When Professor Bruce Whitehouse returned to Mali in August 2011, he was revisiting the site of his beginnings as an anthropologist. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1990s, Professor Whitehouse was stationed in rural Mali for three years, during which time he met his present wife and developed his interest in the intersections of the global and the local. Now, he, his wife and two children will get to reconnect with Mali’s rapidly evolving society in the booming capital city of Bamako, as Bruce serves a year-long appointment at the University of Bamako as a visiting Fulbright Scholar.
While he taught a course on migration and the Malian diaspora, the majority of Professor Whitehouse’s time was spent pursuing his research on marriage in urban Bamako. He previously conducted preliminary research on the topic with the aid of two French-speaking Lehigh anthropology students, the results of which can be seen in The Wedding Season (Whitehouse) and Bamako Wedding Crashers (student report).
The subject of marriage in Bamako is fascinating in regards to the many competing influences shaping its present practice, as well as the tensions that exist between modern attitudes towards marriage and persistent adherence to traditional norms. During his preliminary research, Professor Whitehouse found often surprising juxtapositions, with white wedding gowns, traditional Islamic ceremonies, polygamous unions, and the earnest desire for romantic love all existing side-by-side.
To further explore the intricacies of marriage, Whitehouse examined general perspectives on marriage along three paths, looking at how attitudes are affected by education, socio-economic status, and age. Of particular interest in the study are conceptions of living arrangements and emotional life in the context of marriage. He focused on the urban setting of Bamako as the receptor of international influences and incubator of cultural change in the larger nation.
As an anthropology teacher, Professor Whitehouse believes that such fieldwork is essential for his effectiveness when working with students. Rather than starting from theory and then localizing to a specific context, he prefers to begin with the local details, then generalize to larger ideas. The more time he spends working “on the ground” as an ethnographer, the richer and more varied experiences he can communicate to his students as they explore the concepts embedded within each context. Practically, he hopes to introduce a class on marriage from a cross-cultural perspective when he returns to Lehigh in 2012.
The Fulbright Program presented a natural vehicle for Professor Whitehouse’s research. Highly regarded in the anthropology field, the program also provides generous support for housing and is very accommodating for a researcher traveling with a family. Reflecting on his preparation period, he stressed the need for potential Fulbright Scholars to cultivate their relationship with their host institution as early as possible and to develop a strong line of communication with the university. Even with established connections in Bamako, the process of documenting his role at the University proved a challenge, which luckily was resolved just in time for him to submit his application and lay the groundwork for the year ahead.