Steven Piker

Professor of Anthropology
   And Foreign Study Adviser



  • Research
    • Theravada Buddhism
    • Thailand
    • Religious conversion
  • Teaching
    • The Only Good Indian......
    • Culture, Illness, and health
    • The Triumph of the Therapeutic
    • Religion in Lives and Culture
    • Psychological Anthropology
    • Evolution, Culture, and Creativity




  • Committees
  • Department Chair
  • Foreign Study Adviser
  • Evaluation of outside departments and foreign study programs

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore PA 19081


(O) 610 328-8111, 8451





My anthropological research began with a year of dissertation field work, conducted by myself and my wife Eleanor Ryan, in the Thai Central Plains rice farming village of Baan Oi (Sugar Cane Village).  The main foci of the research were, A)  child rearing practices and personality development;  B) popular religion(there, Theravada Buddhism);  C)  local social history, going back to the early parts of the 19th century; and, D) a 'village study,' dedicated to uncovering and relating the socioeconomic fabric of village life.  Two separate years were devoted to this research, separated by a four year absence.  This made possible longitudinal child rearing studies, as we were able - during the second year - to look at the same village children four years later in their lives.

Although profound social change had been occurring in our Central Plain region for generations, it was still possible, when we were there, to see the traditional culture/personality/religion fit.  Somewhere along the line I decided that, as a follow up to this, I wanted to  look at 'misfit.'  Of what might this consist?  I decided that religious conversion -a right angle bend in one's religious career - provided a fine case in point of this.  More recently in my career, I have been taking a look at religious conversion in the contemporary United States.  The main idea has been to collect full, not just religious, biographies of converts, with the purpose of trying to identify both continuities and discontinuities over the conversion experience.  It turns out that membership in certain new religious movements(or 'cults')marks one as a religious convert.  I've spent some time with members of the Unification Church, as well as a non-federated and relatively new fundamentalist Protestant group in the exurbia of an East Coast city, and a new religious movement of, broadly, Christian orientation founded and led by an acknowledged(by his followers)religious prophet.  Although I did not so initially intend, this work brought me into contact as well with the anti-cult movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which itself was of considerable anthropological interest.

My 'school' affiliation within anthropology was. originally, with culture and personality, which field has since morphed into a diversified 'psychological anthropology, in which the legacies of early culture and personality are but one part. This remains a main orientation for me. To it has been added social theory and evolutionary science. Always(at least in important part)the reductionist, I originally supposed that psychology was the court of last explanatory recourse for the issues that interest me most. Without relinquishing this interpretive bent, I have come more recently to suppose that evolution and human biology are, finally, the homes of the fundamental explanations. This, however, keeps me connected to my original interests in ontogeny. We are one species, biologically . Culturally elaborated human behavior is endlessly diverse from time to time and place to place. Since variability cannot be explained by reference to a constant, there must be a transformational process by which our shared biologically rooted potential for culturality is transformed into the innumerable specific cultural expressions that history has produced. This transformational process must unfold ontogenetically.

Since 1992, my Swarthmore College employment has been divided about equally between teaching in the College's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and serving as foreign study adviser for the College's newly adopted semester/year abroad program. The foreign study job has, in many ways, drawn upon much from both my teaching and research experiences. So also has it, unexpectedly, openned up for me a new area of scholarly endeavor, viz., the design of the assignment/writing components of 'unconventional' foreign study programs which feature field work and community based learning.


As my CV shows, my teaching has been all over the map. But a couple of common threads run through it, right from the beginning at Carleton College in 1964. One is subject matter areas. I started out, mainly, with culture and personality(psychological anthropology), anthropology of religion, and psychocultural evolution(the latter very much under the influence of Hallowell's seminal papers of the 1950s). In one packaging or another, I have stayed with this. And the more recent mainstays of my teaching - e.g., medical anthropology, field research methods - have arisen directly from the earlier commitments. The second is that, with the exception of graduate school, since age seventeen years I have been nowhere but small, selective liberal arts colleges(Reed as an undergraduate, two years at Carleton, since then at Swarthmore). And I have imbibed the educational culture of these places to the extent that it is part of my life's blood. A main part of this educational culture is the challenge of teaching unusually bright, engaged, and intellectual students. I say 'teaching.' 'Fostering learning' might be a better expression for what we actually do, if we are successful, as teachers in these places. In important part, it is a matter of selecting course content that is commensurate with the talents and aspirations of our students. So also, and especially, is it a matter of cultivating relationships with students, including but not restricted to instructional formats, which will enable these remarkably talented young people to go where their extraordinary talents can take them. No part of my career has been more rewarding for me than the teaching part, and the ever renewable opportunities it has provided for deeply meaningful association with both students and faculty colleagues who are stellar - both academically and personally.

And......Swarthmore's Department of Sociology and Anthropology was founded during the academic year 1965-66, and I joined the new department as its first anthropologist during the academic year 1966-67. It was, therefore, my privilege - and pleasure(!) - at a very early stage in my career to get in on the ground floor of a new department, and have a hand in its establishment and early development. And ever since it has been my privilege - and pleasure(!) - to grow up professionally, and I suspect in other ways as well, with the department and the wonderful colleagues that it has provided for me.

Current Courses (click on course title to access syllabus)

  1. The Only Good Indian......
  2. Culture, Illness, and Health
  3. The Triumph of the Therapeutic
  4. Religion in Lives and Culture
  5. Psychological Anthropology
  6. Evolution, Culture, and Creativity (syllabus not currently available)


At Carleton and Swarthmore Colleges I have been mainly a teaching faculty member. There has been, as well, some administrative work.

1) Committees.

Most of this has been the routine penny ante stuff that faculty members at Carleton and Swarthmore are expected to do. The occasional exceptions included chairing the committees that developed Swarthmore's Black Studies and Asian Studies Programs, serving on committees that nominated, respectively, a president and a provost, and serving on Swarthmore's Council on Educational Policy. And, although it wasn't in a committee capacity, I was one of two faculty members who spearheaded the establishment of Swarthmore's Program in Linguistics.

2) Department Chair

I served as chair of Swarthmore's Department of Sociology and Anthropology for eleven years. To be sure, there were some vexing moments during those eleven years. But, overall, it was a wonderful and fulfilling experience for me. As with so much that we do at Swarthmore, many of the best parts of it flowed from association with special people, including especially other faculty members of the department(but also two provosts, the provost being the officer of the College to whom department chairs report). In practical terms, the most important part of this was personnel decisions, all of which during this period - happily - were happy in their outcomes: new appointments that worked out superbly, positive reappointment and tenure decisions. Being able closely to watch colleagues whom one deeply likes and admires develop professionally, and maybe to have just a little bit of a facilitating hand in this......well, as the Old Milwaukee beer ad on TV used to say, "It doesn't get any better than that(!)"

3) Foreign Study Adviser

Since 1992, about half of my Swarthmore work time has been spent as foreign study adviser. The sole responsibility of the College's foreign study office, which I head, has been to implement the College's semester/year abroad program. This requires working, on a regular basis, with, e.g., the academic departments and programs of the College, other administrative offices of the College, colleagues in foreign study offices at other American colleges and universities, colleagues overseas who direct and teach in programs attending by our students, and foreign study professional associations - all in the service of fostering study abroad on the part of Swarthmore students that makes good educational sense for them and is commensurate with the College's educational mission and standards. Very often the best and most creative study abroad done by our students involves at once building upon what they have done at Swarthmore and going well beyond what they could do with this beginning with work available at Swarthmore. And, often, returned foreign study students build upon their study abroad with senior year work at the College including especially senior theses. The foreign study work connects integrally with key issues in my anthropology career, viz., generally, working toward understanding the culturally other; and, specifically, confronting the challenges and capitalizing on the opportunities of living in another culture. So also does it involve extensive essentially academic advising of students - those who do foreign study - and this connects with and extends central parts of my teaching career at Carleton and Swarthmore. In all of this foreign study work, my close working colleague and good friend has been Rosa Bernard, our Foreign Study Coordinator. Truth be told, Rosa makes it all happen.

4) Evaluation of Outside Departments and Foreign Study Programs

An especially rewarding feature of our involvement in the university without walls has us consulting, in an evaluative capacity, with colleagues at other institutions about the work that they do. It's been my privilege(and pleasure!)to serve in this capacity for departments of sociology and anthropology(or just anthropology)at seven liberal arts colleges - each at once distinctive in its own right and a member of the same taxon as Swarthmore. As well, I have performed this task for a number of foreign study programs in, e.g., Italy, Vietnam, Turkey, China, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Costa Rica, and Greece. And I have consulted, re foreign study program content and organization, with the American home offices of a handful of foreign study programs.