Amy Moran-Thomas | People

Amy Moran-Thomas

Amy Moran-Thomas

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Room E53-335B




Amy Moran-Thomas is a cultural anthropologist, 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 University before coming to MIT. Her research bridges the anthropology of health and environment (chronic disease; ecological and agricultural change; metabolism and nutrition) with ethnographic studies of science and technology (medical devices; chemical infrastructures; technology and kinship). Professor Moran-Thomas has conducted fieldwork and archival research in Belize, Ghana, Brazil and the U.S, supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Mellon-American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Woodrow Wilson Society of Fellows, the Rachel Carson Center, the West African Research Association, and the American Philosophical Society. Her first book, Traveling with Sugar, blends ethnographic stories with anthropological and historical analyses to offer a humanistic account of the global diabetes epidemic.


Environmental Change and Health Infrastructures

The book Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic (University of California Press, 2019), traces the rising world diabetes epidemic as part of a five- hundred year legacy of what Sidney Mintz memorably called "Sweetness and Power".  This includes a consideration of bodily legacies left behind by plantation landscapes and what many researchers are now calling “planetary health,” the nexus where human health and the health of the planet are coming together. The project is guided by individuals’ stories and travails navigating care infrastructures, giving a window into people’s material experiences living within the global diabetes epidemic as seen from the Central American country of Belize—including issues of access within local food infrastructures and insulin economies, debates around defining exposure, and the uneven presence in homes and clinics of medical technologies such as glucose meters. It examines diabetes’ “problem of maintenance” as an intertwined issue of caring for bodies, technologies, data, infrastructures, and ecosystems.

A second book project returns to questions of health of people and places across generations —with a look at the ecological legacies of the author’s own home grounds, family histories and their material afterlives in Pennsylvania coal country.


Social Lives of Medical Technologies

Several additional projects investigate the material culture of global health, and the lively role of medical technologies in how conditions take shape and are managed over time. In addition to designing and teaching together with MIT’s Little Devices Lab, this also includes several essays regarding questions of what Ruha Benjamin calls “discriminatory design,” as well as two longer writing projects: a set of articles exploring the afterlives of experimentation interwoven in global health histories; and a co-authored project about the material artifacts of guinea worm eradication.

Publications|Selected Publications

2020 How a Popular Medical Device Encodes Racial Bias. Boston Review. August 2020.
2019 Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic. Berkley: University of California Press.
2019 "What is Communicable? Unaccounted Injuries and 'Catching' Diabetes in an Illegible Epidemic." Cultural Anthropology 34(4), 503-528.
2017 "Glucometer Foils." Limn, Issue 9: "Little Development Devices/Humanitarian Goods." Stephen Collier, Jamie Cross, Peter Redfield, and Alice Street (eds.).
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." Book Forum - Hervé Guibert's Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary. Edited by Eugene Raikhel. Somatosphere.
2013 A Salvage Ethnography of the Guinea Worm." In When People Came First: Critical Studies in Global Health. Edited by Joao Biehl and Adriana Petryna. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2013 Studying Unformed Objects: Integration.Cultural Anthropology, “Fieldnotes” online series with Michelle Murphy, Kathleen Stewart, and Britt Dahlberg.
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.

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.


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