Thursday, June 16, 2011

"A Singular Woman", by Janny Scott

When I started reading "A Singular Woman," Janny Scott's fascinating new biography of Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack Obama's mother, I didn't expect to be blogging about it. But Ann Dunham was an anthropologist with a Ph.D. who spent most of her professional life working on microfinance, cottage industries, and other development programs helping poor rural folk in Indonesia.

And anthropologists collect and analyze data. Scott describes one questionnaire as "novella-length;" Dunham was trying to find out how rural farmers used banks. But she didn't make any assumptions. "'Has the Respondent ever been inside a bank before?' one question asked. 'If not, why not?'" If the answer was that the respondent was afraid of banks, the interviewer was to pursue that angle too.

Dunham didn't collect data just for the sake of having it, she used it. With bankers, she was "professional, methodical, and not the least bit eccentric." But with villagers, with whom she could speak in Indonesian, she was empathetic and genuinely curious. Her example continues to be one that those of us who provide numbers should remember. "To her young research assistants, [Dunham] emphasized accuracy, rigor, patience, fairness, and not judging by appearances. 'Don't conclude before you understand,' [one of them] recalled Ann saying. 'After you understand, don't judge.'"

Dunham, who was born in 1942, lived a complicated life that was cut short much too young. She married, first, an African and second, an Indonesian. She traveled far from her children for a large part of the time they were growing up. She was curious and open to other cultures, and she made the most of her jobs and life abroad. Ann Dunham also sounds like a woman with a wonderful sense of humor whose friends loved her dearly. Scott does a great job showing how Dunham's parents and upbringing shaped her, and suggests how she in turn shaped her oldest child. Even (or especially!) if you are not interested in numbers, this is a book worth reading.

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