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Sarah M. Mathis

Associate Professor of Anthropology


Phone: 209.946.7713

Office Hours

George Wilson Hall, Room 201


PhD, Emory University, 2008

MA, University of Notre Dame, 1999

BS, Principia College, 1997

Curriculum Vitae 

Teaching Philosophy
As a cultural anthropologist, one of my primary teaching goals is to introduce students to cultural differences and encourage them to approach these differences analytically, studying them for their inherent cultural logic rather than evaluating them based on their difference from our own cultural values.  I encourage students to understand other cultures on their own terms, and then to begin to reflect back on their own culture and find their hidden assumptions about the world in which they live.  Reading ethnographic writings gives students rich details that enable them to empathize with people living under distinctly different political and economic circumstances from themselves while lectures and textbooks provide a theoretical framework within which to situate this cultural diversity.  Presenting class material through a variety of formats, including interactive lectures, group work, photos and videos, also help students remain engaged and absorb what they are learning.  I believe in the importance of listening closely to students in order to adapt my material and better facilitate learning.  In upper-division classes, I encourage students to engage in more self-guided study, giving them the opportunity to explore and figure out where their greatest interests lie, thereby developing the skills and confidence to become independent scholars.  As a professor in an interdisciplinary department, I also encourage students to work towards an understanding of where anthropology fits in the generation of knowledge within the social sciences.  Finally, some of my most effective teaching moments have come from the incorporation of experiential learning into the classroom, including ethnographic assignments that encourage students to go out and study their own culture, and facilitating study abroad experiences that allow students to put into practice what they have learned in the classroom. 

Scholarly Interests
My research focuses on the integration of political and economic systems that were segregated under apartheid in South Africa.  The institutional legacies of apartheid created a deeply unequal society, the reform of which has created severe challenges for the post-apartheid state.  My field research, conducted over two years in South Africa and funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and Fulbright-Hays, looked at these transitional challenges from the standpoint of a rural area located in one of the former Bantustans in KwaZulu-Natal.  I have published on the political impact of the land reform process, arguing that some customary leaders saw it as an opportunity to reassert their power over land.  I have also published gender roles within households, looking at how high levels of unemployment and the system of social grants, the only state welfare system on the African continent, has led to changing gender roles.  I have also published on the violence in the region arguing that the violence has had, and continues to have, long-term structural impacts on the political transition.  My next article, still in progress, takes a more humanistic approach to the study of gender, discussing the lived experiences of young women facing delayed transitions to adulthood and narrating their stories and the fieldwork encounters that led to ethnographic insight.


ANTH 053. Cultural Anthropology. 4 Units.

This introductory course covers the anthropological view of humanity, the character and nature of culture, and the diversity of the human species. The major concepts, methods, and theoretical assumptions of the discipline are illustrated by applying anthropological perspectives to peoples from around the world. Topics include culture, ethnicity, and language; kinship, marriage, and social organization; time and space; religion, magic and rituals; gender and sexuality; power, inequality, and political relations; economic production, circulation, and consumption; social control; and the various forces and forms of change. General Education IC. (DVSYETHCGE1C)

ANTH 134. Anthropology of Africa. 4 Units.

Africa is a large and diverse continent that is characterized by a multiplicity of cultures, histories, identities and experiences. This course is designed to encourage an appreciation of the complexity of contemporary Africa and to consider how African realities may differ from common stereotypes of the continent. This is primarily a course on contemporary Africa but it also includes a historical overview of key events that continue to shape current realities such as trade and migration, colonialism, and nationalist struggles for independence. While contemporary issues such as poverty and political violence are addressed, the focus is on the richness and diversity of African lives and experiences from rural to urban settings across the continent. Course material addresses the interconnections between politics, kinship, gender, ethnicity, economics and history. Sophomore standing is required.

ANTH 170. Culture and Economy. 4 Units.

This course provides an anthropological approach to the study of economic behavior in a cross-cultural context. Are there places in the world where people don't care about the latest cell phones or clothing fashions? Do people always seek to buy the most goods that they can with their money? Do different cultures define rational, maximizing behavior differently? In this class students explore the variety of different ways in which people produce, exchange and consume goods and how these processes are embedded in social and cultural institutions. Throughout the semester, students read ethnographic articles and case studies that discuss other peoples' economic lives and touch on important issues of global poverty and development. Topics include markets, gifts, commodities, property rights, systems of production and exchange, and change within local and global economies. Prerequisite: ANTH 053 or ANTH 054.

ANTH 172. Culture and Power. 4 Units.

What is power? How are power relations configured differently across cultures? How is power institutionalized and contested in an increasingly interconnected world? The theme that unites all these concerns is the politics of everyday life: how power works in and through culture to shape the lives of individuals and societies. Topics of discussion include: conflict and conflict resolution,; law and custom, leadership and authority, social and cultural control, ritual and symbolism, gender, ethnicity, and identity politics, nationalism and colonialism, representation, agency and political subjectivity, civil society organizations and social movements, borders, boundaries and citizenship.(DVSY)

INTL 077. Contemporary World Issues. 4 Units.

Students are introduced to the most important current global issues through a look at their contemporaneous history over the last century. Students also examine the political, economic, and cultural changes around the world that have led to today's problems and opportunities.

NTL 101. Social Science Research Methods. 4 Units.

Students are introduced to how research is conducted in the social sciences. The course shows how qualitative and quantitative research complements each other and it compares research methodologies in the different social science disciplines. The course also introduces basic statistical methods for analyzing social scientific data, and introduces the use of computers for quantitative analysis. Prerequisite: fundamental quantitative skills. (GE3BPLAW)

INTL 151. Cross-Cultural Training I. 2 Units.

This course prepares students for interacting in cultures other than their own. It is designed to assist students in developing learning and coping strategies when outside their native cultural environment, such as while studying abroad, as well as the communication and intercultural skills needed for interacting successfully in new cultural environments. Topics include cultural values and assumptions, intercultural communication, and cross cultural problems and adjustment. Prerequisites: Completion of all Fundamental Skills. (DVSY)

INTL 161. Cross-Cultural Training II. 2 Units.

This course analyzes and evaluates the effects and consequences of cross-cultural exposure. Topics include entry and return culture shock, communication styles and channels, alterations in value structure, and models that characterize personal and cultural change. Prerequisites:INTL 151 and study abroad (SABD). (DVSY)

INTL 185. SIS Capstone. 4 Units.

This capstone course integrates the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary SIS core curriculum with the experiential learning of study abroad. This is accomplished through analysis of the role of the individual in a variety of cultural and historical contexts that pay particular attention to questions of identity and ethics in a complex global environment. Prerequisites: a semester of study abroad or permission of instructor. Senior standing.

PACS 001. Pacific Seminar 1: What is a Good Society? 4 Units.

This course introduces students to the intellectual life of the University by exploring the intersection of who we are as individuals and who we are as communities.  The course engages the critical tension between individual rights and social responsibilities as that tension manifests in issues such as identity, equality, and sustainability, among others. The course is a shared intellectual experience, incorporating materials from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.  Students meet in small sections to discuss the readings and issues and develop their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.



Disobedient Daughters? Changing Women's Roles in Rural Households in KwaZulu-Natal," Journal of Southern African Studies, 37(4), 2011.

"The Politics of Land Reform: Tenure and Political Authority in Rural KwaZulu-Natal," Journal of Agrarian Change, 7(1), January 2007.

"From War Leaders to Freedom Fighters: Violence in Umbumbulu in the Waning Days of Apartheid in South Africa," African Affairs, 112(448), 2013, pp. 421-439