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Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Paul Grebinger

faculty photoProfessor of Anthropology


Ph.D. Archaeology, University of Arizona, 1971
B.S. Anthropology, Columbia University, 1966

Research Interests

As an undergraduate student about to enter my senior year in political science at Columbia University, I read Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and decided to take a “leap of faith” in the direction of anthropology. Little did I realize the many rewarding paths for research and personal development that decision would open to me. I completed a Ph.D. in anthropological archaeology at the University of Arizona, with specialization and research in the American Southwest. My work from that period included the edited collection of original essays in the then “new archaeology” Discovering Past Behavior: Experiments in the Archaeology of the American Southwest (Gordon and Breach, 1978).  In subsequent years, I have become an anthropological generalist. Current interests include Latin America and international studies, in particular Colombia, the uses of popular culture in teaching anthropology, material culture in the context of historical industries, horticulture, historical anthropology and local history.

As an undergraduate in New York City, I worked for the Pan American Coffee Bureau. There I discovered fascinating worlds of difference through daily interaction with staff in the offices of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, among other countries. I vowed then that I would visit Latin America on first opportunity. Much later, at Eisenhower College with its innovative World Studies curriculum, that opportunity literally walked through the door. A colleague asked me to accompany him and his students on a study abroad experience in Colombia. On transfer to Rochester Institute of Technology, that experience (facilitated by a friend in Colombia) became an asset in gaining funding from the United States Information Agency (University Affiliations, Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program). A three-year grant supported exchanges of faculty, especially in investigative reporting and film, between RIT and Universidad Externado de Colombia. During multiple and sustained visits to Colombia, I became interested in the impacts of the drug trade on the country’s development. That insight and knowledge is now employed in teaching. Teaching strategies in my course, Cultures in Globalization, were the subject of a paper “The Black-Market and Global Capitalism: Drug Wars in the Movies” presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, 2004, an invited session “Beyond the Exotic Other: Popular Culture and Critical Thinking in Teaching Anthropology” ( 

At the same time I have pursued my interest in material culture through the study of historical button industries. The initial phase of work was supported through the New York State Council on the Arts, a grant to create an exhibit on the Rochester button industry for the Rochester Museum and Science Center. A recent article, “The Button: Not a Simple Notion” (In: Clare L. Boulanger, Reflecting on America, Pearson, 2008), explains the transformation of button-making in early 20th Century Rochester from labor intensive, employing a natural material (vegetable  ivory from Tagua nuts), to capital intensive employing plastic raw materials such as casein.  Human materialism (Paul Magnarella’s modifications of cultural materialism) is the explanatory model.

Historical anthropology and local history interests were catalyzed through citizen activism. With encouragement from my Eisenhower College colleague, Corinne Guntzel, I joined a community effort to develop the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York.  Guntzel and I developed a project on the domestic economy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, under auspices of the New York Historical Resources Center, in cooperation with the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Foundation. That project combined historical archaeology with public participation, public outreach programs, and historical research (In: G. David Brumberg, Margaret John and William Zeisel, History for the Public, 1983).

Subsequently, I was invited by the Geneva Historical Society to create an exhibition on the history of Geneva’s nursery industry (with NYSCA support). With my wife Ellen, I researched and wrote the exhibition script and a catalog published as To Dress and Keep the Earth: The Nurseries and Nurserymen of Geneva, New York (1993) recounting the important contributions of horticultural industries to the economy, culture, and community of this small city in the heart of the Finger Lakes. The exhibition was recognized by the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies with its Award of Merit (only award in 1993) and by the New York Council on the Humanities with an Honorable Mention in its Project of the Year Award (despite the fact that the Council did not provide funding).

I have since focused my attention on historical nursery industries and on the development of horticulture in New York State. A biographical entry on George Ellwanger, Patrick Barry, and their Mount Hope Nurseries appeared in Pioneers of American Landscape Design (McGraw-Hill, 2000—with my wife Ellen). Six entries on horticulture and horticulturists have appeared in The Encylopedia of New York State (Syracuse University Press, 2005). With Jay Freer, I published an article on the development of European plum varieties at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station over the past century (“Healthy, Delicious & Oh, So Sweet,” Life in the Finger Lakes, fall 2007; []). This article was designed as public outreach. It coincided with the release of new plum varieties and with the 125th anniversary of the Experiment Station. The American consumer is generally unaware of the contributions of Experiment Station pomologists to the improvement in quality and taste of fruits.  Currently, I am working on a monograph that explores the transition to scientific horticulture in 19th Century America through communities of practical nurserymen and horticultural societies, with special attention to the contributions of Rochester nurseryman Patrick Barry.

While traveling along these paths I have also taken on various  administrative roles. My choices with respect to employment have opened particular paths for research, as the narrative above has implied. So also I have assumed a variety of administrative roles as appropriate. Among others I have served as department chair (three times), division chair, coordinator of international cooperative education and study abroad, Caroline Werner Gannett Professor in the Humanities with special assignment to organize a lecture series and coordinate an associated senior seminar capstone experience in the liberal arts for all graduating seniors at RIT (twice) and, finally, a variety of leadership roles in professional and community organizations.  I have discovered in this journey that often I have approached moments of decision about a new path, where outcomes were uncertain, and have repeatedly taken a ‘leap of faith’,” nevertheless.  Or, in the words of the immortal American sage, Yogi Berra: ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it’.