Margaret “Greta” Gibson ’63 has been a pioneer in the field of educational anthropology for more than 30 years. Last fall she was honored with the George and Louise Spindler Award for Educational Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association’s 2012 meeting.
The award is the most prestigious in the field of educational anthropology. In nominating Gibson for the award, her colleagues wrote, “One simply cannot examine immigrant education without close scrutiny of her scholarship.”
Gibson, who majored in philosophy and religion at Wheaton, says she came to focus her research on immigrant education “quite by accident.”
“I went to St. Croix [U.S. Virgin Islands] in spring 1973 to carry out dissertation research on the role of ethnicity in shaping school performance, expecting that almost all students would be native Crucians and students of Puerto Rican origin. However, in 1970, by court order, the public schools had been required to admit noncitizens. By the time I arrived, nearly 40 percent of all K–12 public school students were immigrants from neighboring Caribbean islands. My research focus shifted to include these children and how immigrant status as well as ethnicity influenced school engagement.”
Gibson’s expertise in educational anthropology led California educators to ask her to study inter-ethnic tensions between Punjabi immigrants and native citizens—tensions that had been mounting both within the schools and the community at large. Gibson’s findings were published in a landmark 1988 book, Accommodation without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School. This book advanced the then-controversial thesis that, contrary to conventional wisdom about assimilation, students with immigrant backgrounds perform better academically if they maintain their cultural identity rather than rushing to adopt every American custom that surrounds them.
The findings have since been corroborated by other anthropologists’ research about immigrant and ethnic minority youths. Through this study, Gibson coined the terms “accommodation and acculturation without assimilation” and “additive acculturation” to describe the various social processes surrounding immigrant assimilation. These terms are now widely used in anthropology, a testament to her high standing within her field.
In 2010, she retired from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she had been a professor since 1990. Despite retiring, she remains an active anthropologist, currently researching the effects of the federally funded Migrant Education Program in improving educational outcomes for the children of migrant California farm workers. Additionally, she continues to research the social and academic incorporation of immigrant youth in schools in Catalonia and California.
—Brian Jencunas ’14