John Borneman


John Borneman, professor of anthropology and director of the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society, will transfer to emeritus status in 2022 after twenty-one years on the Princeton faculty. The son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, John was drawn back to the academy after deciding to nurture his fierce intellect over his equestrian ambitions. By the time he transitioned to emeritus status in 2022, John had become one of the most well recognized, groundbreaking theorists within the subfields of legal, political, and psychological anthropology. His analytical creativity, methodological rigor, and wide-ranging anthropological interventions have been motivated by a driving interest in the relationship between authority and intimacy. John’s work also addresses the question of how anthropologists can make cultural claims given a researcher’s own subjectivities. His writings on reflexivity and ethnographic methods remain some of the most nuanced and incisive interventions in the discipline of anthropology. 

John entered the field of anthropology after earning a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master of arts in political science from the University of Washington. Describing his decision to switch to anthropology, John said in the 2015 documentary, Listening as a Radical Act, that he was interested in “experience itself and the empirical as opposed to simply abstractions like opinion research or statistics.” In 1989, John graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. in anthropology. His dissertation, an ethnography of German subjectivity in a divided Berlin, became the basis for his second of nine books, Belonging in the Two Berlins: Kin, State, Nation (Cambridge University Press, 1992). 

Anthropology’s attunement to open discovery and researcher reflexivity were critical methodological approaches that inspired his first published monograph, After the Wall: East Meets West in the New Berlin (Basic Books, 1991). After the Wall is an extraordinary ethnographic record of the changes to the lives of Germans after the Autumn Revolution in 1989, during the unification of East and West Germany. John’s decision to focus on people’s everyday experiences was an attempt to turn the end of communism, something very abstract, into something concrete. This approach to understanding political thought and social movements through careful analysis of the interplay between affect, ideology, and culture came to define his entire career. His other books on Germany include Sojourners: The Return of German-Jews and the Question of Identity (co-authored with Jeffery Peck, University of Nebraska Press, 1995); Settling Accounts: Violence, Justice, and Accountability in Postsocialist Europe (Princeton University Press, 1997); Subversions of International Order: Studies in the Political Anthropology of Culture (State University of New York Press, 1998); and Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany (University of Chicago Press, 2015). 

In 2001, John was recruited from his position as professor of anthropology at Cornell University, where he had been since 1991, to Princeton. Following this move, he began ethnographic research in Lebanon and Syria. Adding these field sites allowed him to investigate political authority and its relationship to local patterns of intimacy outside of the West. The monographs that emerged from that research include Syrian Episodes: Sons, Fathers, and an Anthropologist in Aleppo (Princeton University Press, 2007), Al-jinayah al-siyasiyyah wal-silm al-ijtimaei (Rabat: Dar Tubqal lil-Nashar, 2007), and Political Crime and the Memory of Loss (Indiana University Press, 2011), which is a comparative analysis of Germany and Lebanon.  

In addition to his nine books, John edited six volumes. Reflecting his decades of dedicated student mentorship, he co-edited one volume with his former graduate student Kelley McKowen (Digesting Difference: Migrant Incorporation and Mutual Belonging, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and one volume comprises essays written by Princeton University undergraduates who took his PIIRS Global Seminar in Berlin (Encounters with Otherness in Berlin: Xenophobia, Xenophilia, and Identification, Princeton University: Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, 2017). John also published over ninety-two peer reviewed articles and book chapters and co-produced a film in 1993, Sojourners: The Return of German-Jews and the Question of Identity in East Germany. Sojourners was screened as recently as 2016 at nd-Filmclub in Berlin. He produced this stunning body of scholarship while also generously serving on a range of boards and committees for Princeton University and for the discipline of anthropology in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. 

Throughout his career, John received the recognition befitting someone as theoretically generative and prolific as he was. He received two Fulbright professorships as well as a long list of prestigious grants, fellowships, residencies, and prizes. At Cornell, John was honored with an Appel Teaching Award. In addition to his tenured positions, John was a lecturer at Harvard University (1989-90) and the University of California-San Diego (1990-91). He was also a guest professor at Humboldt University of Berlin (1994-95), University of Bergen (1995), Stockholm University (1995), University of California-Berkeley (1999), University of Aleppo (Fulbright Senior Scholar, 2004-5), and King’s College London (2014). 

For two decades, John’s trailblazing scholarship in legal and political anthropology helped define how the Department of Anthropology fit within the larger universe of socio-cultural anthropology. In addition, his teaching inspired numerous undergraduates to major in anthropology. Finally, John held a unique position within our department. He was the generous colleague who enjoyed connecting people and sparking intellectual debate by opening his house to lively dinner parties where he cooked the most extraordinary dishes featuring cuisine from around the world. This openness to difference, knowledge of history and culture, and insatiable curiosity about the world is what his partner, anthropologist Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi, said attracts people to John wherever he travels. Parvis wrote, “Today, John has a fieldwork network of friends, acquaintances, interlocutors, which has grown large. He insists on keeping in contact with people of all walks of life and in more recent times, many Syrian and other refugees, some of whom he met initially in Aleppo and Damascus in their childhoods, or later in Turkey. His curiosity and persistence to communicate openly is tenacious and unflinching.”  

Given how John’s passion for people has been foundational to his prolific career, it is hard to imagine that John’s transition to emeritus status is anything other than a chance for him to continue his scholarship elsewhere. 

Written by members of the Department of Anthropology faculty.