Celebrating Professor Rena Lederman

May 15, 2024

Anthropologist Rena Lederman will transition to emerita status on July 1, 2024, after four decades of deeply generative scholarly work and intense pedagogical dedication to Princeton University. During her career in the Department of Anthropology, Rena has developed a powerful body of work on gender, exchange, and agency, as well as the anthropology of expertise and ethics. 

She has played many pivotal roles across campus, including serving on the executive committee for the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies (formerly the Program in Women’s Studies) from its inception in 1982 through the 2000s. For sixteen years, she served on Princeton’s Institutional Review Board, where she participated in the reconfiguration of ethics review procedures. She served on faculty committees of the Graduate School and was named a faculty fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.

Within the department, Rena held the position of director of undergraduate studies for seven years and was a committed and visionary director of graduate studies for nine years. 

Soon after her arrival in 1981, she was devoted to creating enduring structures for the doctoral program and the undergraduate major for the relatively new department.

Rena began her career as a student of Melanesian exchange practices, gender meanings, and historical discourse. She was drawn to the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea for its assertively decentralized, participatory political culture. Her book What Gifts Engender: Social Relations and Politics in Mendi, Highland Papua New Guinea (1986) is a landmark monograph on Mendi personal gift exchange practices within and among sexes in relation to the wider dynamics of politics, social cycles, and events in Mendi society. The book has been a touchstone for social scientists working well beyond Papua New Guinea who grapple with questions of history and how social structures change. Further, in her theoretical writing, Rena has centered ethnographic scholarship on Papua New Guinea and Oceania for its long-standing value as a critical resource for unmaking Euro-American assumptions about sociality and the boundedness of culture—an argument she demonstrated in her seminal essay “Globalization and the Future of Culture Areas” for the Annual Review of Anthropology and a series of papers on the concept of region in anthropological theory. Throughout her career, Rena has been a vocal participant in networks of researchers working in Oceania and has mentored dozens of graduate students and junior scholars along the way. 

A native New Yorker, Rena received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College and her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. At Princeton, she holds the distinction of being the first tenured female faculty member in the Department of Anthropology. She was an instructor and assistant professor from 1981 to 1989 and associate professor from 1989 to 2009; she has been a full professor since 2009. 

Rena has taught a rich array of courses on ethics, gender, politics, economics, history, methods, and disciplinary practices, always using relativizing comparison to understand anthropology’s particular strengths and vulnerabilities within the academy. While anthropological concepts have been increasingly recognized outside academia, Rena has unwaveringly reminded new generations of scholars how radical—and even liberatory—sociocultural anthropology’s style of field research can be for relinquishing “controlled conditions” in favor of learning from the people who host them. She has inspired the anthropological imagination and sharpened the critical thinking of the many undergraduate and graduate students who have worked with her. Rena is renowned for her elaborate syllabi, which are structured around questions and annotations that perform the fundamentally anthropological task of rendering the familiar strange. She is beloved among students for her dedication to fairness and her humane, empathetic approach to teaching and mentoring. 

Starting in the early 2000s, Rena’s comparative understanding of disciplinary knowledge practices proved critical to her intervention in national and international policy on regulatory ethics. As a critical insider on Princeton’s Institutional Review Board, she collaborated with colleagues in the American Anthropological Association in 2011 and 2016 to produce two rounds of responses to far-reaching changes in federal regulations for the protection of human subjects proposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Much of her career during and since that time has been spent researching the relation of policy discourse to the panic prompted by regulatory “hypervigilance” that appeared to threaten ethnographic research disproportionately in the United States and Canada, and then the United Kingdom and European Union.

Once fully retired in 2024, Rena plans to turn her full attention to writing projects central to her broader scholarship on disciplinary knowledge. Her forthcoming book, Ethical Constitution of Disciplinary Knowledges, undertakes a comparative analysis of the methodological cultures within these disciplines. By identifying the connections between the use of deceptive techniques and the pursuit of objectivity—a cornerstone for the credibility and replicability of social and behavioral sciences—her analysis illuminates the complex relationship between these seemingly paradoxical elements. In Sources in Our S/cites, another manuscript in progress, which is inspired by instances where anthropologists inadvertently crossed disciplinary boundaries, Rena examines the conventional metaphors used to describe historiographic and ethnographic sources. Together, these papers make unique contributions to ongoing discourse on the ethics of research methodologies and the landscapes of interdisciplinary scholarship. 

Rena’s pioneering research has advanced the field of anthropology and enriched the academic environment for colleagues and students alike. Her legacy at Princeton is one of passionate scholarship, transformative mentorship, committed service, and a tireless pursuit of knowledge.

Rena Lederman's Retirement celebration

Department of Anthropology faculty and staff.

Rena Lederman's retirement celebrartion at Mediterra


Rena Lederman's retirement celebrartion at Mediterra