Spotlight - 2015 - Chronic Life

Chronic Life
Professor Amy Moran-Thomas examines daily life inside the global diabetes epidemic

If the global diabetes epidemic now kills more than twice as many people as HIV/AIDS, then why do we still understand so little about what it’s actually like to live with it?

Institutional numbers charting this worldwide epidemic’s human costs range wildly, variously approximating somewhere between one million and four million annual mortalities from diabetes. This leaves the concerning statistical specter of some three million lives and deaths each year that are estimated by some, disputed by others, and frequently unrecorded by anyone.

Anthropologist Amy Moran-Thomas considers this grey area symptomatic of how chronic diseases like diabetes often sit uneasily with global health’s traditional emphasis on prioritizing infectious conditions. In 2010, she returned from fieldwork in the Central American country of Belize—where diabetes is the leading cause of death nationwide—having met people of all ages, classes, and appearances working to survive with the condition. She lived there for more than a year to observe and record ordinary stories that people recounted about care moving in and out of reach—such as insulin sharing in times of need, patients working to obtain parts from far-flung international relatives to repair broken glucometers over time, or protests that became part of advocacy to establish the country’s first public dialysis center. Others struggled to find healthy food each meal, or lived with the unknown consequences of various environmental exposures and newly overlaid co-morbid conditions that patients and doctors alike puzzled over.

Yet it often remains difficult to locate such complex actors in popular media coverage about the global diabetes epidemic, where actual patients frequently get eclipsed by stock caricatures of non-compliance. In charting people’s daily routines and travails as they moved through wider postindustrial landscapes, Moran-Thomas found herself writing against the idea that diabetes is simply the result of people who should stop eating too much. Her book develops the concept of “para-communicable” disease, arguing that diabetes is spreading worldwide in ways that do not fit into the bifurcated paradigm of “infectious” versus “non-communicable” conditions as they have historically been defined by biomedicine. It traces realities that reframe this emerging epidemic as part of sweeping ecological and postcolonial changes that people are struggling to live within, examining diabetes as one of many metabolic disorders now cascading across scales.

To build this case, Moran-Thomas draws from a patchwork of sources including environmental media, science writing, medical humanities, STS, biology, and history alongside anthropology— fields each offering insights that help to contextualize how chronic conditions like diabetes and their technological assemblages actually enter the social fabrics of homes, families, and ongoing lives. “People were often piecing together things from various places, as part of their daily work to stay intact,” she says. “I found myself doing the same in trying to follow their stories.”

Chronic Life
Artist Credit: James Young

Spotlight - 2015 - The Exit Zero Project

The Exit Zero Project
Associate Professor Christine Walley explores the lasting social and environmental impacts of deindustrialization

Associate Professor Christine Walley’s Exit Zero Project ( uses family stories told across multiple generations to explore the lasting social and environmental impacts of deindustrialization in the former steel mill communities of Southeast Chicago.

More broadly, the project examines the key role that the loss of industrial jobs has played in expanding class inequalities in the United States, and how Americans talk—and fail to talk—about social class.

In addition to a recent book, Exit Zero: Family and Class in Post-Industrial Chicago and a nearly-completed documentary film, also called Exit Zero (directed by Chris Boebel and produced by Professor Walley), the project also includes an interactive documentary website being developed in conjunction with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum.

Exit Zero

Spotlight - 2012 - Pulling back the curtain

Pulling back the curtain
Professor Graham Jones peers into the mysterious world of professional magicians

Magicians can make cards appear and people disappear. But the greatest trick any magician pulls off may be acquiring the knowledge needed to perform such acts in the first place.

After all, magic tricks are largely secrets; they wouldn't entertain audiences half as much otherwise. Thus magicians closely guard their trade's knowledge. And yet the craft would die if the techniques of magic did not transfer to promising practitioners.

"The paradox of all secrets, including those in magic, is that they are produced through concealing information, but for them to have any value, they also have to be shared to some extent," says Graham Jones, an assistant professor of anthropology at MIT, who has extensively studied the social world of magicians. "So there is a balance between concealment and revelation in the circulation of these tricks." More


Spotlight - 2012 - Tragic Spirits

Tragic Spirits
Professor Manduhai Buyandelger rides the steppes with nomadic shamans in post-Soviet Mongolia

Professor Manduhai Buyandelger's research links contemporary developments in Mongolian nationalism and culture with Buryat family experiences to document the revival of shamanism in the post-Soviet transformation of Mongolia. She takes up questions concerning the role of historical memory in forming political economy and culture, specifically looking at the case of the post-Soviet transformation in Mongolia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Buryats – the nomadic pastoralists of the northeastern Asian plain historically colonized by Mongols, Chinese, Russian and, more recently, Soviets – were cast into severe poverty, unfamiliar under socialist rule. With the dismantling of their collective farms and herding collaborations, the privatization of state assets, the liberalization of prices and opening to foreign trade and investment under the economic restructuring of the IMP and World Bank, the Buryats struggled to become part of the capitalist economy.

From lives organized by the cycles of the seasons, Buryats would now have to organize themselves through the vicissitudes of the market. Becoming market actors turned out to be quite difficult, however – nothing like the straightforward process neo-liberal policy advocates promised. It seems that the motivations essential to market success, or at least physical survival, are not inscribed in the human genome, but rather learned, often from birth, through long acculturation – exactly what the nomadic Buryats living under 70 plus years of Soviet rule lacked. "Without knowledge about the market economy, adequate infrastructure, legal frameworks, or start-up support," Buyandelger observes, "neoliberal reforms undid their own goal: to make the rural nomads into property owners capable of caring for themselves. Instead of bringing the expected capital, neoliberal 'shock therapy' brought lingering economic devastation, which the Buryats explain as the revenge of forgotten origin spirits."

As the Buryats attempt to appease their angry origin spirits through rituals of remembering in their hopes to alleviate their economic misery, they compile a shifting and interactive history of their forgotten past. The attempts to improve their material conditions by becoming a part of capitalist economy yielded something unexpected: a cultural production of suppressed history. This study joins other anthropological studies to show that a market economy and neoliberal practices do not necessarily swallow up the local practices. Instead, it suggests that the Buryat Mongols use the freedom and incentives of capitalism to revive their local culture. Therefore global capitalism and local shamanic practices are mutually constitutive. More, this study also shows that the concept of a market economy is not limited to western-style rational and material practices. Indeed, shamanic practices have their own economy that is distinct from western, but still relies on it.

From mid-1990s through 2000, Buyandelger lived and worked among the Buryats. Tragic Spirits, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, describes the Buryats confrontation with neo-liberal capitalism and the re-emergence of Shamanism as both an entrepreneurial and religious enterprise.

Monogolian Horses

Spotlight - 2012 - Professor Heather Paxson explores the world of artisanal cheesemaking

Professor Heather Paxson explores the world of artisanal cheesemaking
Anthropologist examines the 'everyday ethics' of everything from cheese making to motherhood

As a kid, Heather Paxson wouldn't eat American cheese.

"I thought it was not real food and it was an insult," she says of her youthful disdain for the processed stuff. As an elementary school student growing up in southern Illinois, Paxson insisted on cheddar or Swiss for her sandwiches instead.

Today, Paxson is a tenured professor in MIT's Anthropology Program, where she does ethnographic research into artisanal cheese making in the United States. She studies several aspects of cheese production, from the cultural – who is behind the current renaissance in handmade cheeses? – to what she calls the "microbiopolitics" of raw-milk cheese on this side of the Atlantic. More


Spotlight - 2012 - The MIT Anthropology Mola

The MIT Anthropology Mola
MIT Anthropology represented in Kuna craft

During his more than 40 years working with the Kuna people of Panama, Professor James Howe established a close, collegial relationship with the subjects of his research, people who became agents as well as subjects of their own ethnography. Some years ago, Howe commissioned from a Kuna woman a special tapestry called a mola for the MIT Anthropology Program. In the Kuna language, the word mola means "blouse," referring to the colorful clothing Kuna women began to make and wear in the early 19th century. From what is known of Kuna culture at that time, pressure from missionaries and others outside the Kuna community was the most likely cause that led Kuna women to begin wearing blouses, and styles of traditional body painting were transferred to fabric. The blouses from this period were mostly made of blue fabric with colored panels sewn into the bottom on the front and back. Eventually, these colored panels got larger and more prominent, until they came to dominate both the fronts and backs of the blouses. Molas worn by Kuna women today consist of two colored rectancular panels sewn together, with sleeves and yokes attached.

Today, molas are produced with trade cloth and commercial needles and thread, but the elborate designs are hallmarks of longstanding Kuna craft and tradition. The simplest molas consist of two layers of fabric of different colors, but often molas are made with many layers of vibrantly colored fabrics, using a Kuna variation of reverse appliqué. Mola designs can include elaborate repeating patterns, highly stylized representations of objects and landmarks, and even scenes of activity and people. Molas are often commissioned by visitors to the Kuna regions of Panama, and have become prized items for collectors.

In the MIT Anthropology mola, which was made by a Kuna woman living in the Comarca of San Blas off the Carribean coast of Panama, the scene depicts an interaction between a researcher and a member of the Kuna community. On the left side of a table sits an anthropologist, who is seen taking notes, while a Kuna tribesperson sits on the right, telling a story – a colorful representation of the participant observation ethonography practiced by faculty in the MIT Anthropology program. The MIT Anthropology mola is a testement to the groundbreaking and essential work of Professor Howe with the Kuna, and a representation of MIT Anthropology's ongoing mission of generating valuable knowledge about human social worlds.

MIT Anthropology Mola
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