Remembering Nancy Munn, Emerita Professor of Anthropology

April 20, 2023 (last updated on July 13, 2023)

By Sarah Steimer

Nancy Munn — remembered as “a scholar’s scholar” — was an Emerita Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and a renowned expert on the commingling of space and time. Munn passed away on January 20, 2020. A memorial will be held Monday, April 24. A key figure in the development of symbolic anthropology, she was among the first scholars to bring phenomenology to bear on anthropological analysis, according to an obituary published in American Anthropologist.

Nancy Munn
Nancy Munn

“Nancy’s impact on her field and on the students in the anthropology department here was huge,” says Jennifer Cole, Professor in and Chair of the Department of Comparative Human Development. “Sharing work with her was incredibly inspiring — she really could see heaven in a grain of sand, and then elaborate how what she’d seen connected to other aspects of social life. Having shared work with her, I knew why her students were so devoted.”

Munn grew up in the Yorkville section of New York’s Upper East Side. She entered the Letters Program at the University of Oklahoma and, after receiving her bachelor’s degree, she continued on to the University of Indiana for a master’s degree, where she worked as a research assistant for David Bidney. She left the university and completed her training at the Australian National University, where she studied eventually with W. E. H. Stanner, an Australian anthropologist who worked extensively with Indigenous Australians. Munn was awarded a Fulbright Fellowhsip and carried out her first fieldwork in central Australia with the Walbiri living in Yuendumu in two periods, from 1956 to 1958, with additional research in Alice Springs. She wrote her dissertation while in residence at Cornell University and received her doctorate from Australian National University in 1960. Munn returned to the Northern Territory in 1964 with support from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and conducted research at the Areyonga Government Settlement.

Munn began her teaching career at Bennington College in Vermont, then took a position at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with an interim year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1972.

According to Andy Lass, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, her work took “a bottom-up approach, i.e., an in-depth analysis of social organization, kinship as foundational to an analysis of world view and symbolic action. This was also a hallmark of her lectures at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.”

For her second fieldsite, Munn went to the Massim archipelago, home of the kula ring, and — with support from the National Science Foundation — carried out fieldwork on the small island of Gawa in two parts between 1973 and 1975, presenting an initial analysis as the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures in 1976. This later became her magnum opus: The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, published in 1986.

Munn came to the University of Chicago in 1976, becoming the first tenured female professor in the Department of Anthropology. Shortly after returning from Gawa, she offered a seminar largely devoted to working through her raw fieldnotes.

“As a teacher and advisor, Munn was an extraordinarily close reader and careful thinker who saw no need to muffle her comments, which could be quite direct,” according to American Anthropologist. Mariane C. Ferme, a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, that “As a student in several of her seminars at the University of Chicago during the years leading up to the publication of The fame of Gawa, my thinking was profoundly shaped by Munn’s elaboration of the spatiotemporal dimensions of material substances and places in the making of meaning.”

Munn officially retired in 1997, but she remained actively engaged with UChicago colleagues and students, attending Monday Seminars, faculty meetings, and dissertation defenses.

“She continued her long-standing practice of commenting on student work, famously arriving to defenses carrying the dissertation manuscript she had annotated with a profusion of colorful Post-It notes, each a probing comment on some theoretical or empirical point,” according to an obituary written by Susan Gal, the Mae & Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and of Social Sciences in the College and Director of the Center for the Study of Communication and Society.

“A quirky, deeply original thinker, quiet and self-contained, unconventional in both her work and everyday life, she was beloved by generations of students who were inspired to repeatedly (re)discover — for their own projects — the importance of her lavishly detailed and theoretically integrative writings.”

Her liberal use of Post-It notes — and her keen focus and concentration — were often recognized and remembered. “Books (and student papers) “bristling” with Post-its, the patient, focused concentration, the seriousness of purpose of Nancy’s intellectual engagements made her a formidable—and sometimes frightening—interlocutor in the memory of this former graduate student,” Ferme wrote.

“But any fear of her critical eye on one’s own work was tempered by the demands she placed on her own, and by her whimsical side—the collector of Victorian children’s books, outlandish toys, and the cheerful flotsam and jetsam of Melanesian fish traps and seafaring objects in her apartment’s front room.”

Munn’s first book, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, was published in 1973 as the first title in Victor Turner’s “Symbol, Myth, and Ritual” book series. It pulled together “a structuralist sensitivity to decoding visual expression with a phenomenological concern for how these abstract designs in various media worked as affective symbols in ritual to bind the subjectivity of actors — men and women differentially — to the sociocultural order,” according to Gal’s remembrance. Next came The Fame of Gawa, which developed a general model of transformative actions, a conceptual framework for understanding how people create the value they deem essential for their viability. It theorizes how the people of Gawa understand their "fame" as a projection of themselves, by way of kula exchange.

Her other writings include articles on the subject of time, including “The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay” and “The ‘Becoming-Past’ of Places: Spacetime and Memory in Nineteenth-Century, Pre-Civil War New York.” The latter was her final project, supported in part by a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1992. It was sparked by an interest in Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s plan for Central Park and their ambitions for social reform via manipulation of the visitor’s experience in and of space.

In addition to her critical work, Munn is also remembered for her whimsy. Lass wrote that on visits to his home, she would arrive with gifts of stuffed animals — including their personal names and biographies.

“Nancy was playful,” Cole says. “Perhaps my favorite memory has to do with accidentally spraying whip cream all over her at a dinner party in front of a graduate student — and the fact of how funny she thought it was; you could see why she’d be a good fieldworker because she was so present and relaxed and watchful at the same time  — and rolled with things. At another dinner party, an Easter celebration at which I’d put small plastic chickens all over the table, I left the room to return and find she’d put all the chickens upside down in the wine glasses.”