Faculty spotlight on Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rose Wellman

October 14, 2021

Enjoy the following Q&A with Prof. Wellman as she talks about the publication of her book and her current research.

(This Q&A was conducted by the Director of the Center for Arab American Studies Sally Howell, and first appeared in the October 2021 CAAS newsletter.)

Congratulations on the recent publication of your book, Feeding Iran: Shi`i Families and the Making of the Islamic Republic. I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading it, but it looks like a fascinating inside look at how some Iranian families contribute to the Islamic identity of the country through their everyday domestic rituals and chores. I am curious about the linkages you draw between homelife, food traditions, and state power. Can you explain?

Thank you for your question, Sally! My book is about how families and state elites in Iran are employing blood, food, and prayer – the “stuff” of kinship –  in commemorations for martyrs in Islamic national rituals to create the right kind of citizens who embody familial piety, purity, and closeness to God. I have always been fascinated by kinship. It is one of those things that is more than it seems. I question the idea that kinship is only about genealogy or blood ties. I also question the idea that kinship is only relevant at home, or within domestic spaces. Instead, I contend that kinship in Iran, elsewhere in the Middle East (and its diaspora), and beyond is relevant to politics, gendered hierarchies, and state power. It is a source of state legitimacy and naturalizations.

How do you share this research with students in the classroom? What is their response? What other texts do you enjoy teaching here in Dearborn?

I share my research with my students in the classroom almost every day. Sometimes, I give my students a first-hand view of the theories I work with – whether the focus is kinship, religion, Islam, or global power relations. I don’t use textbooks but instead give students a lot of diverse articles to read and think about. Authors we read include Edward Said, Talal Asad, Lara Deeb, Moustafa Bayoumi, Lila Abu-Lughod, Janet Carsten, Philip Bourgois, Seth Holmes, and many others. Often, I provide examples from my experiences conducting fieldwork in Iran, a country predominantly composed of Shi’i Muslims. These experiences have led me to develop area specific courses for the Dearborn campus, including the Anthropology of the Middle East (ANTH 373) and Islamophobia (ANTH 312). My classrooms are always participatory and collaborative. And I often include fieldwork and other anthropological research methods. Students hone their cross-cultural competence and observational skills. They often tell me that this is extremely helpful in their careers, whether they are pre-health, pre-business, or future anthropologists!

I know you are developing a new research project set here among the local Iraqi community. How is that going? What are the main questions you are asking? How does this project connect to your work in Iran? 

My future research draws from my previous studies of Shi`as in Iran to explore Iraqi Shi`i refugees in Greater Detroit. This project was one of my foremost motivations for joining the faculty at UM-Dearborn, and I’m thrilled to be getting it off the ground. In particular, I am interested in exploring how Iraqi refugees, displaced from their war-torn homeland, are making home and making kinship as against the backdrop (and trauma) of displacement, American Islamophobia, foreign policy in the Middle East, and state securitization efforts. (Shi`i Iraqis in Greater Detroit number in the tens of thousands and maintain more than 15 active mosques). I’m excited to pursue this new project!

And you are also working on a project in Wayne County that encourages school districts to finally count their Arab American students using the proposed Middle Eastern/North African census category. How is this work going? Why is this important? 

In 2019, I began participating in a forum of interdisciplinary researchers who aim to disaggregate, create, and standardize a better MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) identity category. Our aim is to help school districts in southeastern Michigan count and better serve their diverse student populations, including their MENA and Arab students. In partnership with ACCESS and a team of researchers specializing in MENA research, we hope to explore current data collection methods and barriers to data collection in our area. The goal is to develop and pilot a new identity tool that standardizes and disaggregates an Arab and MENA identity category in local school districts. We hope that this tool will eventually be adopted state-wide and that it will aid in the identification of vulnerable populations, allowing school districts to better plan for and meet the needs of their student populations. Our work is currently underway, and we are in conversation with 9 districts across Wayne County who hope to spearhead the use of a MENA category in their enrollments.