Remembering Gwendolyn Gordon

Gwendolyn Gordon, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away in December 2021. Gwen attended college at Cornell University, completed law school at Harvard University, and earned her PhD at Princeton University. Gwen was an inspired anthropologist, and a well-loved teacher at Penn. She was a key contributor to the anthropology of firms and cultural structures of corporate governance, and was a generous colleague and collaborator. PoLAR Online is publishing tributes from her colleagues, students, and friends so we may collectively celebrate her life and mourn her death.

If you are looking for more opportunities to honor, celebrate, or learn more about Gwen’s life, below is additional information.

Carol Greenhouse

I knew Gwen Gordon from her years as a grad student at Princeton. Gwen arrived with an already-impressive portfolio as a lawyer/scholar (Cornell, Harvard, law practice and human rights work on three continents…). But it was quickly apparent that Gwen wasn’t in graduate school to decorate the house of her accomplishments, but rather to build a new house of her own design on open land she was determined to seek out and share with others. Indeed, “openness” is the keyword I associate with Gwen: her visible relish for new ideas, her intellectual generosity, her interest in and exquisite fairness to the undergraduate students whose work we graded, her personal dignity and the graceful way she made space for others, and the creative engagements she brought to her fieldwork in New Zealand and back again, in her dissertation. Moreover, she struck me as someone who was admirably open to the demands of her own commitments: relentless in the work she tasked herself to undertake, keenly self-aware and profoundly alert to the ethical intricacies of ethnography as a form of community life—understandings that she brought to her analysis of the social lives of corporations and their untapped organic possibilities. A few months ago, in the context of a catching-up e-mail exchange, she shared a trove of recent writings. Each one is a gem. In particular, her critical analyses of Hobby Lobby and Citizens United are visionary statements that (among other things) clarify how anthropology and law might inform each other in the domain of corporate personhood. Her on-going reflections on that issue were interrupted just as she was thinking afresh about what she had learned among the Maori, and shaping those insights into new questions about corporations and social justice, for herself and others. Her published works stand as footnotes to a future that she did not live to see, but they remain alive for us—vivid samples of her distinctive voice and ethical imagination.

Lawrence Rosen

Early on, in getting to know her, I asked Gwen about her family background. She mentioned that she was part African-American, part Native American, and had roots in a number of countries and cultures. How, I wondered, had she so obviously managed to amalgamate it all into one mature and thoughtful personality? As we talked about her proposed study in New Zealand, and as I followed her work through the years, my sense of her own capacity to blend without erasure, to honor without loss of critical sensibility, and to engage without deluding herself into believing she was that other told me that here was a scholar of the first order. Over the years I am sure she got the same question I so often have received: How is it you are both an anthropologist and a lawyer? Gwen saw the connections where others may have seen compartments, and in doing so she truly impressed the students for whom she was a discussion leader in my introductory anthropology course at Princeton, as I have no doubt she was for her students at Wharton. We have lost a wonderful scholar and a real friend. But I am enormously grateful for having known her and for all that she taught me.

Jessica R. Cattelino

Gwen Gordon was one of those colleagues who brought a smile to my face and an idea to my brain with every interaction. Her own research on Indigenous economies was so very welcome: she was among the few anthropologists to investigate Indigenous corporations in a sustained way, and she brought her legal training to bear on anthropological analysis of Indigenous corporate governance. It was thrilling when she was appointed at Wharton, and I looked forward to reading more of her work in coming years. She was a productive force in the Anthropology of Corporations Interest Group, organizing, among other things, a 2017 AAA panel on “Prospects for a Critical Anthropology of Corporations” that I remember with great fondness. Gwen was a caring colleague who went that extra mile to gather interlocutors, facilitate conversation, and do the behind-the-scenes work that sparks collective creativity. I first met Gwen when she was a second-year graduate student at Princeton, and even then I admired her composure and clarity of purpose, not to mention her wonderful research ideas. Her tragic death is a loss for anthropology: may we keep her memory and her ideas with us.

Deepa Das Acevedo

I heard of Gwen long before I met her: a fellow junior legal anthropologist venturing out into the professional school world. One friend had had Gwen as a TA in college, another friend had known Gwen as a junior classmate from graduate school. Always, there was this excited reference to another young scholar who was not only trained in both anthropology and law, but who had chosen to take that training, as well as her fieldwork in a far-off location, and make it speak to academics who were primarily interested in the United States. She was even interested in private law!

The distance between us—physically and otherwise—shortened when I began a fellowship at Penn Law just a few years after Gwen had joined the Wharton faculty; it is hard to share two disciplines and a university without also sharing the occasional airplane or conference panel. Despite all this, it wasn’t until after I left Penn that I began getting to know Gwen. It took me too long.

In the end it turned out that our shared interests and experiences provided every bit as much ground for conversation as I had been led to anticipate. We first truly connected when I invited her to join a conference panel on legal anthropology for the 2018 AAAs, and ever since then, Gwen has been a core member of a group that has met several times a year. As we’ve rotated between conferences and worked around a global pandemic, Gwen was present for almost every conference session and every virtual workshop, always participating enthusiastically and generously and helping to foster a sense of community among people who tend to feel even more isolated than the average academic. I last saw her during a virtual roundtable for the 2021 AAAs, when she was—rather typically—one of the most lively and captivating individuals in the “room.” We will miss her—and I will miss having gotten to know her even better.

Anna Offitt

Ten years ago, as I was deciding whether to pursue a PhD in anthropology and where to do it, Gwen generously put the activities of her evening on hold and spent more than an hour on the phone with me. After serving as a role model from afar—though she did not know it at the time—Gwen quickly became a mentor and, later, a collaborator. A few things struck me about Gwen from the get-go. First, her sense of humor—often expressed in parenthetical and sarcastic email commentaries. She referred to the legal anthropologists who tagged along at Princeton’s Law and Public Affairs events as a “roving band of misfits” while inserting provocative questions and reflections at the end of visitors’ presentations. She was also a generous and empathetic citizen of our small graduate program. When opportunities to serve as an informal liaison to newer students like myself cropped up, Gwen was the first to volunteer. She invited us to share her conference accommodations so we could sit and listen—even before we were prepared to share our own work. As Gwen settled in at Penn she never lost sight of her anthropology family—as our contact shifted from anthropology conference catch-ups to the zoom-based symposium collaborations of our new pandemic era. An image Gwen often shared from her fieldwork in New Zealand was an afternoon she spent walking outdoors with her interlocutors. This image, and feeling, of the energy and warmth of human connection that animated her scholarly ambitions and identity as a researcher. I feel lucky to have learned from her and to share this excitement of discovery with others.

Katherine Culver

I first met Gwen as a student in her section of the introductory anthropology course at Princeton, where I was drawn to her genuine thoughtfulness and her sharp, refreshing sense of humor. Having Gwen as my instructor was serendipitous: I am not sure I would have become a legal anthropologist had I not met her. At the time, I had interests in both law and anthropology and was torn about which field to enter, so I was fascinated to learn that she not only had a law degree already, but that her experiences in law had motivated her to become an anthropologist. Gwen’s example inspired me to follow my intellectual ambitions and pursue both a JD and a PhD myself, and I was fortunate to benefit from her mentorship as I set off on this path. Luckily for me, Gwen joined the faculty at Penn not long after I started graduate school there. It was a treat to meet with her at her (quite impressive) Wharton office over the years to talk about law, anthropology, academia, and life. It was likewise a privilege to witness the evolution of her scholarship from the inside, so to speak. I am tremendously grateful to have benefited from her generosity, her mind, and her humanity, and I am tremendously sad to lose her as a colleague and friend.

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