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William Bissell, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at Lafayette, has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a yearlong research project in Tanzania to complete his book manuscript on the historical anthropology of colonial power and urban planning in Zanzibar.

According to a list of grants released by the NEH, Lafayette is the only college or university in Pennsylvania with two NEH grant recipients this year.

By focusing on the detailed history of urban design and social space in Zanzibar, Bissell’s research reveals colonialism as a far more contradictory and internally conflicted form of power than is generally assumed.

“I seek to develop a novel approach to key questions in the humanities by exploring the relationship between colonialism and the city, space and society, power and practice,” he says. “Within anthropology, there has been a renewed interest in exploring the cultural dynamics of colonial forms and processes. As well, questions of space and place have moved to the forefront of urban studies, social and environmental history, and cultural geography. In my research, I seek to bring these areas of inquiry into critical conjuncture, shedding new light on both colonialism and the city in the process.”

His research has included collaboration with Inku Subedi ’05 (Katmandu, Nepal), a double major in anthropology & sociology and psychology, who helped Bissell finish a historical database on urban properties and residents in Zanzibar’s “Stone Town,” or Mji Mkongwe — the city’s oldest area. She examined tax assessment documents from the mid 1920s through the mid 1990s, which contained detailed information about houses and their occupants.

“He is really patient and he looks at things very objectively,” she says. “He helped keep me on track. One thing I learned is what being an anthropologist entails. It includes work that is sometimes tedious. You look at the end product, and you tend to forget what goes into it.

They worked together through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“Scholarship on colonial Zanzibar – and colonial cities elsewhere – emphasizes the dual and divided nature of urban space,” says Bissell. “Such narratives suggest that race and class were literally inscribed in the built environment, as the city was both separated and segregated – Stone Town or ‘the city proper’ split off from Ng’ambo, the ‘other side,’ Arab from African, elites from ex-slaves, stone mansions from mud huts. My research on Zanzibar suggests that this dualistic depiction of urban form and social life masks a far more complicated and contradictory situation.

“There, as elsewhere, colonial states and elites struggled to impose their vision on the city. In fact, archival and ethnographic analysis reveals the degree to which British officials were frequently frustrated in their attempts to shape a more ‘rational’ and ‘orderly’ urban milieu. From the earliest days of the protectorate, they possessed only an incomplete grasp of the complexities of city space. The unruliness of urban life frequently disrupted their efforts to make the city conform to a grid of abstract legal definitions and bureaucratic rules. Despite decades of work, attempts to achieve a master plan for the city repeatedly collapsed in failure.”

The book will explore the interplay between colonial plans and the more messy realities of urban space, revealing the tensions between ideologies of rule, the built environment, and everyday life. The project is interdisciplinary in scope, drawing on insights from anthropology, history, African studies, architecture and urbanism, colonialism, and cultural studies.

Bissell’s research has been based on extensive use of historical texts and colonial archives in Zanzibar, Britain, and the U.S. Bissell, who is fluent in the Kiswahili language, also draws on his three years of ethnographic fieldwork in Zanzibar. During his return there, he will supplement work in the National Archives with other public sources and private collections.

In addition to the NEH grant, his research in Tanzania will be supported by a one-semester junior faculty leave provided by Lafayette. He will spend the upcoming academic year in Tanzania as well as the following summer.

Bissell has mentored Lafayette students in other research projects as well. For example, he guided Marquis ScholarBeth Ponder ’04 (Oaks, Pa.) in her study of why some infections are more resistant to antibiotic treatment, which she presented last year at the 18th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research, hosted April 15-17 at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, Ind.

“Professor Bissell spent many hours helping me develop my ideas and revise my work,” says Ponder, who graduated with a B.S. in biochemistry and an A.B. with an individualized major in cultural biomedicine. “I doubt this level of personal attention would be available at a larger institution.”

Ponder went on to earn honorable mention from the National Science Foundation for her Graduate Fellowship application. Previously, she received a Goldwater Scholarship, the premier undergraduate award of its type in the fields of mathematics, science, and engineering. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in the microbiology and immunology program at Stanford University.

Bissell also helped guide anthropology and sociology major Joanna Vogel ’06(Ridgewood, N.J.) in research integrating different social sciences theories to analyze the college admissions process.

He has shared his research through many conference presentations and articles in academic journals and books, including an upcoming article, “Engaging Colonial Nostalgia,” in Cultural Anthropology. His previous grants include support from a range of sources, including the Fulbright program, the National Science Foundation, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships, the CASPIC/MacArthur Scholars Fellowships, the University of Chicago, and Lafayette.

Bissell earned his master’s and Ph.D. in anthropology from University of Chicago in 1992 and 1999, respectively. He graduated cum laude from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree while majoring in English literature and earning selection to the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society.

Before joining the Lafayette faculty in 2002, he spent two years as lecturer in social thought and analysis, African and Afro-American studies, and the anthropology department at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Categorized in: Academic News