Letters from Laura Nader

Laura Nader: Letters to and from an Anthropologist, by Laura Nader (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Roberto J. González, San José State University

It would be difficult to overstate how much Laura Nader’s ideas have influenced the field of anthropology, or her leading role in publicizing the discipline. Her latest book is a refreshing, riveting collection of letters spanning nearly sixty years, from 1961 to 2019. It is organized chronologically into five chapters, each of which begins with a brief introduction contextualizing the letters and the historical period. Many of the pieces address aspects of Nader’s groundbreaking work in legal anthropology and her research into how power works.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, some letters are from the author while others are addressed to her. The writers and recipients of the correspondence represent an astonishing range of people—not only her colleagues and students from UC Berkeley, but also future and former US presidents, many scientists, philosophers, and plenty of ordinary citizens who tell extraordinary stories. Among them is a death row inmate desperately seeking legal assistance in 1970. The democratic variety of selections is an homage to Nader’s own notion of studying up, down, and sideways, providing a vertical slice of society itself.

Letters is a carefully crafted book that masterfully weaves together several narratives. The first is a fascinating intellectual profile, simultaneously biographical and autobiographical. This gives insight into Nader’s tirelessly inquisitive approach to social analysis, and how it has evolved over decades. For example, one of her most important theoretical concepts, controlling processes, is rooted partially in the comparative analysis of legal systems and professional mind-sets. The term “controlling processes” appears in a 1981 letter to her long-time Berkeley colleague Elizabeth Colson (p. 128), years before Nader delivered the 1995 Sidney W. Mintz lecture, bearing that very title. By that time, she had taught her signature course on controlling processes to literally thousands of students, some of whose letters are included in the book.

Another recurrent theme in this intellectual history is how mentorship shapes an academic’s life and work. Take for example a 1962 letter from the legendary physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn (p. 15). In the correspondence, Washburn, then chair of the UC Berkeley anthropology department, gently admonishes the younger scholar for developing a course that is “too difficult. . . remember that undergraduate students here take five courses, and many of them are supporting themselves by working on the outside. . . . I trust these matters will all be cleared up in the near future.” More often, though, Nader appears as the mentor. For instance, in a 1999 letter (p. 244), David Price seeks her advice after several mainstream academic journals rejected his article about the American Anthropological Association’s secretive relationships with the CIA. (The Nation published his explosive exposé the following year).

Letters can also be read as a ground-level historical account of the norms and practices of American universities over the course of six decades. An eye-opening example illustrates how shamefully faculty women were treated by university administrators, and often by their departmental colleagues as well. In 1970, Laura Nader summarized one of the more egregious problems in a letter to UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Roger Heyns, explaining that several years earlier his office told her that women faculty weren’t entitled to maternity leave. “Apparently . . . women faculty are supposed to remain celibate,” she notes wryly (p. 43). (In a letter to Heyns’s successor, Albert Bowker, we learn that four years later, UC Berkeley still didn’t provide women faculty with reasonable maternity leave policies [p. 68]). And things didn’t get much easier—in a 1985 letter to yet another chancellor (Ira Michael Heyman), Nader outlines the persistent problem of salary inequity faced by women and minority faculty. Other correspondence describes hot-button issues in higher education, including increases in student tuition and high subsidies for intercollegiate sports programs.

The final and perhaps most profound narrative element of Letters is the author’s reflective meditations on how we communicate with one another. As Nader notes in the book’s general introduction, “we have generations of people who have never seen such letters . . . [which can] humanize life in a technologically driven world” (p. 1). Despite the convenience and affordability of digital communication and mobile technology, handwritten (and typewritten) correspondence has a degree of human intimacy and warmth that isn’t easily replicated.

While some readers might have expected more coverage of the 1960s Berkeley student protests, or of sexual harassment in higher education, Letters isn’t meant to provide a comprehensive history of all the significant events and crises occurring on the UC Berkeley campus, or universities in general—though it does touch upon many of them. Instead, the book has a more humane and compassionate effect: to empathetically reveal the thoughts, feelings, concerns, and convictions of people who have connected with the author—sometimes unexpectedly—from many walks of life.

For readers of a certain age, the collection will stir up memories of time spent drafting thoughtful letters and the profound joy of receiving them from others, saving them, and rereading them years later. At a moment when so many Zoomed-out academics (and others) are inundated with emails, texts, tweets, and posts, Letters challenges us all to contemplate, calmly compose our thoughts, and commit ourselves to reclaiming the art of heartfelt, handwritten communication.

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