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Anthropology Research

The Department of Anthropology is committed to publicly engaged anthropology. Here is some information about their ongoing research projects.

The Black Freedom Struggle in Northern New Jersey, 1613-1860:  A Review of the Literature – Christopher N. Matthews

This illustrated essay traces the history of African Americans in early New Jersey (1619-1865) as they struggled against slavery and built communities as free people of color. The narrative draws from a wide range of established scholarly research to give a long-term historical perspective on a tradition of African American cultural resilience in the face of consistent anti-black racism. Understanding the contribution of Africans and African Americans is essential to understanding to New Jersey’s past. Their story also provides a richer more nuanced approach to developing heritage practice today. Funding for this project was provided by the Passaic County  Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs. Read more about this literature review.

Exploring The High Line – Julian Brash

Dr. Julian Brash is finishing a research project focusing on the High Line, the enormously popular park built on an abandoned railway trestle on the Westside of Manhattan. The park has been lauded as a model of contemporary urban public space, yet also criticized as an expression of the hyper-gentrification of New York City; this project aims to use ethnographic research and anthropological analysis to weigh these competing interpretations of the High Line. Through understanding how people use and experience the park, this research will deepen our understanding of the role public space— the physical expression of democratic citizenship, a place where people gather, converse, and encounter each other — is playing in contemporary urban citizenship and politics. This research project has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. This funding provided support for several Montclair State undergraduate research assistants, who gained experience in designing and implementing a variety of data-gathering techniques under the supervision of Dr. Brash. This included conducting field research in the park by interviewing park users and making behavioral observations. Read more about this research. See also Dr. Brash’s profile page.

Social and Emotional Skills in American Childhood: An Emerging Politics of Care – Elsa Davidson

Dr. Elsa Davidson is currently engaged in an ethnographic research project focused on the cultivation and care of social and emotional skills in contemporary American childhood. The first phase of this research project (now underway) explores how parents, educators, clinicians (e.g., social workers, school psychologists, occupational therapists), and “experts” on social and emotional development document, assess, monitor, and purposefully cultivate children’s social and emotional skills and differences within the context of children’s everyday familial, educational, and therapeutic environments. Building on interdisciplinary work in childhood studies focused on an emerging “biopolitics of childhood” at the global scale (Lee and Motzkau 2011), Dr. Davidson’s ethnographic and archival research enriches understanding of how this emerging and child-focused politics of social and emotional care and surveillance in the United States operates across lines of race, class, gender, and ability, and how it is working to shift expectations of successful personhood and norms around sociality and emotional expression and regulation in childhood. Data she is collecting for this research project concerns: (1) the circulation of expert discourses that focus on children’s social and emotional learning (SEL) and behavior, and emerging definitions of successful North American childhood and personhood associated with this form of learning; (2) Shifting demands on North American children and parents with regard to children’s sociality and emotional skills, and shifting definitions of personal success and “normal” development; (3) How new forms of social-emotional assessment of children in educational institutions intersect with dynamics of social inequality reproduced and reinforced through schooling; and (4) Parental demand for social and emotional learning (in pre-K-5 educational settings) among parents of public school children with a documented social-emotional difference and parents of general education students.

Food Insecurity & People with Disabilities in the U.S. – Elaine Gerber

This research aims to document how people with disabilities in the U.S. define and experience food insecurity, including but not limited to “food deserts.” It is part of a community-based initiative to understand how common it is for people with disabilities in the United States to experience difficulty accessing sufficient amounts of healthy, nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. Food studies scholars have been measuring the prevalence of food insecurity in poor socio-economic areas, but most have yet to include disabled people in their mapping and measurement efforts. However, this work is needed because: a) disabled people are over-represented in poor communities where food insecurity is prevalent; b) disabled people experience additional access barriers to obtaining appropriate nutritious food than do their non-disabled counterparts; and c) disabled people, because they are more likely to have other health issues, are at greater risk for and more likely to experience negative health consequences from food insecurity than are non-disabled people.

Dr. Gerber’s project expands her online, pilot survey to examine the ways in which standard measures of food insecurity do not adequately capture the barriers faced by people with disabilities in getting sufficient food, including attitudinal barriers. And, it begins documenting ways in which this population is included and excluded from the benefits of food, beyond nutrition and health – that is, the sociality, networking, and identity formation that accompanies eating. It also asks directly about access solutions to these barriers. For more information about this project, contact Dr. Gerber directly or visit:

A Reverse Archaeology of I-280 in Orange, NJ – Christopher Matthews

Drs. Chris Matthews and Kate McCaffrey have partnered with the University of Orange to examine the multi-layered story of American urban history in Orange, NJ. Dr. Matthews’ focus is the impact of the construction in the 1960s and 70s of Interstate 280, a depressed six-lane highway that demolished dozens of homes, cut the city in half, and led to the devaluation of Orange’s central commercial area. The novel idea of a “reverse archaeology of I-280” is guided by the goal of documenting and returning what the construction of I-280 has taken away from the city of Orange. The specific space created by the Interstate is an unhealed wound that citizens of Orange confront every day, and, for many, a space to be avoided because of the danger of high-speed traffic, crime, pollution, and a lack of any meaningful cultural associations. The effects of the wound have furthermore spread throughout the city of Orange. Key institutions such as Orange Memorial Hospital and historic factories are now lost or in ruins and residents living on opposite sides of the highway have lost a sense of mutual belonging that the unified city once provided.

Unlike traditional archaeology, which excavates to recover and understand what has been lost to time and neglect, a reverse archaeology seeks to (metaphorically and imaginatively as well as materially) return to ground the resources that the excavation of the highway route removed. The process of understanding in a reverse archaeology, however, remains essentially the same: through engagement with actual excavated sites we seek to know how life in the past was lived and how, today, this history is (or is not) being put to use in the heritage discourse of Orange. A broad sample of the results of this project are posted on the Hidden Treasures of Orange website:

A Long time Coming: The Archaeology and History of the Native and African American Community in Setauket, New York – Christopher Matthews

Funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Dr. Matthews has been working in collaboration with the mixed heritage Native and African American descendant community in Setauket, NY, on Long Island. This research project is multi-year archaeological and historical study of the community’s origins, development, and survival over the last 200 years. Excavations at two home sites have been completed along with substantial documentary and oral history research. Several articles and book chapters on the project have been published and a monograph is expected to be completed in 2018. Dr. Matthews has worked with anthropology students Alexis Alemy and Sophia Hudzik to create an online Story Map that highlights and explains the project’s findings:

Multiplied Lives: Smart Phone Usage and How Refugees Digitally Navigate Resettlement – Katherine McCaffrey and Maisa Taha

Dr. Katherine McCaffrey and Dr. Maisa Taha are conducting ongoing research as part of their project: “Multiplied Lives: Smart Phone Usage and How Refugees Digitally Navigate Resettlement.” During the summer of 2017, McCaffrey and Taha conducted four weeks of pilot research with Syrian and Iraqi refugee families who were resettled in northern New Jersey within the last one to three years. Their purpose was to examine everyday digital practices among these families, as mediated through use of smartphone apps. In particular, they were interested in how and whether machine translation (MT) apps such as Google Translate or Microsoft Translator provided tools for navigating the Arabic-English language divide. Ongoing research will consider how digital tools (Whatsapp, Instagram) multiply the sites at which displaced families’ lives take place, maintaining connections to the Middle East as families continue to adjust to their new surroundings.

Research in San Cosme Mazatecochco – Frances A. Rothstein

Dr. Rothstein has been doing research in San Cosme Mazatecochco, a rural community in central Mexico, for more than four decades on political factionalism, the impact of factory work, changing gender roles, and, more recently, migration from the community to the United States. While she was there in Fall 2014 completing the migration project, she learned that a Constitutional amendment had recently been passed requiring that fifty percent of the candidates for elected positions at all levels of the government be women. Unlike previous quota programs, this amendment called for the implementation of rules to ensure gender parity and it obliges political parties to observe and respect the principle of gender parity in the composition of candidates’ lists for elective office. With funding from the CHSS Dean’s office, she returned to Mazatecochco for four weeks in the summer of 2017 to do an exploratory study on the impact of the new quotas. This research focused on two questions. Who was elected in the recent municipal elections in June 2016 and June 2014? And what has been the effect of and reaction to more women in municipal politics since the new quota law was passed in 2014? She is currently in the process of analyzing the data she collected from formal and informal interviews with successful and unsuccessful candidates, other local officeholders, and community members.

Socionatural Landscapes across the Caribbean Sea – Peter Siegel

With funding from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society, Dr. Siegel has been leading an interdisciplinary team of earth and climate scientists and archaeologists in an investigation of historical ecology in the southern Caribbean and Lesser Antilles, spanning the full range of human occupations in the region. The team carefully assessed settings on nine islands between Venezuela and Puerto Rico to collect environmental cores, from which proxy data were obtained informing on pre-human baseline and anthropogenic landscapes. Major categories of proxy data include plant microfossils of pollen and phytoliths, sediment chemistry and grain sizes, and charcoal microparticulates. Shifting environmental histories were evaluated within the framework of Holocene climate records to distinguish natural vs. human-derived perturbations or landscape disturbances. Control on time was maintained through an aggressive program of high-precision radiocarbon dating. Results to date clearly show that human groups colonized the Lesser Antilles thousands of years earlier in the Holocene than what archaeologists previously considered. Further, these earliest colonists modified and managed landscapes upon which later settlers built. Finally, a number of our cores produced primary environmental evidence for the devastating effects of European domination and reconfiguring of Caribbean landscapes. This project in historical ecology adds the important dimension of time that is lacking in the static perspectives of cultural ecology. In so doing, we are able to address directly the legacies of human action on landscape history.