Amy Moran-Thomas | People

Amy Moran-Thomas

Amy Moran-Thomas

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Room E53-335B




Amy Moran-Thomas is Associate Professor of Anthropology at MIT, interested in the human and material entanglements that shape health in practice. She received her PhD in Anthropology from Princeton University in 2012, and held postdoctoral fellowships at Princeton and Brown before coming to MIT. Her writing often focuses on the social lives of medical objects. She also works on the cultural anthropology of intergenerational health, planetary change, and chronic conditions; as well as questions of equitable device design, technology and kinship, and the afterlives of energy across scales. Professor Moran-Thomas has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Belize, Guatemala, Ghana, Brazil, and the U.S, supported by the Mellon-American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, the West African Research Association, and the American Philosophical Society. Her first book, Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (2019), examines the global rise of diabetes as part of the ongoing legacies of sweetness and power.  It examines how unequal access to insulin varieties, oxygen chambers, glucose meters, dialysis devices, and prosthetics can shape how history lives in the present.


Social Lives of Medical Technologies

Professor Moran-Thomas’ work combines ethnography and cultural history to examine the social lives of health objects. She has written about global breakdowns of glucose meters and the problem of equitable design; lives shaped by various types of insulin, which remain inaccessible to many on its hundredth anniversary; and struggles to maintain bodies and infrastructures through use of dialysis devices, oxygen chambers for diabetic wound care, and prosthetic limbs. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she extended these material questions to explore the forgotten history of more equitable oximeters. Her essay on unequal inaccuracies in pulse oximeters in Boston Review prompted the first clinical study of the problem using hospital data, now part of a senate-led call for the FDA to protect against related biases and improve devices. She is interested in how anthropological perspectives on design can contribute to producing more equitable technologies.


Cultural Histories of Energy and Health

Professor Moran-Thomas’ first book, Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (2019; open access here), traces the planetary diabetes epidemic as part of the ongoing legacies of sweetness and power. It chronicles five hundred years of sugar’s histories, and follows the care work of families managing chronic conditions and their struggles to recover from diabetic injuries such as organ failure and amputated limbs — health advocacy movements followed in relation to the material afterlives of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Central America. The books storytelling structure of crónicas follows patientstravails and "slow care" as they navigate unequal global infrastructures and unsettling dilemmas. The stories and routines they shared help to show diabetestasks of maintenance and repair as entwined issues of caring for bodies, technologies, histories, data, infrastructures, ancestors, atmospheres, and ecosystems.

Building on this work about the social lives of carbohydrates (especially sugar), Professor Moran-Thomas is also working on a project focuses on the health aspects of hydrocarbons (especially oil). It again draws on kinship as critical method — this time writing from her own families'histories.

Publications|Selected Publications

2023 Sweetness Across Thresholds at the Edge of the Eating beside Ourselves: Thresholds of Foods and Bodies. Heather Paxson, ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
2021 One Hundred Years of Insulin for Some. New England Journal of Medicine 385(4), 293-5. July 22 2021.
2021 Notes from a Fever Dream. Special Issue "Where Do We Go From Here?" Edited by Lucas Bessire. Anthropology Now, 13: 11-24. (Video from reading at Harvard Friday Morning Seminar here.)
2021 Oximeters Used to Be Designed for Equity. What Happened? Wired, June 4 2021.
2020 How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias. Boston Review. August 2020. (Book version here.)
2019 Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic. Berkley: University of California Press. (Book PDF open access here.)
2019 What is Communicable? Unaccounted Injuries and 'Catching' Diabetes in an Illegible Epidemic. Cultural Anthropology 34(4), 503-528.
2019 Struggles for Maintenance: Patient Activism and Dialysis Dilemmas.​ Special Issue on “Social Inequities and Contemporary Struggles for Collective Health in Latin America.” Edited by Emily Vasquez, Amaya Perez-Brumer, and Richard Parker. Global Public Health 14 (6-7), 1044-57.
2017 Glucometer Foils.  Special issue on "Little Development Devices/ Humanitarian Goods."  Edited by Peter Redfield and Alice Street.  Limm, Issue 9.
2016 Breakthroughs for Whom?: Global Diabetes Care and Equitable Design. New England Journal of Medicine 375; 24: 2317-9.
2016 I Didn't Bring My Camera. On Hervé Guibert's Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary. Edited by Eugene Raikhel. Somatosphere.
2012 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic in a Disease Eradication Program. In When People Came First: Critical Studies in Global Health. Edited by Joao Biehl and Adriana Petryna. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2009 Symptom: Subjectivities, Social Ills, Technologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 38: 267-88 (with Joao Biehl).


Introduction to Anthropology: Comparing Human Cultures

Through the comparative study of different cultures, anthropology explores fundamental questions about what it means to be human. Seeks to understand how culture shapes societies, from the smallest island in the South Pacific to the largest Asian metropolis, and affects the way institutions work, from scientific laboratories to Christian mega-churches. Provides a framework for analyzing diverse facets of human experience, such as gender, ethnicity, language, politics, economics, and art.

Disease and Health: Culture, Society, and Ethics

From a cross cultural and global perspective, examines how medicine is practiced, with particular emphasis on biomedicine.  Analyzes medical practice as a cultural system, focusing on the human and social side of things.  Considers how people in different societies think of disease, health, body, and mind.

Drugs, Politics, and Culture

Explores the relationship between drugs and society in a cross-cultural perspective, looking at intersections between drugs and phenomena such as poverty, religion, technology, colonialism, conflict, and global capitalism. Examines histories behind the use and abuse of various substances, including opium, cocaine, and prescription pharmaceuticals. Considers why different societies prohibit and sanction different drugs; the politics of markets and clinical trials; and how social conditions affect the circulation of medicines in global health.

The Social Lives of Medical Objects

Explores the theories and assumptions built into objects meant to improve health. Students read and discuss case studies that follow the often unexpected ways intended intervention objects are designed and developed, globally travel, and at times become part of people's everyday lives. Studies include a broad range of medical materials and development technologies, such as penicillin, anti-malarial drugs, water pumps, air filters, prosthetic limbs, glucose meters, scales, DDT insecticides, bednets, and micro-nutrient pills.

Planetary Change and Human Health

Explores intersections between health of the planet and the health of human beings. Drawing upon case studies of growing ecological crisis around the world, topics include the societal and human health implications of global climate change, sea level rise, weather disasters and fossil fuel pollution; connections between the health of plants, animals, microbes, and people; shifting industrial food systems and human nutrition; representations of race and indigeneity amid struggles for environmental justice; waste disposal and nuclear afterlives; and debates surrounding controversial issues such as geoengineering and climate AI. Students will practice inserting environmental sciences in dialogue with toolkits from the social sciences and humanities to explore the uneven social worlds that shape how science gets traction (or not) in policy and law.

History and Anthropology of Medicine and Biology

Explores recent historical and anthropological approaches to the study of medicine and biology. Topics might include interaction of disease and society; science, colonialism, and international health; impact of new technologies on medicine and the life sciences; neuroscience and psychiatry; race, biology and medicine. Specific emphasis varies from year to year.

Living Through Climate Change (first offered in Spring 2024)

Uses anthropological approaches to better understand those social and political forces shaping climate change as well as proposed solutions, including those leveraging technical and scientific tools. Examines how climate change is bound up, historically and today, with other processes — including land dispossession, pollution, resource insecurity, industrial agriculture, eroding infrastructure, racial housing discrimination, and job loss. Explores perspectives on social justice, community engagement, and lived experiences of climate change – and their implications for science, engineering, and industry. Engages ethnographic case studies that address unequal climate impacts, the effects of policy, and ongoing mitigation efforts unfolding in agriculture, coastal engineering, architecture, urban planning, global migration, and historical repair. Includes field trips during class time.

Technology and Culture

Examines the intersections of technology, culture, and politics in a variety of social and historical settings ranging from 19th-century factories to 21st-century techno dance floors, from Victorian London to anything-goes Las Vegas. Discussions and readings organized around three questions: what cultural effects and risks follow from treating biology as technology; how computers have changed the way we think about ourselves and others; and how politics are built into our infrastructures. Explores the forces behind technological and cultural change; how technological and cutural artifacts are understood and used by different communities; and whether, in what ways, and for whom technology has produced a better world.

Culture and Ethics in Science Fiction Worlds

Examines the ethical and controversial aspects of technology's impacts on society, as approached through the lens of science fiction and media. From novels such as Kindred to films like Sleep Dealer, the social inequalities and political complexities portrayed in science fiction worlds offer a launch point to discuss the uneasy aspects and uneven reach of science, technology, and medicine. Covers issues including gene editing, data privacy, border surveillance, human experimentation, environmental crises, war industries, and the impacts of AI.


2023 Wellcome Medal for Anthropology as Applied to Medical Problems
2022 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award, President and Faculty of MIT
2021 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, Society for Humanistic Anthropology
2021 SLACA Annual Book Prize, Society for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology
2021 Foundation for the Sociology of Health & Illness Book Prize, British Sociological Association
2020 James A. and Ruth Levitan Research Prize in the Humanities
2019 Diabetes Foot Center Group Appreciation Award
2014 Curl Essay Prize, Royal Anthropological Institute   
2011 David Schneider Award, American Anthropological Association    
2011 Elise Clews Parsons Prize, American Ethnological Society
2011 Rudolf Virchow Award, Critical Anthropology of Global Health Group
2011 Science, Technology & Medicine Interest Group SMA Paper Prize
2008 Christine Wilson Prize, Society for the Anthropology of Food & Nutrition