Anthropology Professor Wins Prestigious Award for Book on Gender and Markets in Vietnam

Asian Studies program at the College of the Holy Cross, authored “Essential Trade: Vietnamese Women in a Changing Marketplace” (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014).

This engaging examination of the lives and businesses of women market traders through four tumultuous decades was not only well-received, but awarded the prestigious 2016 Harry J. Benda Prize in Southeast Asian Studies by the Association for Asian Studies.

The Benda Prize is given annually to an outstanding scholar from any discipline or country specialization of Southeast Asian studies for a first book in the field.

“The book will certainly influence how anthropologists and historians write about everyday life, citizenship and social identities in Southeast Asia and beyond,” the Benda Prize citation reads.

Using ethnographic fieldwork, life history interviews, and archival materials, “Essential Trade” explores how women cloth and clothing traders in Ho Chi Minh City’s famous Bến Thành market have sold their goods since the end of the war in 1975. It offers a person-centered view of how significant political and economic transformations — first to socialism, then to a market economy — have actually happened in daily life, Leshkowich explains.

“Analytically, ‘Essential Trade’ develops feminist and postcolonial theory on essentialism, subjectivity, and agency to illuminate how that which is purported to be ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ is remade in daily life in ways that are personally meaningful but which also implicitly justify inequalities, especially those of gender and class,” she shares.

Leshkowich became intrigued by the prominent role of women in markets during a study tour to Vietnam in 1988, a time of dramatic socioeconomic change in the country, while completing her undergraduate degree in history at Harvard University. This interest led Leshkowich to graduate studies in social and cultural anthropology, earning an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard.

She eventually returned to Bến Thành market and, more than two decades of research later, lays out her findings in “Essential Trade.”

“Ann Marie Leshkowich’s book ‘Essential Trade’ is an engaging and insightful examination of the political economy of appearances,” reads the citation. “Through an in-depth ethnographic study of Bến Thành market, among other places in South Vietnam, it offers a theoretically sophisticated approach to subjectivity that is ground-breaking in the field of Vietnam studies and Southeast Asian Studies more broadly.”

The major book award, which honors a pioneer in the field of Southeast Asian Studies, has been presented 32 times since 1977.

“It is a tremendous honor to have my work recognized alongside that of path-breaking scholars whose ideas have profoundly shaped my own,” says Leshkowich. “The interdisciplinary nature of the Benda Prize is particularly significant to me, as I strive in my ethnographic research to combine an anthropologist’s concern for the holistic quality of individuals’ daily experiences and perspectives with the historian’s emphasis on the longer term processes that shape the present moment.”

The Benda Prize distinguishes Leshkowich as a leading anthropologist of Vietnam and scholar in Southeast Asian Studies, expresses Jennie Germann Molz, associate professor of sociology and chair of the sociology and anthropology department.

This award reflects the impact Leshkowich is making not only in her field, but also on the Holy Cross community. It continues a trend in the department of sociology and anthropology where the high quality scholarship and teaching of professors has been recognized with four significant national awards in the past four years.

“Our students and colleagues alike benefit enormously from the expertise Professor Leshkowich brings to her courses, to the department, and to the College,” says Germann Molz. “This prestigious award reflects the high caliber of scholarship in our department, and we are delighted that her scholarship has garnered such a well-deserved honor.”

Leshkowich joined the anthropology faculty at Holy Cross in 2000. Her research focuses on gender, economic transformation, neoliberalism, middle classness, fashion, social work, and adoption in Vietnam. In addition to authoring “Essential Trade,” Leshkowich co-edited “Neoliberalism in Vietnam” (special issue of positions: asia critique, 2012) and “Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress” (Berg, 2003). She has also published articles in American Ethnologist, American Anthropologist, positions, Journal of Asian Studies, and Journal of Vietnamese Studies.

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