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 (mostly) 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. As part of this, I work in large, diverse, collaborative teams. I also work with groups outside of academia before, during, and after projects - local communities, international development agencies, other state and private institutions like hospitals or NGOs, and/or elected leaders - to identify the very best ways to translate anthropological research into sustainable, meaningful solutions.
At any time, we have various projects at different stages of development. This is a sample.
How Can We Improve Household Water Insecurity?
For some years, I have been innovating biocultural approaches to understand the mechanisms connecting water insecurity, culture/social dynamics, and stress. This research is connected to the HWISE research collaborative network, funded by the National Science Foundation. The effort brings together scholars and practitioners from all around the world to better document the lived experience of water insecurity.
My main focus has been in understanding the biocultural mechanisms that link water insecurity to worse health and mental health outcomes, and so determine the best points for effective intervention. For example, many households globally struggle daily with water insecurity, food insecurity, and common mental illnesses like depression. But how do we unravel these? For example, 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.
The HWISE 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 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.
Analysis and write-up of data collected in Haiti in 2018 and Ethiopia 2019 is now almost completed. Ethiopia research 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. Data collection in Mexico-US border colonias (led by Amber Wutich) and peri-urban Apache Junction, Arizona (led by me) is ongoing. I am also in the supporting cast of an innovative cross-country study of how we can improve household resiliency to water insecurity. The REACH-WISER team (based at and led by Oxford University, and funded by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)) is collecting detailed mixed-method data in three observatory sites in Khulna, Bangladesh; West Turkana, Kenya; and Awash, Ethiopia. The PI is Katrina Charles.
How Can Increase Community Input in Intervention Design? The Global Impact Collaboratory [GIC]
How do we know that our projects will or do have a meaningful, sustainable impact? Launched in 2015, the Global Impact Collaboratory (GIC) 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
How Does Disease Diagnosis Damage our Social Identities?
When a disease is diagnosed it often changes who you are as a person -- how you see yourself and how others relate to you. Often the act of receiving a diagnostic label disconnects you from others, such as through stigma. But other times it can be a social connector, bringing you back into society instead. This is often the case for conditions where there is no biomarker or test that can demonstrate that illness and debilitation "exist" other than in the person's own telling. In such cases, the diagnostic label in itself returns social legitimacy and can bring more social support to the person who is suffering. This is a book project in progress. Primary contact: Alex Brewis
Perceptions of Climate Challenges: The 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 information about and publications from this study can be found here. In 2021-22, we collected extended interview data in three South Asian countries to understand how women use language to reclaim their dignity around a humiliating, deeply-distressing phenomena called “period poverty.” In 2022-23, we are examining the idea of "moral economies" of water. In 2023-24, we are investigating how the entwined physical and emotional experiences of thirst are similarly/differently recognized and interpreted across diverse sites. Primary contacts: Amber Wutich & Alex Brewis
How Can We Better Teach Anthropology?
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 led 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 (with me 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.
What Does it Mean to Have a Big Body? The Small World/Big Bodies Project
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
Citizen Social Science in Global Health (C-SIGH)
Citizen science (CS) is a potentially fun means to scale our research, encouraging wider public participation in research adventures. CS has been widely applied in the natural sciences. But very little CS 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? And how does this connect to our efforts to advance a global health that is better connected to community needs and concerns? Primary contact: Cindi SturtzSreetharan
Reducing Stigma in Global Health Practices
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 that introduces our concerns, ethnographic insights, and suggests some solutions. Primary contacts: Alex Brewis & Amber Wutich
Supporting 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", led by Sarah Trainer and out with NYU Press, was a capstone to this now-completed project.