminar topic. Field is the author of Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War (Yale, 2018). The book traces her own ancestors' migratory lives between the Civil War and the Great Migration. Her second book project, Things to be Forgotten: A History of African American Genealogy traces the development of African American family histories and archival and genealogical practices in the post-emancipation era. Pinto is the author of Where There Is No Midwife: Birth and Loss in Rural India (Berghahn, 2008), an ethnographic study of childbirth and infant mortality in rural north India. She is also the author of Daughter of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India (UPenn, 2014), which traces women’s movements through different settings of care—homes, wards, and clinics—and overlapping breakdowns in minds, kinship, and stories.

The multi-session  seminar  will focus on a theme that draws together interdisciplinary scholars, writers, and artists. These event themes include: “Writing Family, Reconstructing Lives,” “The Violence of Family Formation,” “Families We Choose,” “Family Remains: Property, Picture, Archives, and Art,” “Family Secrets, Lies, Silences, and Erasure,” and “Familial Futures: Kinship and Science Fiction.”

In addition to these convenings, the Mellon Foundation’s support enables Tufts to create one-year appointments for one Sawyer Seminar postdoctoral fellowship and two doctoral dissertation fellowships during the 2019-20 academic year.  These three scholars will participate in the seminar and develop their research in this area with the support of Tufts faculty and visiting scholars throughout the year-long series.

The Mellon Foundation's Sawyer Seminars were established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments.  


About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.

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