anthropology/global health class explores durham ghost bikes

Ghost bike memorializing cyclist Tony Turner at the intersection of Roxboro Street and Chateau Road in Durham, North Carolina.

What are the relationships between body, health, mobility and urban environments? What happens when these connections are out of balance? And how do traffic and mobility—by vehicle or bicycle—fit into this equation?

These are some of the questions undergraduate students creatively explored this spring in Duke Global Health Institute assistant professor Harris Solomon’s Anthropology and Global Health seminar, which centered around the theme of injury, with ghost bikes as a case study.

The course culminated in three final small group projects—a podcast, a community action event and a website. Each group focused on a different ghost bike in Durham, North Carolina.


A ghost bike is a bicycle that’s painted white and left at a site where a cyclist was fatally injured by a collision with a motor vehicle. Ghost bikes serve as both memorials and reminders to motorists to share the road safely with cyclists. Each ghost bike has its own unique adornments, such as flowers, a photo, the deceased cyclist’s name or a written message.

The first ghost bike was created in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2003; currently, more than 630 ghost bikes can be found in more than 200 locations across the world.


The idea to focus on ghost bikes came to Solomon, an assistant professor in cultural anthropology and global health, through his own research project on traffic accidents in Mumbai, India. The National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant that funds the project includes an educational component, and Solomon saw the seminar as an opportunity to bridge his research and teaching. He engaged his students in ethnographic research that explores the relationships between humans, health and urban environments—topics that parallel his research in India.

Students considered the meaning of ghost bikes as memorials as well as statements about the challenges bicyclists face in traversing urban areas like Durham, where motor vehicles tend to rule the road and where urban density is rapidly changing. Students also explored the local controversy around of ghost bikes; a city policy established in 2015 enables the city to remove ghost bikes upon receiving one complaint.

Solomon encouraged students to spend time conducting observations in the bike locations, writing and analyzing field notes, talking with locals and people with personal connections to the cyclist, learning more about the incidents that led to the cyclists’ deaths and meeting with city officials who set and implement local traffic and cycling policies.

With support from the Franklin Humanities Institute’s new Health Humanities Lab, which Solomon co-directs, he also hosted a visiting scholar, Lochlann Jain, associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University. Jain’s research, which the students had been studying throughout the semester, focuses on how injuries often connect the fields of medicine and law in unexpected ways. Jain joined the class to discuss their own ghost bike research and to provide feedback on the students’ projects.

“The students learned to think about how a single crash changes what we take for granted as the guarantee of global health. This was intense fieldwork around a single object, and the students were phenomenal, reflective and ethical researchers,” said Solomon. “They studied the ghost bikes as sentinels of the collateral bodily damage of urban change and considered the potent policy implications of this evolution.”


Each group of students explored their assigned ghost bike through a different medium, including a podcast, a community action event and a website.


The group focused on the ghost bike on Hillandale Road, which memorializes cyclist Seth Vidal, produced a podcast. Through conversations with members of national and international transportation safety organizations, a Durham city official, a local cycling activist and Vidal’s partner, the students explored several key questions:

  • What do ghost bikes mean to the family and friends of the deceased cyclist?
  • How do ghost bikes impact the local community?
  • Whom does the road belong to?
  • Does a city have the right to remove these memorials?

The project gave Jeremy Gottlieb ’18, a global health and cultural anthropology major and member of the podcast group, a deeper understanding of entanglements. For example, he said, “Seth Vidal’s ghost bike is intertwined with road infrastructure, car culture in America, the new focus on traffic accidents in global health, the Hillandale community and the lives of Seth’s friends and family.” And now, he reflected, he has a relationship with this memorial and is in his own way entangled with it.

Listen to the podcast.

Community Action Event 

On April 21, the student group assigned to the ghost bike honoring cyclist Kent Winberry at the intersection of Duke University Road and West Chapel Hill Street held an awareness-building event on the Duke campus.

They shared information with students about ghost bikes and cycling safety and solicited students’ help in decorating a ghost bike—borrowed from the Durham Bike Co-Op—with tissue paper flowers. The students plan to transfer the flowers from the bike to a wreath that will be placed on the actual ghost bike memorializing Winberry.

“This semester we combined our fieldwork with rich discussions to define and redefine the implications of what it means for something to be ‘global health,’” said McKenzie Hollen ’17, a global health and cultural anthropology major. “We attempted to make the global local and the local global. Bringing the ghost bike to campus furthered our engagement of ‘the local’—blurring the lines between Duke and Durham.”

Click on the image below to view a time-lapse video of the event:


A third group of students focused on the ghost bike at the intersection of Roxboro Street and Chateau Road, honoring cyclist Tony Turner. They created a website with information about ghost bikes and Turner, as well as photos and reflective essays related to the project.

Amanda Brumwell ’17, a global health and biology major and member of the group that created the website, enjoyed the class and the project. “I had always considered anthropology an important aspect of global health, but this class taught me how to consider health, harm and death in a new anthropological light,” she said. “We were compelled to ask questions like, ‘What’s at stake in memorializing a death?’ and ‘How does one’s environment lead to injury?’ to consider both tangible and intangible components of harm and death in a ghost bike.”

Click on the image below to view the website:

This summer, Solomon’s NSF grant will support an additional group of students to study the relations between traffic, injury, and mobility in Durham. The project, part of Duke’s Data+ program, connects students in cultural anthropology, global health, the Health Humanities Lab and the Information Initiative at Duke.

Note: This post is republished from Global Health Institute at Duke University, with permission

anthro in the news 5/22/17

Mexico-U.S. border at Tijuana. Credit: Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons

a wall is not the answer

A piece in TIME magazine on the U.S. Mexico border quotes Jason De León, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, who has conducted long-term studies of undocumented border crossings: “As soon as security is increased [in one place], it’s the balloon affect — you grab one area and the flow goes to another area.” He and other experts say that a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, like the fences that are in place now, will not deter immigrants who are willing to risk their lives to cross the border.

stopping police violence

Credit: Nevada CopBlock/Google Images Commons

USA Today carried an article by Sirry Alang, assistant of cultural anthropology professor in the Health, Medicine and Society Program in Lehigh University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She offers a seven-point list of what people in the U.S. can do to end police violence and create a more equitable society in the U.S. They include advocacy work, learning about structural violence, and remembering those who have been killed.

take that anthro degree and…

…become a musician. Sharon McNally is a singer, guitarist, and songwriter living in Mississippi. Her latest album is entitled Black Irish. She says: “All I know is that I play American music, specific to a place and a time and a setting. Now we all live in an information age, where we have access to 100 years or more of music history, and a lot of us are loosely grouped as Americana artists. I’m less concerned with what we call it, than how it makes me feel, but I love blues, soul, rock … and the cradle of it all is basically between Memphis and Mississippi. When you get down to it, there are only 12 notes on the basic American scale, and you can call it whatever you want.”  McNally has a B.A. in anthropology from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

…become a medical doctor. Lurit Bepo is a doctor specializing in internal medicine. She will spend her residency at the University of California, San Francisco, placement which meshes with her focus on community health, advocacy, and policy. Health policy decisions are more than just partisan jousting, she argues: “Health policy is so relevant right now, and impacts such a large number of people. There’s a tendency to think that not having medical insurance doesn’t kill people, but it does.” Bepo has a B.A. in anthropology and biology from Washington University St. Louis and an M.D./M.P.H. degree from Emory University.

…become an optometrist. Kelly De Simone is owner/CEO at Eye Priority, P.C, a family eye care facility in Phoenix, offering a personalized vision experience for clients of all ages.  She is a member of the Physician Board at the American Health Council where she shares her knowledge and expertise in optometry, eye care, and patient care. De Simone has a B.A. in anthropology from Pennsylvania State University and an O.D. from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry.

new light on the Bell Beaker Culture

This graphic from a 2007 study shows the spread of Beaker Culture across Europe. Red represents some of the ancient DNA sample sites found, while purple shows bell-shaped beaker artefacts.
Credit: The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail reported on a major genomic study offering insights about the arrival and spread of the Bell Beaker Culture, also called the Beaker Culture, in Britain around 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. Named after the shape of its signature clay vessels, the Beaker Culture may have displaced the resident Neolithic occupants. The analysis suggests that that Britain underwent a greater than 90 per cent shift in its genetic make-up after the arrival of the Bell Beaker people. While the Daily Mail article and an article in Scientific American hyperbolically use the term “invasion,” Marc Vander Linden, an archaeologist at University College London, says that many researchers prefer to call the spread the “Bell Beaker phenomenon.” 

the search goes on

BBC News carried a lengthy article reviewing some of the many steps in the search, since Darwin, for the “last common ancestor” (LCA) of humans and apes, also informally termed “the missing link.” At this point, scientists have narrowed the search to a rough location and have ideas about its morphology and behavior.  The piece draws on research from a variety of fields including anthropology. Several anthropologists are mentioned: Jeffrey Schwartz, Owen Lovejoy, Tracy Kivell, Sergio Almécija, and David Begun


Credit: National Association of Japan-America Societies/Wikimedia Commons

The Government of Japan has bestowed the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette on Joy Hendry, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University. The award is in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the promotion of Japanese studies in the U.K., and to deeper mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. Commenting about the honor, Hendry said: “I am delighted and humbled to receive such an award, but I also need to thank all my Japanese friends, as well as colleagues and grant-giving bodies on both sides of the world that have made my work possible. Anthropologists cannot achieve such things alone.”

anthropology students’ work comes to life with the many stories of main street

Central Hotel, Brower Post Card Collection, W&L Special Collections

Families and people of all ages are encouraged to take part in “The Many Stories of Main Street,” an interpretive downtown Lexington walking tour where one can learn about past generations who lived and worked in Lexington’s historic buildings.

The tour is based on research comprised of both archival and oral history, completed over the past few years by anthropology students at Washington and Lee University. “Students taking a variety of courses, including the Anthropology of American History and Qualitative Methods, researched the original owners and proprietors of downtown Lexington’s historic buildings and developed interesting and engaging ways to tell their stories,” said Alison Bell, associate professor of anthropology at W&L.

“The students’ work also highlights the importance of historic preservation. Many of these buildings were saved by Historic Lexington Foundation, and without their work to preserve them we would not be able to learn from and enjoy them today.”

There are six stops on the free, family-friendly tour of North Main Street, which begins at the old Courthouse Square, at the intersection of Main and Washington Streets, and ends at First Baptist Church, on Saturday, May 13 from 2 pm – 4 pm.

 At each of the sites, hosts from the Historic Lexington Foundation will welcome visitors and share photos and information on how historic preservation allows us to remember and learn about the people who lived, worked and shopped along North Main Street. The hosts will also discuss the history and architecture of the buildings, while Washington and Lee students will serve as interpreters, representing historic characters and narrating their stories.Several stops will include interactive displays and activities, and children who visit each stop and have a designated card stamped can receive a free donut from Pure Eats at the end of the tour.

“Main Street Lexington is very excited by ‘The Many Stories of Main Street’,” said Stephanie Wilkinson, Main Street Lexington’s executive director. “As an organization founded on the concept of ‘economic revitalization in the context of historic preservation,’ we know that keeping in touch with the historic uses of our buildings helps people connect emotionally with our beautiful downtown. This program will set the stage for further exploration and sharing of Lexington’s past.”

The tour is sponsored by First Baptist Church, the Historic Lexington Foundation, Main Street Lexington and Washington and Lee University’s department of sociology and anthropology.

Written by: 

Note: This post is republished from Washington and Lee, the Columns, with permission

anthro in the news 5/15/17

credit: GaryckArntzen/Google Images Commons

French election and refugees 

An article in The Huffington Post by two anthropologists says that the French election is good news for refugees: “Macron’s win marks a small victory for the left and anti-populist movements, especially for the millions of forced migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Macron ran on an immigration platform that commended German chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous refugee policy and promised to prioritize asylum issues in his first six months in office.” The authors are Elizabeth Wirtz, doctoral candidate in anthropology at Purdue University, Mark Schuller, associate professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the State University of Haiti.

anumerism as a way of life

The Conversation published an article by linguistic anthropologist Caleb Everett, Andrew Carnegie Fellow and professor of anthropology at Miami University, on anumerism, or the practice of not using many words for numbers:  “Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to ‘a few’ or ‘some…’” In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.”

Continue reading “anthro in the news 5/15/17”

social conditions play major role in migrant health

Health is about more than just individual behavior and clinical care, it’s about politics and power, say UConn medical anthropologists. In fall 2016, these migrants were forced to leave the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, France, when authorities decided to demolish the site. Some 7,000 people had been estimated to be living in the camp in squalid conditions. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The most powerful influences on human health are not the foods we eat or whether we have access to medical care, but how societies are organized, how power is distributed, and how some people are better positioned to make healthy choices than others, decades of public health research have shown.

These “upstream” factors are at the heart of Syndemics, a field of applied health research with roots in medical anthropology. UConn professor of anthropology Merrill Singer coined the term – a combination of “synergy” and “epidemic” – in the 1990s, and authored a 2009 textbook on the concept. Last month, the leading British medical journal, The Lancet, published a special series on the topic, featuring papers by Singer and UConn assistant professor of anthropology Sarah Willen, among others. The series grew out of a 2015 workshop co-sponsored by the Research Program on Global Health and Human Rights, of which Willen is director, at UConn’s Human Rights Institute.

She and an interdisciplinary team of researchers with an interest in migration co-authored the third of three papers in the series. Drawing on a variety of case studies, they consider how an approach that combines insights from syndemics and human rights can advance research, public health, and clinical care for migrant populations – all growing concerns in the face of rising anti-immigrant politics and policies in the United States and abroad.

In a recent interview with UConn Today, Willen discusses the significance of the series, her paper, and this innovative way of studying and confronting health inequities.

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anthro in the news 5/8/17

[Left] Jane Goodall, pioneering primatologist. [Right] Ivanka Trump quotes wisdom from Jane Goodall in her new book.
Credits: Google Images Commons,

speaking truth to power

The Washington Post reported on the reaction of primatologist and activist Jane Goodall to being quoted in Ivanka Trump’s book, Women Who Work: “I understand that Ms. Trump has used one of my quotes in her forthcoming book,” Goodall said…“I was not aware of this, and have not spoken with her, but I sincerely hope she will take the full import of my words to heart.”  Goodall said legislation passed by previous governments to protect wildlife — such as the Endangered Species Act, efforts to create national monuments and other clean air and water legislation — “have all been jeopardized by this administration.”  Further: “She is in a position to do much good or terrible harm…I hope that Ms. Trump will stand with us to value and cherish our natural world and protect this planet for future generations.”

helping heroin-addicted children

Caption: Students at Prop Roots Education Center.

The South China Mail carried an article about the widespread heroin-addiction among children in China living along the Myanmar border.  Drugs have become ubiquitous, according to Fu Guosheng, a former graduate student of anthropology at Minzu University of China in Beijing. Fu, originally from a village in the area and now an artist and aid worker, noted in her master’s thesis that opium was routinely used in her home town as a gift to greet guests. And it was not rare to see villagers taking heroin on the streets. Zhang Wenyi, who teaches anthropology at Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University, explained in a recent article how a widening income gap between ethnic groups and modern China had knocked the local Jingpo people off balance, making some turn to drugs. Fu cited family problems and school drop-out rates as other driving forces.

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new book explores ‘true’ Japan on the edge of a Brazilian forest

The cover of Nobuko Adachi’s new book that explores the Japanese Brazilian commune of Kubo

The nation of Brazil is home to 1.5 million people of Japanese descent, the largest such population outside of Japan, larger even than the number of Japanese Americans. For her new book, Associate Professor of Anthropology Nobuko Adachi studied one group that considers itself a direct legacy of the “real” Japan.

“They let me know that they are real Japanese, while I myself just happen to come from Japan,” said Adachi, who was born and raised in Japan. “For them, being Japanese means staying true to nature and the purity of Japan’s farming tradition.”

Adachi’s book, Ethnic Capital in a Japanese Brazilian Commune: Children of Nature, examines the inhabitants of the Japanese commune of Kubo, which lies more than 350 miles from the metropolis of São Paulo on the border of the Mato Grosso do Sul (“thick forest of the south”). Less than 100 people live in the commune, but they share many of the same values as the Japanese descendants who arrived in Kubo in the early 1900s, noted Adachi.

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