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Sydel Silverman papers

Silverman, Sydel  Search this
American Anthropological Association  Search this
City University of New York  Search this
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research  Search this
24.96 Linear feet (59 document boxes plus 1 oversize box)
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
Monte Castello di Vibio (Italy)
bulk 1949-2010
The Sydel Silverman papers, 1939-2010 (bulk 1949-2010) document her field research in Italy, her work as an educator and foundation executive, and her involvement in professional organizations. Sydel Silverman taught at Queens College in New York, was Executive Officer of the CUNY Ph.D. Program in Anthropology, and served as president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Her primary fields of research have been agrarian communities in Italy and the history and practice of anthropology. Materials in the collection include field notes, journals, correspondence, calendars, published and unpublished writings, conference papers and lectures, teaching files, student files, photographs and slides, and sound recordings.
Scope and Contents:
This collection contains the professional papers of anthropologist Sydel Silverman. Included are research materials consisting of field notes, journals, other scholars' publications, and newspaper clippings; correspondence; postcards; calendars; published and unpublished writings; conference papers and lectures; brochures; itineraries; conference meeting notes; teaching files, including syllabi and reading lists; student files such as class notes and papers from Silverman's years as an anthropology student; photographs and slides; and sound recordings.

The materials in this collection document Silverman's travels through Italy while conducting field research, her role as an educator and academic administrator, and her involvement in professional organizations such as the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the American Anthropological Association. Silverman participated heavily in conferences and seminars across the U.S. and internationally. A copious note taker, Silverman recorded her reflections on many of these experiences. Her notes can be found throughout the collection.

Please note that the contents of the collection and the language and terminology used reflect the context and culture of the time of its creation. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology and considered offensive today. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or National Anthropological Archives, but is available in its original form to facilitate research.
The collection is organized into 10 series: (1) Field Research, 1939-2002 [bulk 1960-1987]; (2) Correspondence, 1959-2009; (3) Writings, 1963-2009; (4) Wenner-Gren Foundation Files, 1985-2009; (5) Professional Activities, 1961-2010; (6) Teaching Files, 1958-2005; (7) Biographical Files, 1961-2008; (8) Student Files, 1949-65; (9) Photographs, 1961-2002; (10) Sound Recordings, 1960-61
Biographical Note:
Sydel Silverman was an anthropologist known for her work as a researcher, writer, academic administrator, and foundation executive. Her career in anthropology began with her graduate studies at the University of Chicago (1952-1957) and Columbia University (1957-63). After graduation she started teaching at Queens College in New York (1962-75) and became Executive Officer of the CUNY Ph.D. Program in Anthropology (1975-86). After leaving CUNY, she moved on to the Wenner-Gren Foundation, serving as president of the Foundation from 1987 to 1999.

Silverman was born on May 20, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois. Sydel, the youngest of seven siblings, was raised in the Jewish neighborhood of Lawndale on the west side of Chicago. Silverman credited her Uncle Hirschel for inspiring her to learn about foreign cultures and traditions, writing that her time spent with him reading about mysticism and oriental religions "may have been the beginnings of what became my interest in anthropology" (Silverman 2008).

Silverman graduated from high school in January 1951 and entered the University of Illinois at Navy Pier as a pre-med student. At the end of her second year at the University of Illinois, she entered the University of Chicago's program in Committee on Human Development, which combined study in biology, psychology, and sociology-anthropology. The program allowed students to enter with only two years of college with a special exam, which Silverman passed. She completed her Masters in 1957 and enrolled in the PhD program in Anthropology at Columbia University, during which she decided to focus her research on central Italy.

Silverman's first experience in Italy was in 1955 when she spent a year traveling through Europe with her first husband, Mel Silverman. They moved from city to city, beginning in Naples and then Rome, the city that Sydel writes was "the instant beginning of my love affair with Italy" (Silverman 2008). Upon their return from Europe the couple moved to New York. Sydel began working as a secretary but she soon decided to go back to school. She "picked anthropology, because it was the closest thing to being multi-disciplinary while still having a label, and Columbia was the obvious place to go in New York" (Silverman 2008). She was inspired to focus on the Mediterranean for her fieldwork because of Conrad Arensberg's cultural anthropological work in Europe.

In August of 1960 Sydel left for Italy to conduct a community study of the village Montecastello di Vibio. Silverman confessed in her memoirs that she was "never good at fieldwork," but she formed relationships with many of the locals who helped her collect data for her dissertation. Her research in Italy was one of the first social-anthropological studies of Central Italy and is known for its description of the traditional agrarian system of that area (the mezzadria) shortly before it was abolished by law. Silverman's dissertation research resulted in a book, Three Bells of Civilization, and numerous journal articles. She was awarded her Ph.D. in 1963.

Silverman's subsequent research in Italy included a study of a land reform area in the South (1967) and several field seasons (1980-85) devoted to a comparative study of competitive festivals in Central Italy. Most notable from this work are her publications on the Palio of Siena.

Silverman's other primary research interest has been in the history and practice of anthropology. She edited Totems and Teachers (1981, rev. 2004), a text about prominent anthropologists, and co-authored One Discipline Four Ways (2005). Her book The Beast on the Table (2002) analyzes twenty-five international symposia that she organized and led while at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and is a record of the living history of anthropology. She later became interested in parallels between the history of anthropology and that of the movies, which she presented as the 2006 Distinguished Lecture to the American Anthropological Association (published in The American Anthropologist Volume 109, Issue 3). In addition, she initiated an effort to save the primary documents of anthropology, co-authoring with Nancy Parezo the book Preserving the Anthropological Record (1992, rev. 1995) and co-organizing CoPAR (the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records).

Silverman's career as an administrator began in 1970 when she was elected as departmental chair at Queens College. In 1975 she was chosen as the Executive Officer of the CUNY Ph.D. Program in Anthropology, and under her leadership the program went from disarray and the threat of elimination to being cited as one of the ten top anthropology doctoral programs in the country. She also led a successful effort to retain full anthropology departments at all the senior CUNY colleges during the New York City budget crises of 1965-76. In 1987 she was appointed president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and acted as the spokesperson for the Foundation, overseeing fellowship and grant funding and advocating for the field of anthropology. She retired from Wenner-Gren in 1999.

Silverman died of cancer on March 25, 2019 at age 85.

Sources Consulted

Silverman, Sydel. 2008. "Memoirs." Sydel Silverman Papers: Box 42. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Roberts, Sam. "Sydel Silverman, 85, Dies; Defended Anthropology in Academia." New York Times, April 5, 2019.


1933 -- Born May 20 in Chicago, Illinois

1951 -- January: Entered University of Illinois at Navy Pier, pre-med, through August 1952

1952 -- Entered University of Chicago, Program in Human Development

1953 -- December 27: Married Mel Silverman

1957 -- September: Entered Columbia University, Department of Anthropology Received M.A. from University of Chicago

1960-1961 -- Conducted fieldwork in Montecastello di Vibio

1962 -- September: Began teaching classes at Queens College, CUNY

1963 -- PhD awarded

1966 -- Mel Silverman died

1968 -- Fall semester: Acting Chairman, Dept. of Anthro., Queens Tenure awarded, Queens College

1970-1973 -- Department Chairman, Anthropology, Queens

1972 -- March 18: Married Eric R. Wolf

1975 -- Executive Officer of Ph.D. Program in Anthropology, CUNY Graduate School (through June 1982)

1980-1982 -- Festival research and travels in Italy: Siena, Perugia, Gubbio, Rome, Florence, Geneva

1982-1983 -- September: Acting Dean of the Graduate School, CUNY

1987 -- President of Wenner-Gren Foundation

1999 -- Eric R. Wolf died Retired from Wenner-Gren presidency

2019 -- Silverman died of cancer on March 25 at age 85

Selected Bibliography

1968 -- Silverman, Sydel F. "Agricultural Organization, Social Structure, and Values in Italy: Amoral Familism Reconsidered." American Anthropologist 70 (February 1968): 1-20.

1970 -- Silverman, Sydel F. "'Exploitation' in Rural Central Italy: Structure and Ideology in Stratification Study." Comparative Studies in Society and History 12 (July 1970): 327-339.

1975 -- Silverman, Sydel. Three Bells of Civilization: the Life of an Italian Hill Town. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

1976 -- Silverman, Sydel. "Anthropology and the Crisis at CUNY." Anthropology News 17, no.10 (December 1976): 7-10.

1981 -- Silverman, Sydel, ed. Totems and Teachers: Key Figures in the History of Anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

1984 -- Silverman, Sydel. "Anthropological Perspectives on Suicide." In Suicide: The Will to Live vs. The Will to Die, edited by Norman Linzer, 225-233. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1984.

1986 -- Silverman, Sydel. "Anthropology and History: Understanding the Boundaries." Historical Methods 19 (Summer 1986): 123-126.

1992 -- Silverman, Sydel and Nancy J. Parezo, eds. Preserving the Anthropological Record. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1992.

2002 -- Silverman, Sydel. The Beast on the Table: Conferencing with Anthropologists. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.
These papers were donated to the National Anthropological Archives by Sydel Silverman in April 2011.
Files containing Silverman's students' grades and papers have been restricted, as have grant and fellowships applications sent to Silverman to review and her comments on them. For preservation reasons, the computer disks from The Beast on the Table are also restricted.

Access to the Sydel Silverman papers requires an appointment.
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Women anthropologists  Search this
Anthropology  Search this
Festivals  Search this
Ethnology  Search this
Village Communities  Search this
Agriculture  Search this
Sydel Silverman papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
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Sydel Silverman papers
Archival Repository:
National Anthropological Archives
Online Media:

Three bells of civilization : the life of an Italian hill town / Sydel Silverman

Silverman, Sydel  Search this
Physical description:
xvi, 263 p., [8] leaves of plates : ill. ; 24 cm
Monte Castello di Vibio (Italy)
Social life and customs  Search this
Civilization  Search this
Data Source:
Smithsonian Libraries

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