Joan Rivers was not an anthropologist

When Joan Rivers passed away yesterday, the world paid far more attention than most people might have expected. A veteran of… well, pretty much everything, Rivers was someone who many more people took seriously than anyone expected. But anthropologists in particular were surprised and pleased (at least in my case) to discover that she had an undergraduate degree — and from Barnard no less, the mothership of American Cultural Anthropology. But, sadly, it is probably not true.

At the moment, the current wikipedia entry as earning “a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and anthropology”. So if Wikipedia says it it must be true? Hmmm…

Wikipedia lists three citations for this assertion: Rivers’ New York Times obit, her (superbly named) memoir Enter Talking, and a Washington Post obit. In fact, the Times obit gives her major as English. This morning when I checked it the WaPo obit listed her major as anthropology, but now that has been removed for some reason and her major is not specified. In Enter Talking (which Wikipedia cites without a page number, tsk tsk) what Rivers actually says is: “I was an English literature major” (that’s page 55 of the 1986, NYC, Delacorte press edition).

The preponderance of the evidence is against Rivers as an anthropology major, unfortunately. Perhaps she was an anthropology minor? It’s unclear. Its fascinating to imagine Rivers sitting through classes taught by newly-minted Ph.D.s like Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz, and she may have done so. But, alas, not as an anthropology major.

Its intriguing to think of Joan Rivers as a paradigm for what anthropology could or should be. And since she deserves far more attention than even her death could bring her, perhaps its a fitting memorial for Rivers for us to imagine what she has to teach to anthropology.  Perhaps her gimlet eye provides a model for a critical anthropology yet to emerge.

I mean, let’s face it: Who needs ontology when you have Joan Rivers?

UPDATE: Evidence continues to surface: The Columbia Lion paints Joan Rivers as an anthro major who took courses with Mead while commenter ‘Jiminnc’ points us to a  photographer who says Rivers claimed she was an anthropology minor

UPDATE: Our intern Angela Chen contacted the registrar’s office at Barnard about this issue. They responded: “Joan Rivers majored in English. Although she apparently took Anthropology courses at Connecticut College before transferring to Barnard, she did not take any anthropology courses at Barnard.”


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “Joan Rivers was not an anthropologist


    LA based photographer Jeff Newton [on] a gig shooting Joan and Melissa Rivers ….

    “When I got to the set, I was a little nervous because you never know how you’re going to connect with your subjects.” It turns out that Jeff and Joan ended up connecting on – of all things – anthropology! Jeff’s wife is earning her PHD in anthropology at UCLA, and as it turns out Joan Rivers is a big fan of the science, and once considered a career as an anthropologist before hitting it big time.

  2. The quote I saw from her said she was an anthro minor. But then ahe said she’d need a makeup artist and hairdresser on digs. So.

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