Heather Paxson | People

Heather Paxson

Heather Paxson

Program Head

William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology

Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow

Room E53-335R




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.

Eating beside Ourselves: Thresholds of Foods and Bodies examines eating as a site of transfer and transformation across bodies and selves. Contributors to this volume examine how food and eating create thresholds for human and nonhuman relations, thresholds that mediate states of living and dying, conditions of edibility and inedibility, and relations between living organisms and their surrounding environments. Acts of eating and the process of metabolism are shown to partake in the making and unmaking of multispecies ontologies, taxonomies, and ecologies. Open Access versions available here and here.

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.

Publications|Selected Publications

2023 Introduction: Eating beside Ourselves. In Eating beside Ourselves: Thresholds of Foods and Bodies. Heather Paxson, ed. Pp. 1-28. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Open Access version available here.
2021 Protecting Perishable Values: Timescapes of Moving Fermented Foods across Oceans and International Borders. Current Anthropology 62(S24): S334-42.
2019 "Don't Pack a Pest": Parts, Wholes, and the Porosity of Food Borders. Food Culture & Society 22(5): 657-73.
2016 Rethinking Food and its Eaters: Opening the Black Boxes of Safety and Nutrition.  In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. Jakob A. Klein and James I. Watson, eds. Pp. 268-288. London: Bloomsbury.
2016 Craftmanship and Quality in Artisanal Cheesemaking. In Food and Architecture: At the Table. Samantha Martin-McAuliffe, ed.  Pp. 191-2005. London: Bloomsbury.
2014 The Perils and Promises of Microbial Abundance: Novel Natures and Model Ecosystems, from Artisanal Cheese to Alien Seas (with Stefan Helmreich). Social Studies of Science 44(2): 165-193.
2011 The 'Art' and 'Science' of Handcrafting Cheese in the United States. Endeavour, special issue on food, history, and science. 35(2-3): 116-124.
2010 Cheese Cultures: Transforming American Tastes and Traditions. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10(4): 35-47.
2010 Locating Value in Artisan Cheese: Reverse-Engineering Terroir for New World Landscapes. American Anthropologist 112(3): 442-455.
2008 Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology 23(1): 15-47.
2006 Reproduction as Spiritual Kin Work: Orthodoxy, IVF and the Moral Economy of Motherhood in Greece. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30(4): 481-505.
2002 Rationalizing Sex: Family Planning and the Making of Modern Lovers in Urban Greece. American Ethnologist 29(2): 307-344.


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.
course website

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.
course website

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, Graham Jones, and Manduhai Buyandelger.
course website

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.


2021 GAD New Directions (group) Award for Fieldsights, American Anthropological Association
2017 Committed to Caring (graduate mentoring recognition), MIT
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




Living Climate Futures showcases holistic approach,” MIT News

The Safety of Fermented Foods,Fermentology

“Opening Access to AAA’s Publishing Future” (Fieldsights)

“Relata: An Experimental Search Tool for Humanistic Scholarship”

Video: Thought for Food

"Against the Common Gouda" (MIT News Office)

"Ecologies of Value" (Harvard Gazette)

"Cutting the Curd Book Review - an Interview with Heather Paxson" (Heritage Radio Network)

"On the Post-Pasteurian" (CASTAC Blog)


Risk Perception & Categorization: Artisanship in the 21st Century

Risk Perception & Categorization: Artisanship in the 21st Century