Patricia Sawin

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228 Greenlaw Hall CB# 3520
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
(919) 962-4065


Ph.D., Folklore, Indiana University, 1993.
M.A., Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 1986.
B.A., English, Yale University, 1978.


My work focuses on the constitution of identity and culture through communicative interaction. I conceive of communication as symbolic activity in which the participant draws upon a repertoire of resources and responds dialogically to a multitude of prior communications and pre-existing discourses. Gender, race, nationality, and class—among other individual and communal senses of self—are stabilized and changed in such enactments. I am especially interested in how individuals mobilize and thus constitute the aesthetic and the traditional and in the role of the ethnographer as interlocutor. My goals are to engage the insights of Folklore and Linguistic Anthropology in order to understand the impact of global interconnection on local subjectivities and to contribute to the theorization of a feminist, postcolonial ethnographic practice.

Much of what I have written about narrative and performance comes out of my longstanding exploration of the life of a 97-year-old woman from the North Carolina mountains through her repertoire of songs and stories. In Listening for a Life (2004) I highlight how Bessie Eldreth creates a self through dialogue, responding simultaneously to disparaging local discourses on the role of women and the poor, to myself as both fictive grandchild and embodiment of privilege and education, and to potential readers whose anticipated stereotypical image of her as an “Appalachian singer” she both enjoys and contests.  I’ve also written about rural mardi gras celebrations in Louisiana and the portrayal of women in the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic.


My current project involves collaboration with a group of women who live on and make their living by scavenging recyclables from the municipal garbage dump (basurero) in Guatemala City.  These dynamic women have taken advantage of an opportunity provided by an adult literacy class to work towards gaining educational credentials that will open doors to new employment and to create a jewelry-making cooperative that offers business experience and alternative income.  I have begun recording their life stories–breath-taking testimonies both to the violence to which poverty exposes women and their families and to these women’s determination and resilience.  My goal is to work with them over the years, to support their learning activities, document how their stories of self change as they forge new possibilities for themselves, and to involve them in transcribing and editing their stories for publication and sharing.  I am also working on a partially autoethnographic project on the experiences of families with internationally adopted children.


ANTH/FOLK/LING 484: Discourse and Dialogue
FOLK 202: Introduction to Folklore
ENGL/FOLK 487: Folk Narrative
FOLK 850: Approaches to Folklore Theory