• September 4, 2015

Hot Type: Obama's Mother's Dissertation Gets Star Treatment From Duke U. Press

S. Ann Dunham in Indonesia

Photo courtesy of Bron Solyom

The Ph.D. dissertation of S. Ann Dunham, President Obama's mother, is being published, 15 years after her death. Dunham (left, with Indonesian villagers) wrote about craft industry in rural Indonesia.

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close S. Ann Dunham in Indonesia

Photo courtesy of Bron Solyom

The Ph.D. dissertation of S. Ann Dunham, President Obama's mother, is being published, 15 years after her death. Dunham (left, with Indonesian villagers) wrote about craft industry in rural Indonesia.

The scholarly book getting the most buzz at the American Anthropological Association's annual conference this week is likely to be a doctoral dissertation published 15 years after its author's death. Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia is by S. Ann Dunham, the mother of President Obama, a connection noted on the book's front cover. The publisher, Duke University Press, will unveil the book on December 3 at the conference, to be followed by a special session devoted to Dunham and her life and work.

I spoke with Dunham's daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is President Obama's half-sister, about their mother's life and work and how the dissertation made it from her closet to print. Ms. Soetoro-Ng wrote a foreword to the book. She and Mr. Obama spent some time in Indonesia as children while Dunham worked as a development and microcredit consultant and did fieldwork for the dissertation.

The book runs about 300 pages and focuses on a blacksmithing village called Kajar, in the province of Yogyakarta on the island of Java. The work has been whittled down significantly from its original form, which ran more than a thousand pages and investigated the socioeconomics of several village-based handicrafts, including batik, pottery, and the making of puppets used in shadow theater.

Ms. Soetoro-Ng told me her mother was "a real romantic and a pragmatist" at the same time, interested in objects that were beautiful in their own right and also a practical means of making everyday life better. "Metalworking was an embodiment of that fusion between art and livelihood and between beauty and utility that was very much in keeping with her vision as an anthropologist," Ms. Soetoro-Ng said.

Dunham's research and writing continued off and on until 1991; she submitted the dissertation a year later. When she died, in 1995, she left behind a collection of floppy disks that contained it all. "It was sitting in my closet for over a decade," Ms. Soetoro-Ng told me. She found it while doing some cleaning.

Dunham did not have time before she died to get the book into publishable shape. "I knew she had hoped that one day it could be published," her daughter said, but she did not know where to begin editing it. Ms. Soetoro-Ng has a doctorate in international comparative education and is working on a book about peace education drawn from her experiences teaching conflict resolution at a girls' school in Hawaii, but she is not an anthropologist. The prospect of editing a thousand-page anthropology treatise was daunting. "I wouldn't know what to take out, what was still relevant and what was not, what to emphasize. I was lost."

She handed the lot over to Alice G. Dewey, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Hawaii. Ms. Dewey had been Dunham's graduate adviser. With the help of Nancy I. Cooper, an adjunct associate professor of anthropology at the university, Ms. Dewey pared the dissertation to a more manageable size. According to an editor's note in the book, another scholar put Ms. Cooper and Ms. Dewey in touch with Ken Wissoker, editorial director at the Duke press.

'Prescient and Pathbreaking'

Skeptics are likely to ask whether the quality of the scholarship is really what got Dunham's book into print. Ms. Soetoro-Ng makes a case for the value of her mother's work and its combination of scholarly detail and personal engagement.

"It was very moving for me to read the dissertation because I find that she's really a fine scholar and very thorough, very detailed, and very meticulous," Dunham's daughter said. "It's very professional, and it adheres to the mandates of objectivity that are used in the field, to some degree, but it's also full of feeling, and it's clear that she cares deeply about the ideas and the people and the place."

In an afterword to the book, Robert W. Hefner, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and president of the Association for Asian Studies, also says the scholarship is good. He met Dunham in Yogyakarta, and he praises her integrity as a cultural anthropologist. He writes that Dunham wanted "to correct broad-stroke characterizations of rural Java's economy" that put too much emphasis on agriculture and not enough on industry. Mr. Hefner also writes that Dunham was "intent on refuting portrayals of Indonesian peasants as tradition-bound and irrational, prone to placing diffuse social needs above precise economic calculations."

Mr. Wissoker says the book is a natural fit with the Duke press. In an e-mail message, he pointed out that Surviving Against the Odds aligns with the press's editorial emphases. "Anthropology, Southeast Asia, and critical work on development are all central to our list," he said. "We are honored to have the chance to publish her prescient and pathbreaking work."

Ms. Soetoro-Ng has come to see her mother as a pathbreaker as well. "Her work in microfinance was fairly pioneering, although I didn't realize that at the time. Now it has gained immense popularity, and there are a lot of people who see microfinance as an important facet of sustainable development." Dunham wanted to see that approach used widely, but she died before she had a chance to try. "That was her goal, to reach every corner of Indonesia, but also beyond," her daughter said. "I don't think you often found that coming from anthropologists, that kind of large-scale ambition coming from these programs. I think she was remarkable that way."

It's possible that the book will find an audience among anthropologists and perhaps in the microfinance community. Mr. Wissoker recalled that at last year's anthropology meeting, "everyone was thrilled that we would have a new president whose mother had been an anthropologist. They were happy to ascribe some of his more expansive and nuanced views of the globe and of other cultures to her good influence."

Ms. Soetoro-Ng would probably agree with that. "That natural respect she had for all people is something that we learned from her," she said.

She recognizes that some readers will pick up Surviving Against the Odds out of less-than-scholarly curiosity. "But it is an academic book. It is a smart and thoughtful book. And they will either have to have, possess, or discover an interest in socioeconomic anthropology and in cottage industries in Southeast Asia if they are going to read the book in its entirety."

Has the president read his mother's book? "I don't know," Ms. Soetoro-Ng told me, adding that Dunham had shared the dissertation with Mr. Obama while she was writing it. "He has a copy, but he's been busy."


1. jeff1 - November 25, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Interesting indeed. I would read this book before alot of books that are out there in the market (and I am not a fan of anthropological studies).

Should this be published solely because the author is the mother of the president? Yes, absolutely. Should it be published because it adds to the literature? Yes, absolutely.

Duke press is a reputable academic publisher and if they judge that this work has value enough to publish it, then it does have value.

2. awerhane - November 25, 2009 at 01:00 pm

Her full dissertation is available at several academic libraries, as is an Indonesian translation of selected parts - search WorldCat.org for "Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia."

Request a copy through via your library's interlibrary loan service, or purchase via Dissertation Express in PDF, paper, microfilm or microfiche format (your library may be able to order it for you at a reduced price).

Also available through interlibrary loan is her 1982 publication, "Women's work in village industries on Java."

3. bfrank1 - November 25, 2009 at 03:57 pm

More intersting perhaps might be to know more about the educational attainments of presidential mothers more generally. I'm pretty sure there is not another mother of a US president with a PhD - or was there?

4. valjean_24601 - November 25, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Duke beat VDM-Verlag to the punch.

5. jjfair - November 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm

The pulication of Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia is by S. Ann Dunham will explain to skeptics why Pres. Obama & his sister Maya Ng are educational high achievers. Their mother laid the path for each of them, which they followed. This publication is a legacy to their children as well as others that had/have stong mothers. Looking forward to read the punlication.

6. izzeldinosman - November 28, 2009 at 12:56 am

This is an example of the real humane spirit of exerting effort to lift the underdeveloped. It reflects a good image of Americans which is desparately needed.

7. mickeymackcoole - November 30, 2009 at 10:01 am

President Obama clearly comes from an incredibly gifted family of scholars, and his mother's dissertation simply proves that assertion. It reminds me, though, how much more of Dr. Dunham could have been in the president's memoirs. My hope is that he one day will return to memoir writing and finish a thorough-going book about his mom.

8. msillah - December 01, 2009 at 10:56 am

Imagine the Obama Presidential library, with dessertations and books from the President's mother, father, sister, brother and himself. This library will show an American connection to the rest of the world, as well as a concern not only for itself, but also for the less privileged of the world.

9. minnesotan - December 01, 2009 at 01:33 pm

All of the saccharine in this thread is making my belly ache.

10. jpmorgan3 - December 01, 2009 at 01:43 pm

This sounds like a wonderful book to me. I have been curious about his mother and why has he not put her out on a pedistal,like anyone that loves their mother should. I suspect i because she is caucasian.Other than the color of skin,he sure looks a lot like her. A big majority of americans ,have continuously asked,why does he call himself only African american. He is also White. American Causcasian.More or less,mixed breed like he called hiomself,or a mutt,when talkinhg about a new puppy that they would be getting. To me he has been sayin g he was ashamed of his mother.She sounds like the brillant minded one. I would have liked to have known her as I like anthropology,skilled and talented craftsman.articles that people have to use their eyes,hands ,minds and creative visions to create something beautiful,for those that appreciate fine artistic, pieces,for people like me,to see and say I wish I could make something that beautiful.Something that may be in the Art museums someday,to be well known as a very well respected and well rounded artisan.To be known for the beauty in maybe a certain piece,that God gave her the ablity to create. That is her book that she so well copulated many pages and I'm sure long hours into it. Maybe in hopes that someday,dreams and the visions ,she had for the country or people in Indonesia,would be fulfilled.Perhaps he will have more of her visions for this country ,to return to what dreams our forefathers had for the United States of America. She had to have loved the people,whom had to have counted the most,as she wanted everything good for all of them. Love and peace, liberty and freedom for all,one nation under God,should be like an industry, of skilled artistry and talents,to say that every thing on this earth is a beautiful piece of artwork for all of us to enjoy. It's too bad Obamas mother did not live to see the beauty of herself that she been has put into this book and would not have to have left a lot of it out,so as to really see the measure of her worth. To see another part of Gods creation through her eyes. I would love to have known her.

11. laoshi - December 01, 2009 at 02:30 pm

Boring, no doubt.

12. mitt4jp - December 01, 2009 at 07:09 pm

I thought that a president is different from an emperor. I thought that a scholarly work should be judged solely by its academic merits not the author's connection. Well, I guess that the Duke Press is still a business and they want to sell books.

Did Dunham really finish her Ph.D.? could anyone verify that? (It seems that she has never turned in her dissertation.)

I guess there are as many kiss-assers in a democratic society as in a 3rd world country. (Excuse my language)

13. rickinchina09 - December 02, 2009 at 03:08 am

I have no doubts about the academic merit of her research. Whether it is deserving of publication in spite of its pedigree is of course another matter. Perhaps we can hope for full academic disclosure from our current President someday. It would, after all, be in keeping with his rhetoric of transparency.

14. mike_hudson - December 14, 2009 at 01:45 pm

Do they issue posthumous Nobel Prizes? Pulitzers? National Book Awards? If so, I predict a sweep here, despite the fact that none of us have read it.

15. authentic - December 14, 2009 at 08:31 pm

Strange-Now that her son is President she has become a scholar. I thought that she spent some time on welfare.

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