Scholars in our program are committed to ethnographic research as the basis of anthropological knowledge. They explore cultural perspectives and social processes by living and working among the people they study, often for extended periods of time. For example, becoming an apprentice magician in the French magic world allowed Graham Jones to document tacit rules that regulate the circulation of magicians' secrets as a form of intellectual property. Heather Paxson worked on farms and in creameries making cheese to explore the shifting significance of nature, food, and work in the contemporary United States. The close relationships anthropologists forge with the communities they study transcend individual research projects: Jean Jackson's work on struggles for self-determination among Colombia's indigenous peoples has spanned more than three decades, establishing her as an authority on the politics of multiculturalism in Latin America more broadly. Christine Walley trains an anthropological lens on her own family and home community in Southeast Chicago to bring into focus the transgenerational effects of American deindustrialization on urban lives and livelihoods.
Anthropology is an inherently comparative field, developing general theories of human experience through cross-cultural analysis. MIT anthropologists' areas of expertise span the globe, from Manduhai Buyandelger's examination of transformations in Mongolian political culture and social life following the end of socialism to Amy Moran-Thomas’s ethnographic depiction of the global diabetes epidemic through the daily survival strategies of diabetic patients in resource-strained, tropical Belize. At the same time, anthropologists in our program conduct research that illuminates how global dynamics are reshaping an increasingly interconnected world. For instance, by studying how immigrant and refugee communities make use of Berlin’s open lots, urban forests and parks, Bettina Stoetzer tracks the changing cultural politics of nature and citizenship in urban Europe. M. Amah Edoh follows the commodity development of wax cloth, from Dutch design to distribution in Togo, to consider how notions of “Africa” are produced and circulated through material practices that span continents.
Our faculty are at the forefront of shaping future directions of anthropological inquiry. In an effort to encompass the full range of human experience, we have pioneered methods for studying science and engineering as cultural practices. Traveling to the bottom of the sea as well as investigating the science of ocean waves, Stefan Helmreich examines how deep-sea marine biologists reimagine the nature of life itself, and how physical oceanographers track today’s changing ocean climate in the field, in the lab, and in computer modeling. Approaching the laboratory as a complex and technologically organized workplace, governed by both trust and surveillance, Susan Silbey considers how environmental health and safety management systems reconstruct the everyday routines and rituals of scientific practice. Carrying out fieldwork at the Genome Institute of Singapore and the Human Genome Organization (HUGO), Michael Fisher studies the social and ethical issues associated with genomics and with capacity building generally in the Asia-Pacific region. While research on scientists is a relatively new field of anthropological inquiry, these studies demonstrate the fundamental continuity of science with other cultural activities.