An eminent anthropologist of Inuit society, Jean L. Briggs (1929-) has been at the forefront of change and innovation in her discipline in many respects. At a time when it was uncommon for women to conduct prolonged and intensive fieldwork in isolated and extreme environments, she conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the eastern and central Canadian Arctic, and briefly, in Siberia. She went to North Alaska in 1961 as a research assistant for Norman Chance, to study child-rearing practices and the roles of women in two rapidly “acculturating Eskimo” villages. Her independent work began in 1963, when, as a Harvard graduate student, she flew to Chantrey Inlet to study the social relations of shamans and discovered only after the plane left that the Utkuhiksalingmiut no longer practiced shamanism. A great success nevertheless, her fieldwork resulted in her first book, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family (1970), and stands as a testament to the flexibility and detailed observation that renders ethnographic research so powerful.
Briggs has explored many aspects of Inuit life, including emotion concepts and emotional behavior, socialization and learning processes, gender, autonomy, cultural change, time orientations, and language. Never in Anger, a model of ethnographic research, instantly became a classic and is currently in its 18th reprinting (2001). Whereas earlier work on Arctic societies was dominated by male researchers and focused primarily on economic and material adaptations to the environment, Briggs’s work provided detailed information on Inuit social and emotional life. Never in Anger was one of the first anthropological studies of culturally patterned emotion concepts and their workings in social life. It not only made a significant contribution to northern anthropological work but was also at the forefront of a new trend in anthropological studies.
Briggs has been an inspiration and role model for northern researchers, psychological anthropologists, and female anthropologists in general. She not only broke the pattern that characterized northern research in the 1960s, she also challenged contemporary anthropology by writing in a reflexive, introspective, narrative mode. In her view, the researcher’s experiences and reactions are a valid and enriching source of data, because, like other people, the researcher “understands” as the result of accumulated experience in many modes: intellectual and emotional, verbal and nonverbal. Interweaving personal experiences with scholarly and astute observations, Briggs provides readers with a lens through which to share the anthropologist’s experience and helps them to understand the crucial role of the ethnographer in writing ethnography. Originally controversial, that style now defines good ethnographic writing.
In “Eskimo Women: Makers of Men” (1974), Briggs examined how femininity and masculinity are shaped in the experiences of Inuit children. While male and female roles are clearly distinguished, they are complementary and of equal value; and most important, each gender may perform with honor the roles appropriate to the other. Briggs contributes to a body of evidence that counters Ortner’s argument regarding the universal subordination of women.
Briggs’s work remains at the cutting edge of investigations into interactions with the environment. She has suggested that Inuit approach both physical and social worlds “as if nothing was ever permanently knowable” and every aspect of life potentially dangerous; analyzes the psychological and behavioral ramifications of this view; and describes how Inuit learn about, and cope with, risk and uncertainty.
One of Briggs’s greatest contributions is her study of socialization. Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old (1998) received the Victor Turner Prize for ethnographic writing and the Boyer Prize for psychoanalytic anthropology in its first year of publication. Briggs’s detailed descriptions and analyses of exaggerated moral dramas, or “morality plays,” illustrate how Inuit children learn not only to recognize but also to become emotionally committed to moral behavior by trying to solve moral problems that they experience as dangerous. The analysis also illuminates the complex dynamics of Inuit autonomy by demonstrating how a morally useful tension is created between autonomy and dependence. Briggs’s research is important not only for understanding Inuit social life but also for more generally understanding the process of learning and the ways in which culture and individuality interact and “create each other” in that process.
Briggs continues to make important contributions and returns regularly to the field. Her ongoing work of compiling an Inuktitut-English dictionary in the Utkuhiksalik (Chantrey Inlet) dialect demonstrates the benefits of longitudinal research, as does her work on cultural change. Her commitment to working with one group of people undergoing tremendous cultural change, as well as her experience of working in several circumpolar communities, gives Briggs’s insight both depth and breadth. Her tenacity for learning and commitment to anthropology have produced works that have both changed the nature of ethnographic research and advanced the understanding of cultural and psychological processes involved in socialization.
In 1966, Jean Briggs joined the Department of Anthropology at Memorial University, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she is now professor emeritus. She was awarded her PhD in anthropology from Harvard University in 1967. She has received numerous accolades besides the Boyer and Victor Turner prizes, including a Simon Professorship at Manchester University in England (1991), a University Research Professorship and a Henrietta Harvey Professorship for Distinguished Research, both at Memorial University (1986-92 and 1994-97), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Bergen in Norway in 1996. She was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. She has given many distinguished and invited lectures and has held many research grants, most recently, two SSHRC grants to facilitate her work on the Utkuhiksalik dictionary. In 2005, Professor Briggs received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Psychological Anthropology—an award given to those whose contributions to psychological anthropology have substantially influenced the field: its research directions, relevance, and visibility. Be it the painstaking detail of dictionary work or the careful and considered insights into Inuit emotional expression, the extraordinarily powerful hallmark of Jean L. Briggs’s work remains the intensive and reflexive observation of her subject matter.
- Briggs, J. L. (1970). Never in anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Briggs, J. L. (1991). Expecting the unexpected: Canadian Inuit training for an experimental lifestyle. Ethos, 19, 259-287.
- Briggs, J. L. (1998). Inuit morality play: The emotional education of a three-year-old. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press and St. John’s: Memorial University, ISER Books.
- Chance, N. (1966). The Eskimo of North Alaska. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Ortner, S. (1974). Is female to male as nature is to culture? In M. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (Eds.), Women, culture, and society (pp. 67-87). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.