Anthropology Professor Ralph Bolton Receives Franz Boas Award

Pomona College Anthropology Professor Ralph Bolton PO ’61 recently received the annual Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology, the most prestigious honor in the field.

Bolton has taught at the college since 1971 and studies Andean anthropology, human sexuality, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2005, he created The Chijnaya Foundation in partnership with the rural Peruvian village of the same name, which he first visited at age 22 as a Peace Corps volunteer. For several months each year, Bolton and student volunteers from the 5Cs work on projects related to health, education, and economic development in the area.

“In recent years I have been promoting the importance to anthropology of giving back to the communities where we as anthropologists conduct our research,” Bolton said. “This is an ethical issue I feel strongly about. We need to work with communities to achieve their goals, not merely study them.”

The Franz Boas Award, which is awarded by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), is typically given to one anthropologist each year. According to the AAA website, “Although the activities of the recipients will vary from year to year, all awardees have made many sacrifices, usually without personal reward, and sometimes against personal safety. They have all used anthropology for the benefit of others.” Past recipients include the influential anthropologists Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss.

The AAA presented the award to Bolton in New Orleans on Nov. 18. This is Bolton’s fourth award from the organization.

“Bolton is recognized for his detailed ethnographic research with a strong emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons,” AAA President Virginia Dominguez said while presenting him with the honor, as reported in Anthopology News. “He blends traditional qualitative participant observation techniques with sophisticated quantitative methodologies that elucidate his findings.”

Dominguez added that Bolton’s work “reflects a commitment to human and civil rights advocacy that includes ethnic minorities and immigrants in the United States, Peru, and Western Europe, for gays and lesbians, and for HIV-positive individuals and AIDS patients, locally, nationally, and internationally.”

Bolton said he was aware he had been nominated for the award but “never expected to be selected.”

“I think it’s safe to say that much of my research does not fit neatly within mainstream paradigms in anthropology, not methodologically and not theoretically,” Bolton said. “Perhaps the award is a recognition of the importance of both scientific and applied approaches to the future of the discipline.”

Bolton said that while his selection for the award does not necessarily reflect a large shift in the direction of the field, “it certainly indicates a willingnes of [the AAA] to recognize work that is not necessarily mainstream.”

Bolton is in phased retirement at Pomona and only teaches in the spring. When he isn’t teaching, he typically spends about 12 weeks a year in Chijnaya and works on Chijnaya Foundation projects. He has written more than 100 articles and contributed to 13 books. Currently, he is working on publishing his collected works in Spanish. The third volume will be in print shortly.

“His work, including his conduct in the college, shows an incisive intelligence and a breadth of scope, not restricted to anthropology but to the best work in neighboring disciplines,” said Lynn Thomas, Bolton’s fellow anthropology professor at Pomona.

Bolton described the award as an “added bonus” to the pride and pleasure he has always derived from his work.

“Last year, the communities where I work threw an enormous party for my 70th birthday, with competing brass bands, multiple dance troupes, a communal meal for hundreds of people, speeches, poetry, more speeches, dancing, and gift giving,” Bolton said. “I thought nothing could ever top that. The Boas Award comes close.”

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