Catching up with MacArthur Fellow, Dr. Brackette Williams

Submitted on April 22, 2015
By David Bradshaw, Graduate Center Program Coordinator, April 22, 2015

The Graduate Center recently caught up with the University of Arizona's Brackette Williams, MacArthur Fellow Class of 1997, to find out more about her upcoming talk "Sleeping-Death Protocol in Search of Classificatory Life" this April 30, 2015, at 5:30pm in the UA Cesar Chavez Building, Room 111, as part of the MacArthur Fellows Speaker Series. Dr. Williams is a cultural anthropologist who studies cultural identity and social relationships as they relate to criminal justice, race, and class. She is the author of several books including Stains on My Name, War in My Veins: Guyan and the Politics of Cultural Struggle and Classifying to Kill. She is also the recipient of the Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations in 2008 to study the impact of solitary confinement on the ability of individuals to re-enter society, family, and community.


Graduate Center: What are some of the main topics you will address in your talk?

Williams: I will offer some thoughts on the relation between two questions 1) Why do we care how we put to death persons, who, by other classificatory means, we adjudicate as having proven themselves life unworthy of life? 2) If the death penalty were abolished, what might ethnographic answers to this question predict for change or continuity of classificatory processes for capital punishment, for which death penalty sentencing is a part, rather than the whole? I will close by considering what the project contributed to understanding relations between the inherent arbitrariness of classification, as a necessary and unavoidable cognitive tool, and decisive arbitrariness, as naturalized power of formal classification schemes that canalize cognitive processes in ways that reduce the range of possibilities for making and using exemplars and prototypes while increasing the range and dominance of stereotyping.

Graduate Center: How did the MacArthur Fellowship influence your career?

Williams: It provided me with financial support for a period of intensive research and writing that would have taken many more years to complete while meeting other obligations. Although I have yet to publish much of the writing completed during this period, the research interactions provided me with contacts that resulted in new venues for pursuing issues relevant to questions in the subfields of cognitive and symbolic anthropology. I anticipate that once the work is published, it will make a significant contribution to method and theory in these subfields of anthropology, and might increase public understanding of some of the complexities involved in managing any classification scheme. Examples are the classification schemes currently involved in implementing the death penalty, as one of several sentencing options for capital punishment in the United States and other countries that still impose the death penalty.

Graduate Center: Can you tell us a little about the “Big Questions” in your area of cultural anthropology, and how your current research might relate to them?

Williams: The subfields of cognitive and symbolic anthropology address a number of interrelated questions. Perhaps the “big question” is: Why do human beings classify? This big question is approached through a number of smaller core questions: How do humans form concepts? What is the relation between concept formation and categorization? How are the cognitive processes involved influenced by the various purposes for which humans form concepts and categories? How do competing purposes influence classifiers’ views of the stability of material—attributes or elements—on which one or more of their purpose-built classification schemes rely?  Given that the production of symbols relies on the same cognitive process available for forming concepts and ordering categories in classification processes, how do the simultaneous uses of a concept as a symbol influence ways the concept can be used in various classification processes?

My work explores the cognitive processes revealed in the selection and adjudication of U.S. death penalty cases, and in public responses to debates over retention of the U.S. death penalty. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork among relevant parties to these classification processes: judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, death penalty advocates and opponents, perpetrators’ and victim’s family members—and several incarcerated persons, including death row inmates. My fieldwork attended to implications of cognitive and symbolic interrelations of concept formation and categorization in the parties’ efforts to achieve overlapping, simultaneous purposes. My goal is to suggest what an ethnographic account of these classification processes contributes to theory and method for the questions that animate research in cognitive and symbolic anthropology.

Graduate Center: Can you say something about the environment here at the UA and how it has proved helpful in addressing the “big” questions in your field?

Williams: Interactions with colleagues, students, and staff of the School of Anthropology, and within the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as having access to the University of Arizona Library system, are equally critical to my work on the questions discussed here and any others in the discipline of anthropology.


Don't miss Dr. Williams' talk "Sleeping-Death Protocol in Search of Classificatory Life" on April 30, 2015. For more information and links to a short interview with Dr. Williams by Arizona Public Media, visit: