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Duke Flags Lowered: Professor Emerita Naomi Quinn Dies at Age 79

Naomi Quinn, a long-time member of the cultural anthropology faculty and a leading scholar of the connection between culture and personal cognition, died June 23. She was 79.

Quinn joined the Duke faculty in 1972. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard and earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford University. Her dissertation was on decision making among fishing crews in Ghana, and she kept her interest in cognitive and psychological anthropology throughout her career, exploring how culture is shared, endures and shapes our lives.

Quinn’s studies also reflected her interest in gender with a particular focus on married women’s self-understandings and the place of women in academic politics.

Her key books included “A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning”, co-authored by Claudia Strauss (1997), “Attachment Reconsidered: Cultural Perspectives on a Western Theory,” which she co-edited with Jeannette Marie Mageo. Her last book was 2018’s “Advances in Culture Theory from Psychological Anthropology.”

At Duke, she was promoted to associate professor in 1978 and full professor in 1999. She took emeriti status in 2004 but continued her research.

Among her numerous awards was a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Psychological Anthropology in 2009. Reflecting her work on the status of women in higher education, she received the “Squeaky Wheel Award” in 2001 from the American Anthropological Association Committee on the Status of Women.

Quinn was also known as an exceptional teacher. When she received the Richard K. Lublin Teaching Award in Trinity College in 2003, she said the honor meant a lot because teaching didn’t come easy to her.

“I was a really bad teacher for a long time,” she said. But working on a curriculum committee with other Duke faculty helped her reflect on her teaching and develop strategies about communicating ideas to students that were based on greater respect for her students’ learning abilities.

“I think to be a good teacher is to find some part of yourself that works in the classroom. Some good teachers are performers; I'm not,” Quinn said. “For me, it's more my mothering style -- permissive and laid back, but listening very hard to them and pulling out from them ideas and questions.

"Each class has its own chemistry, and it's important for a teacher to find out what that is and work with it. You also have to talk to the students who don't get a chance to speak in class and let them know that what they say matters.”