Anthropology Department
Sharon Bohn Gmelch

Sharon Bohn Gmelch

Job Title
Professor of Anthropology

Research interests

Professor Gmelch is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in ethnic identity, visual anthropology, and tourism. She has conducted research with Irish Travellers, Barbadian villagers, Tlingit Indians in Alaska, and tourist guides in several countries. She is the author and editor of ten books and the co-producer of an ethnographic film on the Tlingit.


In the Field: Life and Work in Cultural Anthropology
by George Gmelch and Sharon Bohn Gmelch. University of California Press, 2018.

In the Field, describes the role of fieldwork in cultural anthropology through personal accounts of the authors’ research experiences and those of their students in diverse settings (Barbados, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Newfoundland, Tasmania, Japan, Alaska). Each chapter describes a different research project and place, revealing the different forms fieldwork can take, the kinds of questions anthropologists ask, the common problems they encounter, as well as the rewards of living in other cultures. The book also discusses how the conduct of fieldwork in cultural anthropology has and is changing.

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Tourists and Tourism
Waveland Press, 2004; 2012; 2018 (3rd edition, Sharon Gmelch and Adam Kaul).

While several classic and popular articles from the second edition have been retained, three-quarters of the third edition are new and cover important areas in tourism studies such as dark tourism, medical tourism, non-visual sensory experiences of tourism, and tourism as performance. Several address issues that directly relate to the student experience, including study abroad, service learning, social media, and the ethics of travel.

Articles vary in length and style; some provide deeper context, while others are designed to spark debate in the classroom. Finally, an introduction to the use of film in teaching about tourism and a link to an important film resource are provided.

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Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life
by Sharon Bohn Gmelch and George Gmelch, Indiana University Press, 2014.

In 2011, Sharon and George returned to Ireland to seek out the Travelling families they originally met forty years earlier when they conducted their first fieldwork as anthropologists. How have the lives of Irish Travellers changed since the days the authors lived among them in a horse-drawn wagon in a makeshift encampment on the outskirts of Dublin? Most importantly, what does it mean to be a Traveller today now that most families in Ireland are housed and no longer nomadic? Using photographs George had taken in 1971-72, they prompted people to talk about change and reflect on their lives. Many of these early images are reproduced in this lavishly illustrated book along with contemporary photographs taken by George Gmelch which illustrate the dramatic changes that have taken place in Irish Travellers’ lives.

While conducting this research, the authors were shadowed by an Irish film crew. The film Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller, by Liam McGrath and Kim Bartley, was released in 2012 and is available from Scratch Films, Dublin.

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The Parish Behind God’s Back: The Changing Culture of Rural Barbados
by Sharon Bohn Gmelch and George Gmelch , University of Michigan Press, 1997; Waveland, 2004; 2012 (2nd Edition).

In the eastern Caribbean the expression “behind God’s back” refers to a place that is remote or far away. This book examines the social fabric of Barbados’ most rural parish and the enormous influence of global factors such as television, tourism, and migration. Written with students in mind, The Parish Behind God’s Back draws on the authors’ field research and 15-year experience running an anthropological field school for Union College students in rural Barbados. According to one reviewer, “Besides being lively and well-rounded, The Parish makes strategic use of comparisons to US culture so that students are also learning about themselves…It presents an excellent frame of reference for considering the costs as well as the benefits of modernization, US style.” According to another, “Beautifully written, this book deals with all the big issues of our time — slavery, colonialism, migration, tourism, and globalization.”

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Tasting the Good Life: Wine Tourism in the Napa Valley
by George Gmelch and Sharon Gmelch, 2011; University of Indiana Press.

Tourists today want to experience the world through all five senses. In this book, the authors tell the story of tourism in California’s Napa Valley, from its beginnings to the more than five million people who now visit every year to taste fine wines, eat fine food, and consume other sophisticated pleasures in the midst of bucolic beauty. What is “tasting” all about? How are the businesses of wine making and tourism intertwined? What impact has tourism had on this iconic American place? To provide additional insight into this new form of tourism, the book includes the personal stories of eighteen men and women – everyone from field worker to vineyard manager, from winemaker to tasting room staff, from celebrity chef to wait staff, from masseur to hot air balloonist.

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Tourists and Tourism: A Reader
edited by Sharon Bohn Gmelch. Waveland Press, 2004; 2010 (2nd Edition).

What do people seek when they travel? How do locals respond and who benefits? What impact do tourists have on the environments and people they visit? Stimulating and comprehensive, the collection introduces readers to a variety of issues in global tourism. Selected with classroom use in mind, 27 essays by Northern American and international scholars from anthropology, sociology, history, geography, as well as journalism present a balance of theory and stimulating case studies. Photographs enhance the text. Appendices provide a list of recommended films and examples of some of the behavioral guidelines that have been produced for tourists.

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The Tlingit Encounter with Photography
By Sharon Bohn Gmelch, University of Pennsylvania Museum Press, 2008

Based on the examination of hundreds of photographs and extensive oral history interviews with both Tlingit and non-Natives, this is the first book to explore the photographic imagery of the Tlingit during a critical period of change, from the 1860s through the 1920s. Shortly after the invention of photography, the Tlingit of southeastern Alaska started encountering survey teams, museum collectors, ethnographic investigators, studio photographers, tourists, and, later, resident amateur and commercial photographers – all of whom were interested in photographing them. How were these images used and how were they disseminated? How were the Tlingit portrayed through early photography? To what extent did they shape the images that were taken of them and control their own representation? Did photography remain an alien technology and activity or did the Tlingit incorporate it into their own culture? The book, which includes 129 rare photographic images, also provides the first full treatment of the Tlingit photography of Elbridge W. Merrill, a neglected figure in the history of photography.

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Gender on Campus: Issues for College Women
by Sharon Bohn Gmelch, with Marcie C. Heffernan and Jody Lynn Yetzer. Rutgers University Press, June 1998

Gender on Campus examines the many gender-related issues facing college women, including the basic question “What is feminism?” Other chapters explore gender issues in the classroom, in language, on the sports field, and in campus social life, from the perspective of diverse women. Why are eating disorders so common among college women today? Why do some male students still construe “no” to mean “yes?” What is the basis for sexism and homophobia? The book also explores issues that women students will face in the future in the workplace, media and politics. Although designed primarily for classroom use, the book is a useful preparation for any woman student entering college.

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Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman
by Sharon Bohn Gmelch, W.W. Norton, 1986; Waveland Press, 1996 (pb).

Nan Donahue was an Irish Travelling woman, one of Ireland’s indigenous gypsies or travelling people. Traditionally, they traveled through the countryside, at first on foot but later in horse-drawn carts and wagons, making and repairing tinware, sweeping chimneys, selling small household wares, and performing odd jobs and farm labor. Today, they live in trailers on the roadside or in government-built camps and houses. An urban people now, they primarily collect scrap metal and deal in used and new goods.

Sharon Gmelch, as a young graduate student in anthropology, first met Nan in the early 1970s when she went to do research on the Travelling People. She became Nan’s neighbor and eventually her close friend and confidante. Over a period of years, from 1977 to 1981, Nan related the story of her life, the story recorded in this book.

Told largely in her own voice, Nan’s saga begins in 1919 with her birth in a tent in the Irish Midlands, the daughter of an itinerant chimney sweep. It follows her life in Ireland and England, in countryside and city slums, through adversity and adventure. What emerges is not uniquely a Traveller’s story, although Nan was a Travelling Person. Nor is it exclusively an Irish story, although she lived in Ireland most of her life. Nor is it solely a woman’s story. It is a human story, filled with cruelty and compassion, sorrow and humor, bad luck and good. Finalist for the Margaret Mead Award.

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Irish Life and Traditions
edited by Sharon Bohn Gmelch, O’Brien Press, 1979; Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Irish Life and Traditions is a book about contemporary Ireland, lavishly illustrated with original photographs. It provides readers with a lively overview of contemporary Irish society.

In the Physical Setting section, Ireland’s landscape, flora and fauna, and prehistory are examined. Growing Up in Ireland addresses the human side of Irish life in four autobiographical accounts. The People and Their Traditions describes the ancient and still popular traditions of country fair and religious pilgrimage, festivals, and sports in Irish society. Finally, in Looking Forward Ireland’s place in the modern world is examined. Contributors include Nobel Peace Prize recipient Sean McBride and novelist Maeve Binchy.

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Tinkers and Travellers: Ireland’s Nomads
by Sharon Bohn Gmelch, with photographs by Pat Langan and George Gmelch, O’Brien Press and McGill-Queens University Press, 1975.

Winner of The Book of The Year award in Ireland, 1976. A photographic essay of Irish Travellers as they lived in the early 1970s.

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Ethnographic Film: A Matter of Respect: Modern Alaska Natives Balancing the Past and Present
co-produced by filmmaker Ellen Frankenstein and Sharon Gmelch. 1991.

Distributed by New Day Films

This half-hour documentary video examines cultural revitalization among the Tlingit of Sitka, Alaska. It is a stereotype-breaking documentary about the meaning of tradition and change.

“A Tlingit disc jockey loves rock and roll as much as traditional carving… in this intimate documentary, older members of his community share the changes they have seen and acknowledge how the resurgence of native culture provides meaning and value for both young and old.”

“A warm picture of people using humor and energy to deal with the modern and the traditional.”
–Society for Visual Anthropology

  • Society of Visual Anthropology honoree, 1992
  • Margaret Mead Film Festival honoree, 1993
  • National Education Film and Video Silver Apple award winner, 1992

Ethnographic Film: Unsettled: From Tinker to Traveller
Produced and edited by Irish filmmakers Liam McGrath and Kim Bartley, 2012.

A 52-minute documentary about culture change among Irish Travellers and the long-term research and personal engagement of Sharon Gmelch and George Gmelch with them. Distributed by Scratch Films (Ireland).

Additional media

Academic credentials

B.A., University of California, Santa Barbara; M.A., University of California, Santa Barbara; Ph.D., University of California at Santa Barbara