Professor Catherine Allen conducting field work in Peru in 2000.

Dr. Catherine Allen

Faculty: Emeriti

Professor Emerita of Anthropology and International Affairs

Catherine Allen was born in Oakridge, Tennessee and moved to Shoreham, Long Island early in her childhood.  Allen attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, remembering, “It was a very good intellectual formation.  I really treasure the attitude toward learning that I developed there and toward teaching.  Teaching really is trying to be an example of a more experienced learner.”

Her interest in anthropology sparked even before she began college with an early childhood interest in archaeology.  Allen remarks, “It was sort of a conflict between being a writer and being an archaeologist.”  Her early academic experiences centered on classical archaeology, studying Greek and other classical orientations.  “I did start to get the feeling that I might find classics, as a field, more confining or narrowly defined than I wanted.  At that point, I started to look at cultural anthropology.  And the more I found out about anthropology, the more I liked it.” 

Following her graduation from St. John’s, Allen attended graduate school at the University of Illinois, eventually earning her Ph.D. in anthropology with distinction.  Working under Dutch anthropologist and ethno-historian Tom Zuidema, she began her research in Cuzco, Peru, initially planning to study the pre-Columbian iconography but later focusing the bulk of her research energy on ethnography and ethno-history of the Andes.  Her publication history demonstrates her investment in the area, including The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community (first edition 1988 with a second expanded edition in 2002), Condor Qatay: Anthropology in Performance, with Nathan Garner (1996), and Foxboy: Intimacy and Aesthetics in Andean Stories in 2011.

Professor Allen came to the George Washington University in 1978. She remembers the Anthropology Department as a “family-like place with tight knit bonds.”  The department was small at that time and focused primarily on teaching, allowing Professor Allen to develop her pedagogical skills and instruct a variety of courses and seminars.  Initially hired on three-year contracts, she moved to a tenure track and received tenure in 1990, and served as the Chair of the Department of Anthropology from 1995 to 1998 and from 2007 to 2010.  The Anthropology Department has grown considerably over that time, both in numbers and in research activity.

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Professor Allen continued her fieldwork in a Peruvian community about 50 miles from Cuzco.  “At that point, there wasn’t a road that led to it.  They were just starting to build a road, which now goes through the community.  So, I was still looking for a community that was still using these traditional drinking cups, where there was a lot of continuity in tradition from the colonial period to the present.”  Indeed this on-the-ground experience has impacted her teaching, which included courses in Cultures of Latin America and Native American Visual & Verbal Arts. For many years she taught Anthropology in Performance, an interdisciplinary course that used actor training techniques to explore ethnographic material from the Andes.  Allen remembers one particularly successful class, remarking “There was a real good mix of anthropology grad students and a couple of them really got the hang of what I was doing.  They were also very open to the improv exercises.  And there were also some acting students in the class and a couple of students who really took a lot of initiative to find new material.  They really took off without a lot of pushing on my part.”

Her most significant research contributions include her ethnographic work on the history and culture of the Andes, humanistic writing, and reflexive anthropology. “I’ve not only stayed at GW since 1978,” Allen recalls. “I’ve done virtually all my field work in the same community.  And some of that is inertia and some of that is that it’s interesting to see how it’s changed.”  Her extensive research covers a variety of topics, including work on the symbolism of coca chewing in highland Peru, iconicity in Quechua ritual, and the role and importance of the kero, an ancient Andean drinking cup used in Sonqo, Peru. 

Reflecting on her career and approach to pedagogy, Professor Allen implores students to “not worry so much about being right [and] to be aware that there’s a whole lot you don’t know.  Knowing what you don’t know is what gives you an opening to keep learning.”


B.A., St. John's College, 1969, magna cum laude
M.A., University of Illinois, 1972
Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1978, with distinction