Short Portrait: Ulla Johansen

Ulla Johansen
Ulla Johansen

Professor Dr. em. Ulla Johansen was born in 1927 in Tallinn, Estonia. Her mother was German-Estonian, her father was a professor of history born of Danish offspring. Ulla Johansen grew up in a multilingual and liberal household. Due to the occupation by the Soviet Army in 1939, her family had to flee to Germany. When she started to study in Hamburg in 1947, Völkerkunde became her major subject; her minor subjects were Volkskunde, history and turkology. She developed an early interest in the historical and cultural background of ethnographic collections as well as in the regions of north-eastern Europe and Siberia. Among her teachers were the anthropogeographer Franz Termer and the turkologist Annemarie von Gabain.


In 1953 she graduated and worked as a translator for the Red Cross for a year before she took up an assistant position at the «Museum für Völkerkunde» in Hamburg. Her first field research led her to Turkey in 1956, where she lived with a nomadic clan. Further field researches in Turkey would follow throughout the next decades. In 1958 Prof. Johansen received a scholarship of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) in Hamburg and from 1962 until 1965 she was the chairman of the department for South and East Asia at the "Museum für Völkerkunde". In1965 she moved to Heidelberg, where she worked as an assistant at the South Asia Institute for three years. During that time she finished her habilitation thesis, which she completed in 1968. She taught as an academic lecturer at the Institute in Heidelberg for another four years. In 1973 Ulla Johansen was appointed head of the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University in Cologne where she became a full professor. Between 1976 and 1980 she also was the head chairman of the expert body for anthropology in the DFG. From 1985 until 1989 she was the chairman of the German association of anthropologists (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, DGV), of which she became an honorary member in 1997. Between 1987 and 1997 she further was the editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie (ZfE).


Johansen retired in 1990 but kept lecturing at the universities in Leipzig and Tallinn, while also doing several field researches with her students. Throughout her academic career she had strong interests in material culture, social structures and ethnographic history as well as in shamanism and cognitive anthropology. Her geographical focus has been on Siberia, North East Europe, the Orient and Middle Asia.