Shannon Lee Dawdy (Part I)

Historical Anthropologist, University of Chicago


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Shannon Lee Dawdy, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. She is a historical anthropologist whose research focuses on New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexcio.

This interview covers items that part two (already posted) did not cover.

For a copy of the written questions provided before the podcast was recorded, see below or the February 11 isssue of Anthropology News.

How did you end up becoming special liaison between FEMA (the Federal Emergency ManagementAgency) and the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, after Hurricane Katrina, andwhat did you, in fact, do in this role over the past 5 years, or perhaps you still do?

In the days after the storm, I asked an old friend and mentor, Dr. Tom Eubanks (now deceased), who was the Louisiana State Archaeologist, if there was anything I could do to help and he got back to me quickly with a proposal for this role, which lasted from the beginning of October until the end of December 2005. In this role, I assisted in reconnaissance surveys of New Orleans to assess the condition of historic properties and sites; I consulted on modifying historic preservation review processes to take account of the massive scale of the event, and various special projects like researching the social history and landmarks of the Lower 9th ward.

Your work in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina put you in the public spotlight more than many anthropologists.  Have you secretly enjoyed that spotlight?  Are you normally outgoing and, if not, how do you handle the spotlight and the multiple audiences with whom you now engage?

In New Orleans before Katrina I had other experiences with public outreach and media attention, so this was not an altogether new thing.  When there’s a greater good to serve, there is some satisfaction in getting a message across.  But I become quite uncomfortable when the focus shifts from events and messages to the person speaking (i.e. myself).  I’ve never had any interest in being a celebrity and I hate being photographed or filmed.  As an anthropologist, I have so far failed to comprehend the current American fascination with fame and attention for attention’s sake

What first drew you to New Orleans?  Didn’t you start out doing historical archaeological work in the southeastern part of the U.S.?  Did New Orleans lure you away with its sights, smells,  music, tastes, and archives? Or was it “pure luck”?

Actually it was my husband who lured me there after I finished coursework for my master’s at William and Mary, where I got my first archaeological training.  He’s a jazz musician.  After I was lured, the complexity and sensuality of the city hooked me.

I have long thought that we do too little anthropological work (and perhaps even too little historical and sociological work) on New Orleans and southern, urban and semi-urban Louisiana.  Would you agree, or do you think that much has changed since the 1970s and 1980s when I did my work on New Orleans and Louisiana?  If you do agree, why do you think we have too few scholars working on the rich past and present lives of Louisianians?  Is it that too many people just think of New Orleans as the city in which they prefer to play?

There’s been quite an upwelling of work by sociologists, anthropologists and historians on Louisiana and New Orleans since the early 1990s — Daniel Usner, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Helen Regis, Jacques Henry and Carl Bankston, Kevin Fox Gotham, to name just a few.  Since Katrina, there’s been more work and new dissertation projects started, so I think though this characterization was quite true at the time I started to work there, it has since become a locus of interesting work by a wide variety of scholars.

What were you like when you were 10-12 years old?  What kind of life did you lead?  Did you, or others, expect you to do something within the realm of what you do today?  Have you always known you wanted to be an archaeologist or was there everanother career path that beckoned?

When I was 10, I think I still wanted to be a truck driver.  I was a shy and quiet tomboy, but none of my colleagues believe me.

Do you have a favorite popular cultural depiction of archaeologists?  A least favorite? Do you cringe (or secretly treasure) films in which archaeologists come across as brave heroes or  daring adventurers?

I don’t think of myself primarily as an archaeologist and am not all that invested in the persona so I guess I don’t have strong feelings about media depictions, though am amused by the fact that Indiana Jones was supposedly a University of Chicago professor.  If only we were allowed to be that interesting, or get that much leave time to run off and get in trouble.

Your book, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans, seems quite historical to me.  I also know that you like to focus on  individuals and their everyday lives, even if you think about empires and their out-of-the-way places by looking at their lives.  Don’t historians think of you as a historian and wonder why you call yourself an archaeologist?  As a fellow (past) student of New Orleans, I could see you also within the realm of social/cultural anthropology (albeit a historically inflected one).   What am I missing?

I don’t think of my work in disciplinary terms.  My PhD is in anthropology and history.  Sometimes I dig in the archive.  Sometimes I dig in the ground.  Now I am doing ethnography.  Whatever the questions I am pursuing require.

How do you know when you’ve got a (scholarly or scientific) question that is worth pursuing? How do you begin to pursue it and how do you decide that you have pursued it enough? Are there times when you just drop a project because you don’t know what to do with it any more or where to take it?  Can you give us an example or two of the latter?

I can’t think of any projects I’ve dropped.  In terms of ones worth pursuing, it has to do with what the material is saying to me and whether or not it inspires new directions back into theory and history.   This is not part of the creative process about which I am terribly self-aware, so I’m not sure I can explain it. If a project keeps me up at night thinking or I am excited to go into the office the next day to get some ideas down, then it keeps growing.

What do you do when you are not working?  How do you take breaks? Do you take breaks?

I am sure not enough breaks.  I spend time with my kid and family when not working.

Does anything about the impact of Hurricane  Katrina on your research and professional life surprise you?  Did the overall experience change the way you teach, the way you relate to neighbors in Chicago, the way you think of anthropological training, the way you think of urban infrastructures  or even historical ruins, the way you think of governments, state structures, and imperial centers or outposts?  Have you had that fleeting thought here and there about going back to school to study civil engineering or city planning?

Katrina changed many things for me, some of which I describe in the preface to Building the Devil’s Empire and in a chapter in a new book from Michigan called Anthrohistory.  Disaster not being anticipated, it is all a surprise.  Made me unafraid to take risks, made me more conscious of the importance of friendships but also realistic that you can’t save the world, only help those you know.

Should I ask if you blame anyone for the damage(and loss of life) that accompanied Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast?  Is this a questionyou dodge when asked?

No dodging. I blame all of us addicted to oil and agribusiness which necessitated the revetment of the Mississippi river and the destruction of Louisiana’s protective marshes.  I blame the federal government for substandard levees and a bungled response.

I must ask about the MacArthur grant you just won.  Was it a total surprise?  Do you now feel pressure to do work on a different scale or at a  higher level of risk-taking?  Can you imagine yourself 5 years from now looking back at what you chose to do?  What are your greatest hopes for these years? And your greatest fears?  Do you somehow feel obliged to choose a project with a  likely impact on public policy or on the direction of archaeological research in the U.S., or perhaps  even specifically on disaster prevention or historical preservation?

Yes, it was a total surprise.  It comes with no strings attached, but is meant to be a spur to creative work.  I take that challenge seriously but in order to sustain this gift over the long haul, I am going to take my time to figure out what to do with it.  Historic preservation is something I study rather than something I do.  The gift has made me assess honestly what my most unique contributions might be and I think they lie in spurring collaborative work across the Gulf of Mexico, and in researching/writing beyond genre.  And if only I could use the MacArthur to prevent disasters…

Create a free website or blog at