Heather Paxson is interested in how people craft a sense of themselves as moral beings in their everyday lives, especially through activities having to do with family and food. She is the author of two ethnographic monographs: Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece (University of California Press, 2004) and The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press, 2013), analyzing how craftwork has become a new source of cultural and economic value within American landscapes of production and consumption. Her current work concerns the practical and semiotic work of moving perishable foods across international borders. After serving as Area Editor for the James Beard Award-winning Oxford Companion to Cheese, in 2018 she began a 5-year term co-editing Cultural Anthropology. At MIT, Heather teaches courses on food, family, craft, ethnographic research, and the meaning of life. She received a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Stanford University and a B.A. from Haverford College.
Anthropology of Food
Through telling the stories of American artisanal cheeses and the people who make them, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America details the challenges of making a life and a living through artisan production. Artisanal cheeses are alive with meaning, and also with the activity of organisms large and microscopic. They are "unfinished" commodities—living products whose qualities are not fully settled—that embody old and new American ideas about taste, labor, and value.
Anthropology of Reproduction
In the 1990s, Heather conducted doctoral fieldwork in Athens, Greece, investigating changing ideas about motherhood and fertility control in this child-loving Mediterranean society where the abortion rate is twice the national birth rate. Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece argues that Athenian women incorporated abortion into a moral—indeed, maternal—framework, in which it may be better to interrupt a pregnancy than to raise a child inadequately. But there is more to the story. Amidst nationalist concern over declining birth rates, the increased consumption of reproductive technologies and consumer goods generates profound ambivalence in Athenians' moral evaluations of abortion, contraception, and in vitro fertilization. At stake are ideas about what it means to be Greek—or more particularly, a Greek woman or man—in the contemporary world.
Food, Culture and Politics
In eating, humans incorporate into our very bodies the products of nature (e.g., plant and animal resources) turned into culture (food). This course explores connections between what we eat and who we are through cross-cultural study of how personal identities and social groups are formed via food production, preparation, distribution, and consumption. Readings are organized around critical discussion of what makes good food good (e.g., nutritious, safe, tasty, authentic, ethical). A primary goal of the course is to provide students with theoretical and empirical tools to understand and evaluate food systems at local and global levels.
21A.501J / STS.074J
Art, Craft, Science
As realms of practical knowledge, what distinguishes art, craft, and science? How do people learn, practice, and evaluate traditional and contemporary craft techniques? To address such questions, this course reviews theories of design, embodiment, apprenticeship learning, skill, labor, expertise, and tacit knowledge. We also discuss the commoditization of craft into market goods, collectible art, and tourism industries. Ethnographic and historical case studies include textiles, Shaker furniture, glassblowing, quilting, cheesemaking, industrial design, home and professional cooking, factory and laboratory work, CAD-CAM. In-class demonstrations, a field trip, and hands-on craft projects are included.
21A.111J / WGS.172J
For Love and Money: Rethinking the Family
This course introduces students to the anthropological study of the social institutions and symbolic meanings of family, household, gender, and sexuality. We will explore the myriad forms that families and households take and evaluate their social, emotional, and economic dynamics. In particular, we will analyze how people's expectations for, and experiences of, family life are rooted in or challenged by particular conceptions of gender and sexuality.
The Meaning of Life
This course examines how a variety of cultural traditions propose answers to the question of how to live a meaningful life and considers meaning of life, not as a philosophical abstraction, but as a question that individuals grapple with in their daily lives forcing difficult decisions between meeting and defying cultural expectations. This course provides tools for thinking about moral decisions, social and historical practices, and permits students to compare and contextualize the ways people in different times and places approach fundamental ethical concerns. Co-taught with Stefan Helmreich and Graham Jones.
|2014||Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, MIT|
|2013||Diana Forsythe Book Prize, The Society for the Anthropology of Work and the Committee on the Antropology of Science, Technology, and Computing for The Life of Cheese|
|2011||James A. and Ruth Levitan Teaching Prize in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, MIT|
|2009||Mary I. Bunting Institute Fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study|
|2009||Belasco Prize for Scholarly Excellence, Association for the Study of Food and Society|
|2008||MIT Class of 1957 Career Development Professorship|
|2008||James A. and Ruth Levitan Research Prize in the Humanities|
|2008||Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, MIT|