Office Hours with Carolyn Sargent
As a child growing up in Da Lat, Vietnam, sociocultural anthropology professor Carolyn Sargent was not surrounded by the usual landscaped lawns and paved culs-de-sac of suburbia. For six years of her childhood, Sargent lived amidst the lush mountains and dirt paths of Southeast Asia with her dad, a political scientist specializing in Southeast Asian governments. While abroad, Sargent encountered a world foreign to most children and adults, a world that is now embedded in who she has become today.
Reflecting back to that time, Sargent recalled, “I was standing on my bedroom balcony with my dad, and I was watching some of the tribal people who were moving from one village to another off on a hill in the distance. They were carrying all their household goods, their babies, weapons, and so forth and moving villages. I thought it looked so cool, and I asked my dad if we could follow them since they were walking up a dirt path on a mountain. He said no, but if I wanted to do that kind of thing, I could once I grew up.”
If that moment didn’t help to solidify Sargent’s interest in anthropology at a young age, her friendship with another young girl did. Sargent used to observe her friend caring for her younger siblings as she carried one of them on her hip. Although Sargent was not allowed to go outside the walled compound she lived in, the two girls would try to talk to each other through the back fence.
“I always would imagine what her house was like because I was never allowed to go over there,” Sargent said. “I think it all cultivated a curiosity about what it would be like to be someone else, to be from somewhere else, to live somewhere else—just to imagine their world.”
This curiosity endured, and today Sargent does more than just imagine other people’s lives; she studies them.
Sargent, a sociocultural anthropology and women, gender and sexuality studies professor at Wash. U., has been devoted to her field ever since those key childhood experiences. She studied anthropology, French, Japanese and international relations as an undergraduate, then went on to receive her master’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Manchester in England and a doctorate in anthropology from Michigan State University.
“I always thought I would study Asia, but I went off to Africa when I finished my master’s,” Sargent said. “I had a college boyfriend in the Peace Corps in West Africa whom I went to visit. The Peace Corps needed someone to do research on an agriculture project, so they hired me, and I became a Peace Corps volunteer by the back door without any training, which got me really interested in Africa.”
During the three years she worked in the Republic of Benin with the Peace Corps, Sargent spent her spare time at maternity clinics. She would often spend the first half of her day conducting formal interviews of women, speaking about their reproductive history or questioning local midwives about their practices.
The rest of her day would be spent doing “participant observation,” which Sargent described as “professional hanging out—it’s where I spend time with women who were basically my friends. I cook with them, make butter with them, wash babies with them. In other words, I try to learn by doing.”
Fascinated by what she saw and learned while in Africa, Sargent later chose to do her Ph.D. dissertation on how women make choices about reproductive health and the changing medical systems in West Africa. Although her childhood experiences inspired her pursuit of anthropology, it was not until she joined the Peace Corps that she began to explore women’s health.
“My Peace Corps experience involved being in a Muslim society where it was very much expected that I would hang out with women, and women and men don’t casually socialize, so I got really imbedded in the women’s social world, which I found really enjoyable,” Sargent said.
After six years in the Republic of Benin, Sargent briefly studied in Jamaica and is currently pursuing studies in France focusing on West African immigration. Since 2000, Sargent has worked in several French hospitals and family planning clinics studying the discourse around family size and contraception. She is involved with a French university laboratory in the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences that deals with political, economic, social and health issues.
“My argument is that there’s a lot of pressure put on immigrants, North African and West African, to use contraception, sometimes without very much explanation,” Sargent said. “[The women] might be given the pill and encouraged to take it with suggestions like ‘This will help you rest for a few months’ or ‘This will give your uterus a chance to rest.’”
Sargent also researches the role of midwives who work to educate woman on the benefits of contraception and how to handle husbands who may not be supportive of their wives’ birth control decisions. However, there is a religious aspect involved as well.
“The final part is an understanding among many of the immigrants that their religion, Islam, does not permit contraception,” Sargent explained. “In fact, it does at the level of theologians in major capitals of the Middle East, who have come out in favor of [contraception]. But, people who only have a popular understanding of religion think that it is not okay.”
As Sargent continues to explore contraception use in France, back in the United States, she is a leader in her field. Besides teaching courses on global gender issues and transnational reproductive health, she has served two terms as the president of the Society for Medical Anthropology, a unit of the American Anthropological Association. Currently, Sargent is helping to plan the first international society for medical anthropology with the European Association for Medical Anthropology. The international meeting is scheduled for next June in Tarragona, Spain, and Sargent hopes the meeting will draw medical anthropologists from all over the world.
Not only is Sargent a leader in her field, but her husband of 30 years and a professor of archaeology at Wash. U., David Freidel, is also a leading expert on the Maya. After meeting at Southern Methodist University where they were colleagues, both were hired as professors at Wash. U.
Freidel enjoys working with his wife and admires Sargent’s teaching style and ability to connect with her students and the people around her.
“Her capacity to gain the confidence of people is a really important dimension of her personality,” Freidel said. “She’s a person that people want to trust and have reason to trust. So she finds out about life by talking to them.”
Besides teaching, Sargent and Freidel also spend their time mentoring students.
“She is a kind and attentive mentor to students at every level of their education, from people coming in for their first year in college to people who are out of graduate school and are working on getting jobs,” Friedel said of his wife. “It’s a great privilege that I share with her that we mentor people who are going to become professional social scientists and academicians. She has a very large number of people in her life who look to her for advice and counseling on how to proceed in not only their academics but in their personal lives as well.”
One of Sargent’s mentees is second-year graduate student Adrienne Strong, who studies maternal mortality and health care seeking behaviors of pregnant women in rural areas in Tanzania. Strong says Sargent is the main reason she chose to study at Wash. U.
“I think a really good mentor is someone who pushes you to keep trying even when you don’t want to,” Strong said. “They know how good you can be, and they don’t stop until you get to that point. Carolyn and I are still early in that relationship, but she’s definitely helping me look further and think more about things. I appreciate the conversations that we’ve had.”
Sargent’s investment in the Wash. U. community is due to her great appreciation for her colleagues and students.
“I really find my colleagues to be harmonious and congenial and intellectually stimulating.” Sargent said. “I think that the students are exceptional, that they are sometimes exhaustively driven. Of course, it is really a pleasure for a professor to have students who read carefully and ask such good questions, and can really engage in critical thinking.”