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 with those 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 a range of ongoing projects at various stages of development that engage a wide array of collaborators from almost every field of study. This is a sample.
Sometimes being a follower gets you further than being a leader! One of my main efforts in 2022-2023 is in the supporting cast of a massive, innovative cross-country study of how we can improve household resiliency to water insecurity. With a large international team that includes anthropologists, geographers, economists, gender and development scholars, water/health/environmental scientists, and many others, 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.
This ambitious, collaborative, trans-disciplinary work advances new models for the direct translation of people's experiences of water insecurity to transnational policy for improving water and gender development interventions. Within this, I am testing biocultural theories of water harms on three points: a) how the felt severity (not just level) of water insecurity shapes social and emotional harms, b) how informal water sharing systems activate and how they distribute risk to participants and non-participants, and c) how gender inequalities are imbedded in both within- and between-household water allocation systems and decisions. We are also training many students and post docs in qualitative and survey forms of water-related research, supporting the next generation of global water-security leaders. The PI is Katrina Charles and the US team includes Wendy Jepson (TAMU, US-PI) and Justin Stoler (university of Miami).
Biocultural Perspectives on Water Insecurity
For some years, I have been innovating biocultural approaches to understand the mechanisms connecting water insecurity, culture/social dynamics, and stress. Part of this effort has been theorizing water insecurity in new ways that can be tested, and the other is actually testing them. For example, 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 water-based 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
Identity, Diagnosis, and Invisible Disease (ID-ID)
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. One emerging example currently is "Long COVID". In ID-ID we are exploring how diagnostic labels change who we are within societies, and how this relates to the ways people seek -- or avoid -- a diagnosis. We are using combinations of ethnographic and linguistic methods to explore questions like: How is long COVID and other "invisible" conditions shaping the way masculinity is understood and experienced? Does the broad experience of long COVID 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 planned collaboration with the Arizona CoVHORT Study. Primary contacts: Alex Brewis, Cindi SturtzSreetharan and Megan Jehn
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
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.
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.
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
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 that has won several awards. 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.