Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations 2015



Welcome to another year of my cultural anthropology dissertation picks. Every year my scanning of the year’s dissertations reveals different prominent themes, as informed by my search of Dissertation Abstracts International (which as I have noted in previous year’s posts, is anything but international; as far as I can tell, the scope is nearly 100 percent U.S.).

This year I was struck by the many studies related to food and to gender, and more studies focusing on race, education, and media. Health continues to be important as do rights and the rise of activism, both intersecting with race, class, gender, and ability.  The rise of food as a topic is particularly poignant given the recent death of Sidney Mintz. Mintz can well be considered the founder of “food anthropology” with his landmark publication of Sweetness and Power in 1985. He would no doubt have been pleased to see this trend and these many wonderful studies.

My usual search terms reflect the focus of the anthropologyworks blog: social diversity, social inequality, structural violence and resistance, and the importance of cultural anthropology in studying and revealing complex relations in all the above and offering findings that can help change the world for the better through their research, writing, teaching, advocacy, and activism.

The question of open access to these sources thus arises. As far as I can tell, of these 40 dissertations, only four are open access (Antoine, Donaldson, Oliveiria, and Richard); one is embargoed until April 30, 2017, after which it will presumably be open access.

Given the facts that many of these dissertations are the product of education at publicly funded institutions and that much of the research was funded by public money such as the National Science Foundation, it is difficult to understand why the public is excluded from accessing most of these works. I have no idea what kind of a deal ProQuest has with universities in the United States, but Proquest is likely making quite a nice profit from payment to access dissertations. Or, it may not be, since the price is so high in which case the Proquest arrangement serves to keep important new knowledge out of the public domain because of its pricing, just like the scholarly journals.  [Readers, if I am missing something important here, please let me know].

On a brighter note: Congratulations to these 40 dissertation writers. I wish you well and look forward to hearing about your accomplishments in the future.

See also the best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2009, 2010, 2011,20122013, and 2014.

“Pushing the edge”: Challenging racism and sexism in American stand-up comedy.
Antoine, Katja Elisabet, University of California, Los Angeles. Advisors: Karen Brodkin, Jessica R. Cattelino. [open access]

This dissertation examines how stand-up comedians challenge racism and sexism in their performances. I focus on comedians who challenge racism and sexism through joke material and in their affective and performative work on stage. Key ways they do so include: performing slavery as anti-racist critique; targeting genocide and colonialism; challenging the “terrorist label” and racialized masculinities, and through female embodiment. I conducted 18 months of ethnographic research in Los Angeles, focusing on male and female comedians of color, but also producers and managers. I show the discourses on race and gender that circulate in the comedy world and the US more broadly. These comedians’ work becomes part of broader anti-racist discourses through social media, film, and television.


Embodying scales of Filipina/o American sporting life: Transnational sporting cultures and practices in the Filipina/o diaspora. Arnaldo, Constancio Realiza, Jr.. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Advisor: Martin F. Manalansan, IV

This multi-sited ethnographic study examines how Filipina/o Americans take up sporting cultures and practices in Southern California in the twenty-first century. I show how sports figure prominently in the everyday lives of Filipina/o Americans by documenting the multiple sporting spaces they navigate, including internet sports websites, basketball gyms, sports tournaments, Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao family fight nights, Pacquiao boxing matches, and social media spaces. I explore how power circulates across intersecting categories of difference, including, race, class, gender, and sexuality as they correspond with sport discourses, embodied meanings/gestures, spatialized practices and sporting ideologies and traditions.


Anthropology of transnational mass media: An ethnographic incursion into Brazil’s cable TV emergence in the 1990s.  Torres, Joao Batista de Miranda. The University of Chicago. Advisor: William T. S. Mazzarela.

This dissertation investigates the domain of Brazilian television in the context of cable and satellite technologies’ inauguration of broadcasting and consumption of transnational TV networks. Its central idea is recapturing the 1990s process by which a new viewing technology was implemented, in order to study tensions and contradictions arising from a globalized commodity enterprise, under the sign of a vivid confrontation with local ambiguities and differences. Brasilia is the ethnographic site from which I will examine how Brazilian TV viewers have assimilated the new visual technology, and to what extent middle-class culture affects and shapes this new process of reception.


How social forces don a white coat: The social context of childbirth management in Metro Detroit. Boffi, Emilia. Michigan State University. Advisor: Linda Hunt.

This dissertation presents the findings of a qualitative research study of childbirth management in Metro Detroit. I explore pregnancy experiences among urban and suburban expectant mothers, examining the creation and maintenance of authoritative hierarchies through the use of obstetrical tools and techniques, and how sociocultural context impacts the level of agency achieved by local expectant mothers in the decision-making process. I argue that the perceived objectivity of biomedicine veils the influence of socio-cultural context on obstetrical practice and physician perspectives, such that hegemonic social ideologies relating to race, gender, and class infiltrate institutionalized birthing practices.


The globalization of the breast cancer awareness campaign in Austria, 2012-2014. Bouskill, Kathryn. Emory University. Advisor: Peter J. Brown.

The globalization of the American-style breast cancer awareness campaign has added new dimensions to the breast cancer illness experience and to notions of breast cancer risk and prevention. This ethnography explores the globalization of the breast cancer awareness campaign in Austria from 2012-2014. Narrative interviews with 55 women undergoing treatment for breast cancer revealed psychosocial issues that are not addressed by the campaign. The sexualized imagery of the campaign and the inability for women with breast cancer to attend key campaign events creates a sense of exclusivity that fails to establish solidarity.


Choosing methadone: Managing addiction and the body politic in Ukraine. Carroll, Jennifer J. University of Washington. Advisor: Laada Bilaniuk

This dissertation explores the lived experience of opiate substitution therapy (OST) patients in Ukraine. To complete this research, I conducted fourteen months of ethnographic research in OST programs across Ukraine between 2012 and 2014. I conducted extensive clinical observations and collected more than fifty interviews with patients and clinicians. This dissertation argues that clinical cultures and treatment-seeking behaviors are shaped by a ‘somatic ethic,’ which not only governs discourses on drug use and addiction but also places social integration and acceptable personhood at odds with the practicalities of treatment. In the last chapter, I outline practical recommendations for improving OST programs in Ukraine and elsewhere.


Aftermath of a riot foretold: Violence, impunity and sovereignty in Gujarat, India Chatterjee, Moyukh. Emory University. Advisor: Bruce M. Knauft. 

This dissertation examines processes that allow Hindu nationalists and state officials in the state of Gujarat, India, to perform mass, public, anti-minority violence that expands and deepens their power. I argue impunity is not merely the breakdown of law and order but a systematic and ongoing process of legitimizing and performing Hindu sovereignty in India. Ethnographic and archival research reveals the long-term official and unofficial practices by which political violence against Muslims is denied and authorized within a liberal secular state. My investigation of legal technologies, state writing practices, and everyday techniques of Hindu nationalist activists uncovers the infrastructure of impunity that outlives recurring episodes of anti-minority violence in contemporary India.


The world where you live — Environmental literacies, climate change, and young people in American Samoa. Christian Ronning, Evelyn G.. Temple University. Advisor: Judith Goode.

This dissertation examines the production of knowledge around global climate change and the character of environmental literacy among youth in Tafuna, on Tutuila, American Samoa. I analyze this production of environmental knowledge across multiple social fields (i.e. status hierarchies, governance structures, etc.) and subjectivities (school-specific, village-based, and Samoan cultural identities) during a period of social, political, economic, and environmental transformation. American educational ideals continue to be contradictory in the American Samoan context; whereas schools value and promote individually-oriented goals and responsibility, youth are also embedded in the values of communal identification and practice known as fa’a Samoa. Youth plan for a future away from American Samoa.


Farmers and farmworkers: Negotiating labor and identity in rural northeast Tennessee. Donaldson, Susanna Meredith. The University of Iowa. Advisor: Michael Chibnik.

Burley tobacco–a key component in American-made cigarettes–has been produced in northeast Tennessee for over a century. In Austin County, Tennessee, burley tobacco has become a marker of local identity. Traditionally, Austin County farm families have met their crop’s demand for labor by “swapping” work. This reciprocal tradition was made possible by the ubiquitous production of the leaf in Austin County on a relatively small-scale. The persistence of reciprocal labor in Austin County has influenced the ways in which rural families (particularly white, land-owning families) conceptualize burley tobacco farming and farm work. Even though most have adopted the use of migrant labor, the tradition of reciprocity contributes to locally specific ways of organizing and managing seasonal farm work. [open access]


“I only want two”: Aesthetics, race, and sterilization in Brazil. Edu, Ugo Felicia. University of California, San Francisco. Advisors: Ian Whitmarsh and Vincanne Adams. 

The adoption in Brazil of a national family planning program and legalization of tubal ligation took place within a pre-existing economy of race, sexuality, and aesthetics. This dissertation examines the factors that influence women’s decisions and their experiences trying to secure tubal ligations in Brazil. My work reveals the intersections of race, reproduction, gender, sexuality, class, agency, necropolitics and aesthetics and links Brazilian notions of beauty, desirability and family aesthetics to women’s reproduction. I also explicitly connect the history and legacy of slavery and racism in Brazil to health disparities as experienced by women in their attempts to control their fertility.


Authenticating sexuality: Sexual ideology and HIV science in South Africa. Fiereck, Kirk John. Columbia University. Advisor: Richard G. Parker.

This dissertation examines the emergence of queer personhood among black publics and medical cultures in South Africa over the past century. Based on more than two years of fieldwork in South Africa, it contains both a historical and an ethnographic component. The historical research comprised participant observation, archival research and interviews exploring how black South Africans reference multiple cultural fields of sexual and gender identities to elaborate composite formations of sexual subjectivity and personhood. I examined how social actors, in the context of community settings and global health and community development projects, address sexual and gender nonconformity.

  Continue reading “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations 2015”

anthro in the news 2/8/16


On eliminating Valentine’s Day in U.S. public schools

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, many schools in the Minneapolis area will not be marking Valentine’s Day or many other so-called “dominant holidays” in the interest of promoting diversity. An ongoing debate concerns what, if any, celebrations should take place in classrooms. The article quotes cultural anthropologist William Beeman, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, a “holiday supporter:”  “It’s very difficult to eliminate all celebrations from human society, and finding a reason for celebration is a terribly important human function because it creates social solidarity…And we don’t want our schools to be a grim place, where there’s never any fun, never any community building.”

In Argentina: Culture of police violence vs. human rights

Complicated Connection: President Macri and his family meeting the Pope. The declaration of a national security emergency does not fit with a Francisan approach to social justice. Source: Wikimedia.

An article in the Argentina Independent discusses the “tough on crime” approach of President Mauricio Macri who assumed office in December and has already decreed a national public security emergency. The article expresses concern about the culture of police violence that continues to plague Argentina. It quotes Maria Victoria Pita, anthropology professor at the University of Buenos Aires:  “There is a historical tradition of confrontation and violence between civil society and the police…It is a very complicated issue because it has to deal with the basis of cultural development and political conditions.”

Continue reading “anthro in the news 2/8/16”

anthro in the news 2/1/2016

Source: Creative Commons

U.S. football violence

Cultural anthropologist William Murphy, lecturer in the department of anthropology at Northwestern University, published an op-ed in the Chicago Sun Times about how U.S. football turns a person into a commodity: “In football calculus, knocking a skilled player out of the game is sometimes (but not always) worth the penalty for some form of unnecessary roughness. Some players specialize in this tactic, and are rewarded by fans and coaches when they get away with it. Unnecessary roughness is necessary in this calculus.” He draws on Homer, Simone Weil, and others to connect the violence of war and U.S. football with dehumanization.


U.S. football pride: It hurts not being first

Source: Creative Commons

An article in the San Diego Union Tribune reported on the decision to keep San Diego’s football team, the Chargers, for at least another year. The article quotes Seth Mallios, professor of anthropology at San Diego State University and the author of multiple books on San Diego history: “In terms of our collective psyche…we feel like we are in L.A.’s shadow. Los Angeles has two NBA teams, and one of them is one of our former teams. And look at the difference between the Dodgers’ payroll and the Padres’. When you start thinking about the giant money donations they can get up there, we can feel a little inferior.”

Continue reading “anthro in the news 2/1/2016”

anthro in the news 1/25/2016


Eritrea landscape. Source: Creative Commons

Misguided U.K. asylum policy

As described in an article in the Guardian, John Campbell, reader in the anthropology of Africa and law at the University of London, U.K. asylum policy for Eritreans is misguided. Campbell analyzed two Country Information Guidance documents issued by the Home Office last year which say that it is safe to return asylum seekers to Eritrea. Campbell argues that this position over-relies on one outdated source and does not take into account other available evidence and. Campbell is reported to have said: “An undergraduate would be failed for this sort of thing.” The Home Office has not responded.


Haiti: Still seeking an elected president

Poster encouraging citizens to vote in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 2016. Source: Nicholas Johnson, IGIS

An article in the Huffington Post offers insights into the unresolved presidential election in Haiti. It focuses on one candidate who is closely linked with the banana industry. Co-authors are Jennifer Vansteenkiste, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Guelph and Mark Schuller, associate professor of anthropology and NGO leadership development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti.

Continue reading “anthro in the news 1/25/2016”

Sam Beck's book frames anthropology as a means of change

By Susan Kelley, Republished with Permission from Cornell Chronicle

Sam Beck, senior lecturer in the College of Human Ecology, has co-edited a new volume on the theory and practice of public anthropology. Source: Cornell Chronicle, Mark Vorreuter/College of Human Ecology

Social and cultural anthropologist Sam Beck is a leading proponent of moving anthropology out of academia’s ivory tower and into communities and cultures to bring about positive change.

He has been a fixture in the New York City neighborhood of North Brooklyn for more than two decades, where he has studied the effects of gentrification and supported community groups rallying for more affordable housing for ethnic minorities.

Beck has brought that experience to bear as co-editor of a new book, “Public Anthropology in a Borderless World.” With 10 essays in three thematic sections, the edited volume explores how public anthropology improves the modern human condition by actively engaging with people to make changes through research, education and political action. Beck has also contributed a chapter, “Urban Transitions: Graffiti Transformations.” He co-edited the book with Carl Maida of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Public anthropology is a relatively new term that refers to the discipline as a collaboration between the anthropologist and communities to co-construct research and knowledge and communicate that knowledge to a variety of audiences. It also advocates for anthropologists to engage in various forms of intervention, including political action.

American anthropologists, Beck says, have a rich history of positioning themselves in the struggle for social justice and democratization. “Critical and political, [public anthropology] embraces advocacy and at times activism, not just as a strategy for generating data but as a commitment to support and effect change for society’s most vulnerable members and for those living in oppressive conditions,” Beck and Maida write in the introduction. Continue reading “Sam Beck's book frames anthropology as a means of change”

anthro in the news 1/18/16


Source: Google Images/Creative Commons

Autism that can kill

Kim Shively, professor of cultural anthropology at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, published an article in the Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania) about how autism can be fatal to children. Her article notes a recent death by drowning of a five-year old autistic boy in Allentown. She focuses on the variety of autism that involves a tendency to wander away from home, arguing that it is the most dangerous, especially for non-verbal children. She notes that “public safety and health service providers in our area…have poor understanding of what autism is or how it is manifested.” She offers three recommendations.


Sons of a paramount chief, seated, with an African slave, 1904. The Guardian/Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, Tehran, Iran

African slavery in Iran

Anthropologist Pedram Khosronejad is Farzaneh Family Scholar and Associate Director for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the School of International Studies of Oklahoma State University. He has embarked on a new and controversial topic in Iranian studies, developing a narrative on African slavery in Persia through archival photography, interviews, and texts. The African slave trade in the Persian Gulf began well before the Islamic period. Mediaeval accounts refer to slaves working as household servants, bodyguards, militiamen and sailors in the Persian Gulf including what is today southern Iran. In Iran’s modern history, Africans were integral to elite households.

Continue reading “anthro in the news 1/18/16”

anthro in the news 1/11/16


Source: Washington Post

Buy a kidney, exploit the poor and desperate

Washington Post published a weekly “In Theory” piece by medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes of the University of California at Berkeley. She is also director of Organs Watch, and advisor to the World Health Organization, the European Union, and the United Nations. She writes: “Be aware that the sale of organs has damaged the families of sellers and their communities — in Syria, India, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine, Brazil, Egypt, the Philippines, Turkey and wherever political refugees wash up on the shores of Europe. A kidney for an (un)safe passage to freedom: This is the unbalanced agreement demanded of many families fleeing political conflict and drought. In the watery slums of Manila, the obligation to sell a kidney for the financial sake of the family is being passed down from the father to his wife to their underage sons and daughters, whose bodies are seen as a family piggy-bank.”


Too many men?

Politico Magazine and the Australian cited Barbara Miller‘s work on male-biased sex ratios in relation to the many refugees entering Europe. Politico mentions her argument that countries should consider a balanced sex ratio to be a public good. The Australian quotes her as saying that heavily male-biased sex ratios can be a risk to local security. [Blogger’s notes: (1) political scientist Valerie Hudson of Texas A & M University has done much to promote awareness of the connection between heavily male-biased sex ratios and violence; a much earlier, foundational study on the social implications of male-biased sex ratios is an article by anthropologists William Divale and Marvin Harris appeared in the American Anthropologist in 1976. (2) It would be most unfortunate if the “too many men” factor were to become a knee-jerk justification for denying male asylum seekers since a common pattern of refugee migration is that a “pioneer” male first arrives and then brings in his family; see the next entry on U.S. family immigration/reunification policies].

Continue reading “anthro in the news 1/11/16”