Author and Cultural Anthropologist Sarah J. Mahler was born in York, Pennsylvania but spent most of her formative years in rural Upstate New York in the western Catskill Mountains.
She earned a Bachelor degree in Liberal Arts from Amherst College in 1982; a year later than her graduating class because after her sophomore year, she took a year leave, moved to Colombia, and immersed herself in a different culture and language.Upon graduating, she worked in Manhattan for several years before continuing her education at Columbia University earning a Masters degree in Anthropology in 1989, and a Ph.D. in 1992. While in school and living predominantly in Latin American neighborhoods in New York City, she taught English-as-a-Second Language for free and became trained in immigration law. During those years she also worked with refugees fleeing violent wars in Central America.
After graduation, she taught at the University of Vermont from 1992 to 1997 in the Anthropology department, and Florida International University from 1997 where she continues to teach courses in the interdisciplinary department of Global and Sociocultural Studies. Her academic expertise is in cultural anthropology and, in particular, international migration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States. She joined a group of anthropologists and other scholars seeking to shift migration studies from just examining immigrants’ lives in their new country to a more comprehensive approach called “transnational migration” which researches how people who migrate across international borders nonetheless retain ties to their homelands, and how their cultural practices and identities reflect influence from previous and present contexts. Mahler’s contributions to this paradigm shift in migration studies have focused on how migrants’ gender relations typically shift even for family members who themselves do not migrate.
In 2004, Mahler served as director of her department’s graduate studies program and in that year she oversaw a major shift in the graduate curriculum. In 2005 she was promoted to Director of the Center for Transnational and Comparative Studies at Florida International University and served in that capacity in charge of numerous international study programs until 2008 when the center was closed for budgetary reasons. At that time, she embarked on a major shift in her research, returning to an early passion for how people learn culture that she had wanted to pursue since her daughter Sophia, was born. Starting in 2008 she has dedicated herself wholly to studying the wide-ranging interdisciplinary literatures on the brain and how infants and children learn in general, and how they learn culture in particular.
The results of this research are found in Culture as Comfort: The Many Things You Already Know [but might not realize] About Culture, a landmark book on understanding the origins and neuroanthropology of how children learn and all people practice culture. It addresses the important question of how, given that people are not born with culture, we acquire it. Drawing on wide-ranging research in many fields both inside and outside anthropology, she explains how during infancy and early childhood, children quickly, subconsciously, and inevitably learn the cultural patterns of those around them and internalize these not just as norms but as normal
The book explains that as we learn culture, the patterned ways of thinking and behaving we acquire become so ingrained in us that they are comfortable. We do not feel culture as comfort however, until we meet others who do things differently. Such encounters are typically discomforting so we retreat back into our cultural comforts. The book further explores how outmoded ideas on culture are behind the so called “Cultural Wars” and many cross cultural disagreements that lead to exclusion, violence, and tragedy. It explains how from the personal to the geopolitical, there exist consequences for maintaining specific views on culture. It suggests that to change, individuals need to become more creative cultural practitioners by venturing beyond cultural comfort zones to those of discomfort. That is, cultural discomfort can and should be viewed as an invitation to grow; to expand beyond our cultural comfort zones; and to flex our cultural muscles. Mahler learned this most intimately during her year of cultural immersion in Colombia and shares stories from her own learning experiences in the book to make it more interesting and accessible to all readers. She concludes by arguing that though our brains have evolved to learn and we learn extremely well in early childhood, as adults we tend to avoid learning new cultural practices to avoid feeling embarrassed, and awkward. Instead, we fear “losing” our culture when human life is much more about “gaining” culture. She believes we just have to shift our way of looking at our greatest gift.
The book is the first step in a larger project aimed at shifting people’s everyday understandings of culture toward focusing on how creative and positive we can be culturally, instead of divisive and destructive.
Honors and Achievements
As Central Americans’ story had not been told during the very difficult years of civil wars in the 1980s and early 1990s, she decided to focus her dissertation on highlighting their plight and was eventually published in two books. The first one, American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins (Princeton 1995) was reviewed by the New York Times, has been subsequently used by scores of faculty teaching courses on area studies, and has helped a train a generation of new researchers on immigration. It remains an academic best seller despite being published almost two decades ago.
In 1994, she was awarded a prestigious research fellowship at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City; one of the country’s premier social science fellowships. During her residency, Mahler finished American Dreaming and wrote her second book Salvadorans in Suburbia: Symbiosis and Conflict.
Due to her work with immigrants and refugees, in 1996 she was honored by the Central American Refugee Center for years of advocacy in defense of human rights.
In 2011, Mahler was awarded the first Provost Award for Graduate Student Mentorship conferred by FIU’s Graduate School.