January 24, 2000
Volume 52, No. 18
Sloan grant establishes new center
by Nancy Seideman
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has approved a $3.6 million grant to establish the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, to be led by anthropologist Bradd Shore.
Since 1995, the foundation has established research and teaching centers on dual-income, middle-class families at four other institutionsCornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. The foundation approached Shore to set up a center that would focus its research and training on the study of ritual and myth in middle-class families in the contemporary American South.
"The Emory/Sloan center is an exciting intellectual endeavor that will reach across the arts and sciences and into a number of our professional schools," said Provost Rebecca Chopp. "By bringing together scholars and students from different schools and centering around a related set of important questions, this center so ably directed by Professor Shore will contribute to Emory's intellectual community, and Emory, in turn, will contribute to what we know about the American family."
A major reason the Sloan Foundation approached Emory about establishing such a center, Shore said, is because of the "outstanding group of anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists" at or affiliated with the University. The research of eight to 10 Emory scholars will be funded for an initial three years by the center, along with up to 14 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Unique to Emory's center will be its incorporation of undergraduate research funding.
Shore is a cultural anthropologist whose areas of expertise include culture and cognition, myth and ritual, religion, and language. "At first, people are always puzzled by the very idea that one can actually study 'myth' and 'ritual' in middle-class American life," he said. "People sometimes assume that myth and ritual only matter in small-scale, 'traditional' societies, but not in our own lives."
His initial challenge was to rethink the meaning and significance of myth and ritual in a modern American family setting. "It doesn't take much reflection to see the basic themes of ritual and mythproviding a framework for the coordination of time, of activities and of meaning in our lives," Shore said. "These themes are all very much in play in modern life."
Shore points out that people's struggles to balance home and work obligations, the increasing role of mass media in creating modern myths, the growth of culturally and religiously "mixed" marriages, the changing role of organized religion for American families, and the proliferation of novel forms of communication all challenge traditional meanings and functions of myth and ritual.
In addition to overseeing the new Sloan Center, Shore is the distinguished teaching chair in the sciences and social sciences in the college. His early research focused on conflict and social control in western Samoa. In his new book, Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning, Shore examines the psychological implications of many familiar American institutions, such as baseball, for defining a distinctively American "frame of mind."