Alisse Waterston is a cultural anthropologist recognized for her work on contemporary and historical social justice issues. Her work focuses on the human consequences of structural and systemic violence and inequality.
Alisse Waterston is a Professor of Anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Prior to joining John Jay College, she served as President of Surveys Unlimited, the social, cultural and ethnic research division HAI, a research and consulting firm.
Professor Waterston's areas of specialty are urban poverty and policy issues in the U.S. related to destitution, homelessness and substance abuse, health, welfare and criminal justice. Her work examines inequality and its consequences, addressing the socio-cultural, political-economical and psychological aspects of displacement, diaspora and structural violence. Her interest in media studies has led her to examine the relationship between media consumption and the making of multicultural audiences. She has also conducted policy-related research on immigration, employment, and media.
Professor Waterston is currently working on two interrelated research projects.
Out of the Shadows of History and Memory: Writing My Father’s Life. In this project, Professor Waterston seeks to probe at a very deep level of intimacy to explore implications of her father’s experiences (Jewish child in Jedwabne, Poland, young man in Havana, old man in San Juan, Puerto Rico) for understanding systemic processes of history, the legacies of culture, and the workings of memory. The project draws on theories of cultural trauma to explore the role of cultural, historical and social structural factors in shaping personal and collective memory, and theories of structural violence to understand how social forces become embodied as individual experience. In this intimate ethnography, Dr. Waterston seeks a synthesis between experimental ethnography and political economy as a way to capture “the motion of connected lives across the curve of time” and to refine understanding of embodied history. Her interest is in telling her father’s story, and exploring what it might mean for bringing the past into the present. Memory, with its root in the Latin memoria – "mindful", is key to her purpose. After all, to be mindful is to be aware, an essential step in preventing violence, war, genocide, ethnocide and die-outs.
Her objective, ultimately, is to contribute to understanding violence and survival, brutality and humaneness, dehumanization and compassion, displacement and adaptation, and memory and identity, by means of ethnographic characterizations of her father, by her written narratives of his story, and by a reckoning with the past for lessons about the present.
Narrating Poland. This project seeks to examine how Polish-Christian immigrants from northeastern Poland, now living in New York, recall events in their homeland before and during World War II, during the Communist period and in its aftermath. One focus will be on relations between Polish-Christians and Polish-Jews, and how ethnic Poles recollect (how the story is told) and remember (overarching motifs) their country and the infamous massacre in Jedwabne, a small town in northeastern Poland near Bialystok. How history is constructed by those who lived or heard it first-hand is the focus of this study. In the intersection of personal and collective memory, cultural meanings of the horrific may be brought to light.
This research builds on new, important work on Polish-Christian/Jewish dynamics, a topic that has only recently been brought out of the shadows for examination. The public revelation of the Jedwabne massacre with the publication of Jan Gross’s book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland was a shock to the cultural memory framework in Poland as victim of the brutal Nazi occupation. The uproar in Poland and among scholars that followed Neighbors reveals both the sensitive nature of Polish-Christian/Polish-Jewish relations and that there is much in this territory that remains uncharted.
Dr. Waterston’s study is first and foremost anthropological and qualitative. She seeks the voices of Polish Christians, to understand how the story of Poland and Jedwabne is passed down to them from the generation that was there in the wartime period. A key question is how Poles narrate Poland for the Poles and for the Jews. The findings here will stand in counterpoint to her father’s narrative of Poland.
This research will provide an important perspective, as well as information and insight on Polish-Christian and Polish-Jewish relations. It will also provide insight on the processes and aftermaths of survival, adaptation, remembering, cultural trauma and identity formation-- issues of enormous importance considering the current condition of the world, marked as it is by the shadows of war and genocide.
Recent publications include Teaching Genocide in an Age of Genocides. co-authored with Antigona Kukaj. American Anthropologist Vol. 109, No. 3 (September 2007); Are Latinos Becoming “White” Folk? And What that Still Says about Race in America. Transforming Anthropology Volume 14 No. 2: 133-150 (2006), and Out of the Shadows of History and Memory: Personal Family Narratives in Ethnographies of Rediscovery. co-authored with Barbara Rylko-Bauer. American Ethnologist Volume 330, No. 3: 397-412 (2006).
Dr. Waterston has also published articles and books in the area of urban social issues.Among her publications are: An Anthropology of War: Views from the Frontline (2009; Berghahn Books); Anthropology off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing (with Maria D. Vesperi; 2009 Wiley Blackwell); Love, Sorrow and Rage: Destitute Women in a Manhattan Residence (1999; Temple University Press) and Street Addicts in the Political Economy (1993, Temple University Press).
In 2006, Professor Waterston was named Chair of a new American Anthropological Association (AAA) board on the Future of Electronic and Print Publishing, a committee to oversee the AAA transition to digital publishing with AnthroSource. In 2005, Alisse served as the Executive Program Chair for the 104th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (http://www.aaanet.org/press/an/0501Call_for_Papers.htm). For six years she served as Editor of North American Dialogue, the publication of the Society for the Anthropology of North America (http://www.anthrosource.net/loi/nad).
Over the years, Dr. Waterston has actively participated in other community and committee work. For five years she held the position of Contributing Editor for Anthropology News (a monthly column), was an elected member of the Long-Range Planning Committee of the American Anthropological Association, and served as co-chair of SANA/AAA Family Policy Task Force. She also served two years on the College Council and Faculty Senate of John Jay College, and currently serves on the John Jay College Honors Program Committee. She is particularly proud of her role in establishing an after-school child care program in her local public school in the mid 1980's, for which she served as President and Founding Vice-President. A member of WESPAC (Westchester People's Action Committee), Dr. Waterston also served on its Board of Directors.
Alisse has been involved in policy-related activities and research. Since the 1980's, she has conducted research on topical issues related to minority and immigrant communities, minority employment, welfare reform and the digital divide. Included among her reports are Minority Youth in the Labor Force: Issues for Youth Employment Programs; A Case Study of the Hispanic Community in New Rochelle (on Mexican and Colombian immigrants) for Westchester County Youth Bureau; Status and Future of Media and Telecommunications in Urban America, for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; and A Look Towards Advancement: Minority Employment in Cable for the National Association of Minorities in Communications (NAMIC; http://www.namic.com/initiatives/research/ALookTowardsAdvancement_Part1.pdf; http://www.namic.com/initiatives/research/ALookTowardsAdvancement_Part2.pdf). In 1998, she was awarded the NAMIC Excellence Award for Research.