Cathy A. Small, PhD

Cathy A. Small Professor
Northern Arizona University
Blg 70 Rm #5
Phone: 928-523-1090
Personal Page


  • migration and transnational studies
  • globalization & culture change
  • education
  • applied
  • non-western approaches to knowledge
  • computer simulation and policy
  • US, Polynesia


BS, University of Massachusetts
MS, East Stroudsburg University
PhD, Temple University 1987


Dr. Cathy Small is a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer who has applied her work in four very different arenas--globalization and immigration; social policy (in health and demography) and computer simulation; education; and indigenous economic development (through craft cooperatives).

Her life-long ethnographic fieldwork has been in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga, where for three decades she has traced the lives of those who migrated from the islands to the U.S., those who stayed, and the relationship between them.  Her book Voyages, used at more than 100 universities, provides an intimate portrait of change  and globalization, shown through the lives of transnational families.  It is coming out in 2011 in its second edition, which provides a thirty year chronicle of the effects of the globalization process both on Tongans and on anthropology. 

Cathy has been actively involved in using and teaching computer modeling, both as a tool in ethnographic description and in policy formation.  She has worked in modeling phenomenon as diverse as Polynesian social systems, workplace accidents, and immigration flows (for the Tongan Government)  presenting her work at the National Academy of Sciences and the Santa Fe Institute, publishing several articles on the subject, and serving as a scholar in residence at . Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales , University of Provence in Marseilles, France

Her work with Native American craft cooperatives was one of many efforts during her career to support economic and educational development initiatives among  indigenous groups and low-income U.S. stakeholders.  She founded Southwest Arts and Artists which went on to create craft catalogs for  indigenous artisan cooperatives to market their art directly to consumers, bypassing middlemen, and retaining profits.  She co-founded the Pipeline mentoring program, a decade-long project to mentor low-income youth into college, providing a free four-year college education.   Both projects earned state and national recognition, including the Praxis Award for Excellence in Applied Anthropology, the National Points of Light award, the Governor's Special Recognition, and Best Educational Practices in Post-Secondary Education in the state of Arizona award, for the Pipeline. Her many applied anthropology projects over the years have forged alliances with numerous regional groups, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Institute for Law & Systems Research,  the Hopi Arts & Crafts Coop Guild, the Maa'ma Tu'uloa (The Beacon) immigrant mentoring program , and others.

Her recent ethnographic and applied work focuses on the culture of higher education. In 2002, in order to better understand her own students,  Small enrolled as a  college freshman, moving out of her house and into the dorms, taking a full load of courses, joining student activities, and eating in the student dining hall.   The book which resulted, My Freshman Year, an anthropological account of student culture, is now the basis of efforts at NAU and in conversations around the country to better adjust college structures and teaching to the learning styles of a more pressed and diverse student body.  Dr. Small has spoken at more than 40 different universities and national conferences about how to apply the results of her ethnographic findings while she focuses on teaching her own students the connections between ethnography, policy, and public practice.

Current research and applied projects

Cathy's most recent work is on non-Western approaches to science and to "knowing."  She recently completed interviews with faculty at Naropa University, the only accredited Buddhist-founded university in the U.S., to look at the way Eastern philosophy and/or meditation practice affects faculty members' understanding of their disciplines and how they teach them.  Her current interest and writing is in the implications of indigenous and Buddhist thought for anthropology.

One of the most exciting ventures to emerge from her year as a freshman is a new approach to global understanding.  Witnessing the lack of interaction between international students and U.S. students, Cathy is piloting an undergraduate anthropology class that is, by design half U.S. nationals and half international students.  Each student in the class is partnered with a student from a different culture from themselves, as part of the learning experience.  This anthropology course, which relies heavily on interactive learning, and structures that bridge the academic and social,  is designed to augment the intercultural experiences of U.S. students while providing international students with more sustained and intimate connections with U.S. students

Computer modeling of cultural systems

In 1997, Dr. Cathy Small was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for 1998 and 1999 to model and simulate Polynesian social systems. This modeling work has culminated in an invitation to the Santa Fe Institute as part of a global team of scientists working on modeling issues. The Santa Fe team jointly publish­ed the book Dynamics in Human and Primate Societ­ies: Agent-Based Modeling of Social and Spatial Processes with Oxford University Press in 1999.

She was named Senior Fellow at Institute for Law & Systems Research, University of San Diego, where she collaborated on modeling and ethnographic projects on health management and the law and she served as pro bono consultant to the Central Planning Office of the Tongan government, where she modeled future population and migration figures.

Her modeling efforts have opened new teaching avenues for her, including the development of a gradu­ate course in computer modeling, her participation as the invited workshop director at the 1998 and 2001 AAA meet­ings (sponsored by NAPA) to introduce anthropology professionals to computer modeling and simulation, and her invitation by the French government’s Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales as a scholar-in-residence to conduct a two-week modeling course in the University of Provence in Marseilles, France in 1999.

Pipeline NAU

Dr. Cathy Small began Pipeline NAU, a program with the support of university administration and the help of committed faculty members. The Pipeline is a cooperative venture of NAU, the Flagstaff Public Schools and Big Brothers/Big Sisters that provides long-term mentoring to low income high potential seventh-graders who would be the first in their families to attend college.

Mentors from NAU meet weekly with their mentees for five years within a structured program, until their student has graduated from high school. At the successful completion of the program, the student receives a full four-year scholarship to NAU.

Almost a second job involving mentoring, administration, fund-raising, recruitment and promotion, Dr. Small coordi­nates this program as a service project. Pipeline received the National Points of Light award in 1999, the Governor's Special Recognition award and honors for the Best Educational Practice in Post-Secondary Education in the state of Arizona in 2000.

South Pacific studies

Dr. Small’s lifelong ethnographic work has been in the South Pacific, and she continues to be involved in research and scholarship in this area.  Her book Voyages is used by more than 100 universities, and was the recent “forum” selection by Pacific Studies for scholarly review by three scholars with author response.

She is active in reviewing grants and manuscripts (Museum Studies, Contemporary Pacific, American Ethnologist, National Science Foundation) in Pacific studies and wrote two of the recent reference works on Pacific Islanders (in Harvard University Press, The New Americans, 2007 and the Tongan Profile for Migration Information Source in 2004).

Freshman year studies

In 2002, on her sabbatical, Dr. Small enrolled in her own university as a freshman, moving into the dorms and taking a full load of classes.

The ethnography, describing “undergraduate culture,” that came out of her freshman experience (published by Cornell University Press in 2005, and then by Penguin in 2006) has received wide attention in both national and international circles and in public and professional media (including features in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, Newsweek, and USA today, Talk of the Nation, Associated Press, CNN and guest talks on more than 40 radio talk shows).

The public attention has provided a vehicle for making applications of her ethnographic insights in higher education.  Dr. Small is on partial release to speak at educational conferences and universities across the country about improving teaching and realigning university structures.

In 2006-7 alone, she accepted invitations as keynote speaker or presenter/consultant at more than 30 universities and conferences in the U.S. and overseas in an effort to assist in the transformation of pedagogical structure now underway in higher education.