Associate Professor; Associate Director of the Kilachand Honors College


Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, African Studies Center, Kilachand Honors College, Global Development Policy Center, Boston University Center for the Humanities.

Areas of Expertise

Gender, marriage, & family; Africanist anthropology; environment & rurality; ethnographic writing

View Professor Davidson’s CV


My research is motivated by empirical problems, informed by ethnographic complexity, and framed by an eclectic engagement with anthropology and allied humanistic fields. I have channeled these interests into a sustained ethnographic project in rural West Africa where I began by examining how Jola villagers in Guinea-Bissau were responding to environmental and economic pressures that threatened to erode not only their livelihoods but their core religious, moral, and political institutions. My first book, Sacred Rice (Oxford University Press 2016), told this story through the social dramas of three central characters, rekindling a tradition of ethnographic writing that reveals theoretical insights through the intimacy and intricacy of individual life histories. Keeping pace with how these challenges continued to unfold in this region led me to explore several shifts in women’s lives, including increases in widowhood and transformations in marriage. This resulted in two edited volumes: Opting Out: Women Messing with Marriage around the World (Rutgers University Press 2022), co-edited with Dinah Hannaford, which analyzes the global phenomenon of women eschewing marriage in places where it has long been obligatory, and Pathos and Power: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Widowhood in Africa, Past and Present (under review), co-edited with Benjamin Lawrance, which focuses on widowhood as an underexplored and often mischaracterized dimension of most African women’s lives. These projects prompted new questions about the connections among marriage, naming, and death that frame my current book-in-progress. Bringing ethnographic insights from rural West Africa into conversation with interdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities and interpretative social sciences, I am writing a book of interwoven essays that consider the tensions and relationships between speaking and silence, visibility and invisibility, the named and the unnamed, the living and the dead.

Selected Publications

Opting Out: Women Messing with Marriage Around the World, edited by Joanna Davidson & Dinah Hannaford (Rutgers University Press, 2022)

The problem of widows, American Ethnologist, 2020. 47(1): 43-57.

Women in Guinea-Bissau, in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African Women’s History (Oxford University Press, 2019).

 Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment & Development in Rural West Africa, (Oxford University Press, 2016)


  • CAS AN 101 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
  • CAS AN 103 Anthropology through Ethnography
  • CAS AN 312 Peoples and Cultures of Africa
  • GRS AN 510 Proposal Writing for the Social Sciences
  • GRS AN 533 Ethnographic Genres
  • GRS AN 594 Topics in Cultural Anthropology: Feminist Anthropology
  • GRS AN 701 Proseminar: Anthropological Approaches to Marriage & Family
  • KHC AN 102 The Power, Politics, and Ethics of Storytelling
  • KHC HC 401 Epistemologies & the Process of Inquiry
  • KHC HC 501 The Many Lives & Works of Zora Neale Hurston
  • KHC HC 512 People in Process: Choices & Change

Selected Awards & Fellowships

  • Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, Boston University, 2023
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Stipend, 2019
  • Neu Family Award for Excellence in Teaching, CAS, Boston University, 2018