Elizabeth Colson, Professor of Anthropology, is best known for her ethnographic fieldwork in Zambia, Africa since the 1950s, resulting in long-term studies of social change caused by forced resettlement, and theoretical contributions to applied, development, and political anthropology. Her work included coding for computer analysis demographic data gathered from three Gwembe villages and she translated and transcribed diaries kept by village research assistants. For Professor Colson, fieldwork was a way of life.
In 1971, way before it became vogue, she was writing about the impact of colonialism on a changing Africa. Her approach was eclectic and problem-oriented, her theory more fine grained than grand. Professor Colson’s published work dealt with various subjects: the history of American Anthropology, the foundation of the Association of Social Anthropologists, longitudinal research, the consequences of forced migration, linkages as a research method, the emergence of the Development/Humanitarian Community, emergent ethnicity, political organization, the work of courts, the impact of HIV/AIDS, war and violence, witchcraft, and the role of shrines. She followed the sequence of events from the original upheaval to the present, from the point of view of those coping. Professor Colson was a consequence specialist.
Since retiring in 1984, she continued research, publication, and participation in academic meetings and conferences, in addition to serving on two dissertation committees, reading manuscripts, and working with anthropology students and scholars at Berkeley and from around the world. Professor Colson also generously shared her time and expertise with the University of Zambia, the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford University, and the National Academy of Sciences as well as contributing to research collections at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, Phoebe Hearst Museum and the University of Zambia. She received a number of recognitions and honors for her post-retirement work on three continents. including being named Emerita of the Year by the UC Berkeley Emeriti Association in 2014. She died in Zambia in 2016.