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

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.
November 25, 2009

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."