Skip to main content
Subscribe to E-news

Conversation With Alison Dundes Renteln

The political science professor touches on election outcomes, cultural conflicts and compelling classes.

Conversation With Alison Dundes Renteln
Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science and anthropology, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, named after the late speaker of the California State Assembly, who was known as “the best governor California never had.” She teaches courses in law and public policy, international human rights, civil rights and civil liberties, and cultural diversity and the law.

AE: The Unruh Institute is known for its election postmortems. Do you have one planned to make sense of the midterm elections?

ADR: We’re holding the postmortem on Nov. 15, from 7 to 10 p.m. at 101 Taper Hall, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. There will be two panels, one focusing on state issues and one on the national implications of the election outcome. [For a list of speakers, visit the institute’s Web site at]

AE: You have conducted workshops for judges in the Philippines and attorneys in Thailand, recently spoke in Belgium on state responses to cultural diversity and are an international human rights and disabilities expert. What are your indispensable tools for keeping up with global legal and political affairs?

ADR: I always read the Los Angeles Times and The Economist, and I get The New York Times on the Internet. When I’m working on disability rights, there’s a Web site,, that has all the up-to-date work in the United Nations on disability. I find the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals indispensable for all my projects.

AE: Your 2004 book “The Cultural Defense” examined cases in which immigrant customs ran afoul of the law. Are there any recent cultural conflicts that didn’t make it in the book?

ADR: The drug cases, which I do discuss, are continuing to arise because governments are unfamiliar with substances that other people use. The Supreme Court had a case on hoasca tea last term. A Brazilian-based church group uses the tea, which is supposed to be hallucinogenic, in religious ceremonies. Every so often there’s a case about khat, leaves chewed by people from Yemen and Somalia. There’s not a demonstrated harm, so it seems arbitrary to let people have as many lattes or espressos as they want but to disallow khat. Some European countries haven’t criminalized it, but the U.S. has treated it the same as heroin.

AE: Is there anyone else looking at these culturally based legal issues?

ADR: I would say it is beneath the radar. At the conference in Belgium, the focal point was basically Muslims and their customs: headscarves, polygamy and the talaq or repudiation, which is a way they get divorced. Even though the conference was supposed to be on cultural diversity, more generally construed, it ended up focusing on the Europeans’ concern about how best to respond to the influx of immigrants from North Africa, most of whom are Muslims.

AE: How did you first get interested in these issues – and politics?

ADR: My father, the late Alan Dundes, was a professor of anthropology and folklore at UC Berkeley, so I have always been interested in other worldviews. I was involved in student politics from the student senate at Berkeley High to being president of the student government at Radcliffe. When I was in college, I was concerned about the small number of women tenured there. When I was in graduate school, I was on the Berkeley Election Commission. I was also interested in questions of justice because when I was growing up, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was considered a possibility. I also quite vividly remember visiting the United Nations when I was 8 years old and feeling that Americans should appreciate it more.

AE: If Jesse Unruh were alive now, what would surprise him most in politics?

ADR: He’d be concerned about the extent of the decline of public education. He also would find troubling the lack of bipartisanship. He fought for the underdog and wanted justice for people from all backgrounds. I’m sure he would have worked hard to ensure justice for immigrants. There’s a great deal of interest in Jesse Unruh now, with two political biographies coming out. One is by journalist Bill Boyarsky, who was a fellow here. His book, “Big Daddy,” is being published by the University of California Press in 2007. The other book, “Jesse,” by Cal State Fullerton professor Jackson K. Putnam, came out recently.

AE: Is USC becoming a more politically engaged campus?

ADR: I think students, perhaps in response to the war in Iraq, are becoming more engaged than in the ’90s. I’ve been here almost 20 years, and I’m not sure there was a Trojan Democrats club when I joined the faculty. In recent years, students have created many new groups – a UNICEF group, Human Rights Action and Amnesty International. Last year, students built a new coalition of politically oriented groups, the Political Student Assembly.

AE: You had a two-peat in 2005 and 2006, winning back-to-back teaching awards at the Academic Honors Convocation. What do students find compelling about your classes?

ADR: What students say about my classes is that they have learned to see issues in a different way. They begin to see their own ethnocentrism. I always have students use the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals so they don’t look up only what Americans have said about a topic, but also what scholars all over the world have written. I try very hard to expose them to ideas they haven’t studied before. I also hope they become accustomed to taking diverse perspectives into account before reaching a conclusion.