I deploy an array of theories and methods from social science to unravel the complex and fundamental intersections between culture, health, environment, and well-being. Specifically, I study how low social position and resource insecurity interact with social meanings, daily experiences, and felt emotions to exacerbate the psychosocial stresses that worsens physical and mental health. Basically, my goal is to unravel the mechanisms that connect low power to worse health, to reduce human suffering and create health and wellbeing.
At any time, we have a range of ongoing projects at various stages of development that engage a wide array of wonderful partners and collaborators from almost every field of study. This is a sample.
Language, Labels, and Invisible Disease
Many diseases create extreme disruption in people's lives. But for the conditions where there is no biomarker or test that can demonstrate they "exist" other than in the person's own telling, they can particularly challenge the legitmacy of social identities. One example currently is "Long COVID", and we are addressing how this and other "invisible" conditions shape the way masculinity is understood and experienced. We are also asking: what happens when diseases like long COVID are truly widespread (global in fact) and affecting so many? Does the broad experience of the disease buffer these types of losses of social legitimacy with unfulfilled social and productive roles that ambiguous forms of chronic illness can create? Data collection is planned in US (Arizona) and Japan in 2022. This project is a collaboration with the Arizona CoVHORT Study. Primary contacts: Alex Brewis, Cindi SturtzSreetharan and Megan Jehn
Teaching Anthropology Better [TAB]
Working with multiple colleagues in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, I am engaged in a long-term effort to innovate, test, and improve the teaching of anthropology as a relevant, impactful discipline. This includes collaboration on efforts lead by Alissa Ruth to test innovations in how anthropologists can improve structural competency of pre-health students and clarify the long-term impacts of study abroad and other forms of experiential education, of Amber Wutich to advance ethnographic methods training as a field, and developing a Introduction to Anthropology textbook (as lead author, with WW Norton Publishers) that reflects and synthesizes recent innovations across the four-fields on how an engaged and responsible anthropology should and can be done.
Water, Food, and Mental Health
Many households globally struggle daily with water insecurity, food insecurity, and common mental illnesses like depression. But how do these link together? The answers have implications for how best to tackle underlying drivers of poverty and suffering. For example, without secure water you can't easily grow or cook food. If we can produce consistent evidence that water insecurity drives household food insecurity, this then suggests food insecurity interventions must begin by securing household water access. If water insecurity explains the effects of food insecurity of depression and anxiety, then mental health interventions have new clues about what will be most effective. Analysis and write-up of data collected in Ethiopia 2019 is currently underway. This is in collaboration with Haramaya University (HU), Ethiopia and the Kersa HDDS. Here's some more about the work and our key HU collaborator Dr Kedir. Primary contact: Alex Brewis
Global Ethnohydrology Study [GES]
Running strong since 2006, the Global Ethnohydrology Study (GES) studies local cultural knowledge and coping with water insecurity and other challenges of living with climate change. To date, we have collected data in 20+ different countries, and at multiple sites within the US. The GES is a signature project that not only collects important research data, but also is committed to training cohorts of students in field collection and lab analysis of cultural data; to date, thousands of students and dozens of experts from an array of fields have participated. Some of the publications from this study can be found here. In 2021-22, we are collecting extended interview data in three South Asian countries on an often humiliating, deeply-distressing phenomena called “period poverty.” The GES is looking at the ways women express their sanitary concerns to others (such as husbands or friends), and how others understand and react to the different ways they communicate distress. We ask: what factors help women claim dignity in managing the profound challenges of sanitation insecurity? Primary contacts: Amber Wutich & Alex Brewis
Small World/Big Bodies
Bodies almost everywhere are getting larger, in what is termed an "obesity epidemic." For the last 2+ decades, our team has been working across the globe to understand changing stigma toward "fat." You can read the NYTimes coverage of our seminal 2011 findings. In 2021 we published a book -- "Fat in Four Cultures" --based on ethnographic fieldwork in Japan, Paraguay, Samoa, and the US, a comparative study of what it is means to live with weight worries. Another aspect of the project is investigating how "fat talk" works in different cultural settings. Primary contacts: Cindi SturtzSreetharan or Alex Brewis
The Water Sharing Project
Our team has been gathering and evaluating evidence from multiple global sites to understand household-to-household water sharing as a common emergent social response to extreme water insecurity. We are testing how sharing might buffer households from the deleterious health effects that typically accompany seasonal water shortages, interruptions of water services, and natural disasters. But our team is also testing when water sharing becomes burdensome and distressing, and so harmful to physical or mental health. Water sharing is a virtually invisible aspect of global health, and we are excited to be advancing this new area of research. Primary contacts: Alex Brewis or Amber Wutich.
What Makes a Good Citizen Social Scientist?
Citizen science (CS) is a potentially fun means to scale our research, encouraging wider public participation in our research adventures. CS has been widely applied in the natural sciences. But very little has been done in social science, in part because you need good observers of social phenomena. Using Phoenix as our test-bed we are investigating a fundamental question: what makes a good citizen social scientist? Primary contact: Cindi SturtzSreetharan
Stigma and the Undoing of Global Health
Pulling from our decades of work in low-resource communities across the globe, we are synthesizing understandings of the ways that global health efforts can inadvertently damage those is means it serve by creating or reinforcing social stigma. It's a project to directly challenge conventional thinking in public health. We have a book out with Johns Hopkins University Press. Primary contacts: Alex Brewis & Amber Wutich
Global Impact Collaboratory
How do we know that our projects will or do have a meaningful, sustainable impact? Launched three years ago, the Global Impact Collaboratory tests the best ways to bring innovative ethnographic methods into development program design, monitoring, and evaluation. I co-direct the GIC with a great team that includes ASU's Roseanne Schuster and Peggy Ochandarena at Chemonics International, one of the most experienced development practitioners in DC. We are always happy to talk to people about how anthropology can improve development, and manage contracts to help programs improve the monitoring, evolution, and learning. Recent USAID-supporting projects have been located in Mozambique (coastal climate adaptation), West Bank (justice), Haiti (rule of law), and Zambia (wildlife crime). You can read about the Mozambique work here. Primary contacts: Roseanne Schuster (GIC) and Alex Brewis
Better Post-Bariatric Lives
Weight-related stigma is prevalent and often socially permitted in the US. In collaboration with Mayo Clinic - Arizona, we spent three years conducting a longitudinal ethnographic study with bariatric surgery patients. We tracked how their lives and social identities changed - or didn't - in the wake of massive weight loss. The story proved anything but simple. Our 2021 book called "Extreme Weight Loss" is now out with NYU Press, as a capstone to this now-completed project.