MIT Anthropology announces the 2023 James Howe Prize
2023 James Howe Prize winners:
Our first place winner is Negin Amouei. She wrote “Amazon’s Bodies” for 21A.301 Disease and Health: Culture, Society, and Ethics last Spring. Negin is in the class of 2023, majoring in Biology (Course 7).
An honorable mention goes this year to Anthropology minor Cindy Xie, who wrote “To Koch or ‘UnKoch’: Towards a Planetary Health Approach to Integrative Cancer Research” for 21A.312 Planetary Change and Human Health. Cindy is a member of the Class of 2024 and is majoring in Planning (Course 11).
The committee offers the following assessments of each winning submission:
Negin Amouei’s paper, titled “Amazon’s Bodies,” is a beautifully written ethnographic account of the bodily experiences of workers in an Amazon “fulfillment center” in Kansas City (written for 21A.301: Disease and Health: Culture, Society, and Ethics, taught by Lauren Bonilla). Drawing on anthropological scholarship, media reports and the lived experiences of her own parents working for Amazon, Negin tracks, as she puts it in her own words, the “knotted capitalistic, social and medical issues at Amazon’s fulfillment centers.” Negin blends careful ethnographic description with social and cultural analysis to convey the many facets of bodily discipline and physical and emotional harm that workers experience. With an attentive eye towards how technologies impact bodies, from cameras to robots to the use of productivity algorithms, she shows how workers’ behavior and movements are monitored and managed - from keeping people away from so called “human exclusion zones” to enforcing COVID regulations and instilling a sense of competition and discipline. Through this ethnographic portrait, we learn how power operates to shape workers’ behavior, their bodily movements and ultimately their lives. Yet Negin does not limit her account to harm, but also pays close attention to kinship and intricate daily details and possibilities for healing – from the massages and care she gives to her mother who is suffering from a neck injury, to the ultimate healing powers of freshly brewed Persian tea. “These acts of healing had become rituals ever since my mom started working at Amazon,” Negin writes, while highlighting how such carework cannot be easily separated from its lived structural dilemmas: “Ironically, we purchased the massager from amazon.com using her employee discount code.”
Driven by concerns about climate denialism, Cindy Xie offers a nuanced history of the worldwide “Unkoch My Campus” movement in her sophisticated paper, “To Koch, or to ‘Unkoch’: Toward a Planetary Health Approach to Integrated Cancer Research” (written for 21A.312: Planetary Change and Human Health, taught by Amy Moran-Thomas). Using her experiences on MIT’s campus as a lens on much larger societal questions about “undone science” and donor influence, Cindy delves into the evolution of the MIT Center for Cancer Research – which, as her archival exploration brings to life, “opened in 1973 in a renovated chocolate factory”-- a predecessor to what later became the prominent Koch Institute, a center of excellence for cancer research focused primarily on molecular biology. Drawing on her own sense of stakes as an MIT undergraduate aspiring to work in the Koch Institute, Cindy unfolds a complex account about the perils, promises, and ongoing ethical quandaries of being a student on a campus where everything from daycare services to research support carries a name also commonly linked to funding climate science denial and democratic erosion. Resisting any easy answers or simplistic accounts, Cindy uses the tools of anthropology, social history, and STS to “focus instead on examining the structural factors underpinning reliance on billionaire donors in modern scientific funding infrastructures, at the expense of environmental health research.” Her essay provides a powerful account of the ways these factors shape researchers’ abilities to know and act on planetary health issues.
Congratulations to both awardees!
Pictured below: L to R - Bettina Stoetzer, Amy Moran-Thomas, Negin Amouei, and Lauren Bonilla
Pictured below: L to R - Bettina Stoetzer, Cindy Xie, Amy Moran-Thomas