Top 25 North American dissertations in cultural anthropology 2009

My scan of “Dissertation Abstracts International” (not an international list by any means, but mainly U.S.) for 2009 dissertations in cultural anthropology was both heart-warming and heart-breaking. The good news is that so many excellent dissertations were completed in 2009. As these dissertations demonstrate, anthropologists are increasingly producing knowledge that the world needs.

The bad news is that the job market, including academic and non-academic possibilities, is so bad. What are all these, and other, new Ph.D.s going to do? What will become of their rich and extensive research findings? What about all the people who shared their time and insights with the researchers — will they have get anything back if only a copy of the book about them?

Explanatory note: my search was not comprehensive by any means. I used the search terms health, development, gender and environment. And apologies to the authors for snipping just a few sentence from their abstracts to present here.

  1. Psychosocial Liberia: Managing Suffering in Post-Conflict Life by Sharon Alane Abramowitz, Harvard University. Advisor: Arthur Kleinman
    This study focuses on humanitarian interventions in mental health and trauma healing during Liberia’s post-civil war recovery (2003-2008). Using interviews, participant observation, and focus groups, as well as archival evidence, public media and expert interviews, I chart the emergence of mental health as a vector for social engineering in post-conflict humanitarian enterprises.
  2. Shiv Sena Women and the Gendered Politics of Performance in Maharashtra, India, by Tarini Bedi, University of Illinois at Chicago. Advisor: Mark Liechty
    I explore performance and the subject through the study of female party-workers in Shiv Sena, a militant political party in Western India. Findings show that particular gendered performative practices are important to the personal, political aspirations of women in political parties and to the dynamics of local politics in India’s urbanizing regions.
  3. Understanding Childhood Malnutrition in a Maya Village in Guatemala: A Syndemic Perspective by Elaine Marie Bennett, University of Connecticut. Advisor: Pamela Erickson
    I examine the social, political ecological, economic and cultural context of childhood malnutrition in a Maya village in the western highlands of Guatemala. The complex set of interactions of many factors related to childhood malnutrition is best approached from a syndemics orientation. This orientation can promote publicly owned, systemic changes that provide both short-term, stop-gap solutions and long-term, sustainable ways to prevent childhood malnutrition.
  4. Yu Get Fo Liv Positiv: HIV, Subjectivity and the Politics of Care in Post-conflict Sierra Leone by Adia Benton, Harvard University. Advisor: Arthur Kleinman
    I focus on the relationships between HIV-positive individuals and HIV/AIDS associations in Sierra Leone. Reflecting on medical anthropological inquiries that have located AIDS activism within discussions of citizenship based on biological status, I argue that vertically funded and administered HIV/AIDS programs have marginalized the illness from existing systems of care and reduced the government’s capacity to respond to more pressing problems that also negatively affect health and well being.
  5. Microbial Matters: An Anthropology of Pandemic Influenza in the United States by Carlo Caduff, University of California, Berkeley. Advisor: Paul Rabinow
    I explore the recent scare over the threat of pandemic influenza from the perspective of an anthropology of the contemporary. With a virus that is ever-evolving and a knowledge that is ever-shifting it is unlikely that the day will come when scientists will finally know what pandemic influenza is. The crucial question in terms of ethical practice, therefore, might be the following: What form of preparedness would be adequate to a scientific discourse which recognizes the inevitable possibility of error, both biological and epistemological?
  6. “Looking Good”: Women’s Dress and the Gendered Cultural Politics of Modernity, Morality, and Embodiment in Vanuatu by Margaret Cummings, York University (Canada).
    I use women’s dress as a lens through which to focus on the relationship between gender, modernity and morality, and I show the ways in which all three are condensed and embodied in the moral and aesthetic imperative for women to “look good.” Young ni-Vanuatu women’s often-frustrated efforts to look good are productive of new and provisional yet hopeful imaginings of the nation.
  7. Nashta: Rotating Credit Associations and Women “Being Active” in Syria by Lindsay A. Gifford, Boston University. Advisor: Augustus Norton
    Rotating credit associations known as jama`iyyat are popular among Damascene women. Analysis of meeting structure and the discourse that develops in them indicates that women who participate in jama`iyyat are concerned with more than economic gain. Jama`iyyat build social capital that benefits not only women but husbands and children, projecting reputations of respectability onto the kin unit. This social capital can be used for future transactions and negotiations, such as the start-up of a new credit association or marriage.
  8. Working through Skin: Making Leather, Making a Multicultural Japan by Joseph Doyle Hankins, The University of Chicago, 2009. Advisor: Susan Gal
    My dissertation focuses on how the Buraku liberation movement conducts politics in this changing situation. I examine what the Buraku political organization mobilizes around, how they mobilize, and how they justify their claims. I articulate a theory of the labor of multiculturalism to characterize the current Buraku situation and speculate on the co-constitution of multiculturalism and neoliberal capitalism.
  9. A History of Marginality: Nature and Culture in the Western Himalayas by Shafqat Hussain, Yale University. Advisors: Michael Dove and Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan
    I trace the history of the dialectical relationship between centre and margins in a remote mountainous region of Hunza, northern Pakistan, exploring the politics of representation over time. Through history, the people of Hunza have played a role in the maintenance and relative play (rigidity and permeability/flexibility) in these boundaries from their own cultural logic. The interactions between them and the centers have had different consequences depending on how the act of boundary making and boundary breaking was perceived by the outsiders and the magnitude of transgression.
  10. Keeping Hope: Encountering and Imagining the National State in a North China Village by Zongze Hu, Harvard University. Advisor: James Watson
    This historical ethnography examines the complicated ways in which ordinary villagers have made do with, perceived, and imagined the national state in a North China village. It also shows how their views of the state and its local agents have changed particularly in the past seven decades. Villagers hate and dread, yet also love and embrace, the state which is abstract and concrete at the same time. Locals dislike the state’s interference in the areas like funerary rituals, yet remain hopeful for its involvement in development projects.
  11. Political Violence and Mental Health in Nepal: War in Context, Structural Violence, and the Erasure of History by Brandon A. Kohrt, Emory University. Advisor: Carol Worthman
    A three-component conceptual framework was developed to assess and model mental health: war in context evaluates risk factors according to prewar, wartime, and postwar exposures; vulnerability refers to person-culture and gene-environment interactions which increase the risk of mental health problems; heterogeneity of outcomes demonstrates the need to examine a range of psychiatric and local categories of suffering as well as impaired functioning. This framework fosters research and intervention that address war in the context of experience.
  12. Weathering the Waves: Climate Change, Politics and Vulnerability in Tuvalu by Heather Lazrus, University of Washington. Advisor: Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan
    I examine perceptions of climate change impacts and related atmospheric hazards as well as the governance of vulnerability to those impacts in Tuvalu, a Pacific Island country. Rising sea levels, increasing sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, and extreme events including storms and droughts are among the challenges that Tuvalu faces. Vulnerability to climate change is differentially experienced and subjectively perceived. My research demonstrates the importance of recognizing the political as well as environmental contributions to climate change impacts and underscores the need for adaptation to climate change to be driven by local aspirations and needs.
  13. Knockoff: A Cultural Biography of Transnational Counterfeit Goods by Yi-Chieh Jessica Lin, Harvard University. Advisor: Theodore Bestor
    The emergence of Shanzhai sub-culture (or “bandit,” piracy sub-culture) in China represents a new sphere of extralegality in economic development as opposed to an unfair label of a serious intellectual property rights violator in the eyes of the rest of the world. The gray zones of informal economies have entered the realm of art, occupying museums and assuming other forms of cultural representation reciprocating with mimicry characteristic of popular culture. The culture of copy–the blurring boundaries between art, commodity, and cultural landmarks–has come to characterize contemporary realities in complex capitalist societies.
  14. Articulating Naga Nationalism by Abraham Lotha, City University of New York. Advisor: Donald Robotham
    The case study of Naga nationalism considers the ultimate aim of ethnonational movements and what gives credibility and motivation to these movements. Naga nationalism is centered on and motivated by a functioning ‘navel’ – an ethnic core comprising kinship, history, origin, myths, race, polity, language, territory, symbols, and religion which provides the cultural resources for identity as a people and which supports the struggle to protect the ‘Naga way of life.’
  15. “I No ‘Fraid for That”: Pregnancy, Risk, and Development in Southern Belize by Aminata Maraesa, New York University. Advisors: Rayna Rapp and Emily Martin
    This dissertation examines the interactions of reproductive development initiatives, local maternity services and service providers, and pregnant women in the Toledo District of southern Belize. Competing assessments of maternal risk, local interpretations of global health paradigms, and cultural attitudes and beliefs surrounding women’s bodies all form the basis for reproductive decisions. I analyze the numerous hierarchical actors at play and people’s constrained agency when navigating development programs and reproductive policies.
  16. Culture of Recovery? Schizophrenia, the United States’ Mental Health System, and the American Ethos of the Self-made Man by Neely Laurenzo Myers, The University of Chicago. Advisors: Sydney Hans, Tanya Luhrmann
    This dissertation examines attempts to enact a journey of recovery for members of Horizons, a psychosocial rehabilitation organization in the United States. The journey of recovery articulated by the American Recovery Movement as presented at Horizons was a cultural mismatch in three ways. These multiple problems had repercussions for Horizons’ members and staff as they worked to implement the ideas of the Recovery Movement and will ultimately need to be addressed for “recovery-oriented services” to move forward.
  17. Butoh Ritual Mexicano: An Ethnography of Dance, Transformation, and Community Redevelopment by Shakina J. Nayfack, University of California, Riverside. Advisor: Priya Srinivasan
    High in the mountains of Michoacán, one man has started a school of contemporary ritual dance that bridges east and west, ancient and contemporary forms. Students worldwide come to study with Diego Piñón, founder of Butoh Mexicano Ritual Dance. This dissertation shows how Butoh Ritual Mexicano reshapes and reconstitutes the site of its teaching and the bodies of its students, how these transformations confront and complicate the reality of US imperialism and global capitalism and what this dance form contribute as an alternate mode of survival and renewal.
  18. Wild Mushrooms, Forest Governance, and Conflict in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca by Melissa Renee Poe, University of Washington. Advisor: Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan
    This dissertation is a study of the ways in which a Zapotec community of Oaxaca State is formed and reshaped by political mobilizations around forest use and conservation. The process of community formation is traced across different periods through a focus on wild edible mushroom harvesting, forest governance, and intervillage conflict with a view to showing how affiliation, solidarity and government are enacted in and on the community as its members seek livelihoods and political rights in their lands.
  19. American Realities, Diasporic Dreams: Pursuing Happiness, Love, and Girlfriendship in Jamaica by Bianca Christel Robinson, Duke University. Advisor: Lee Baker
    This dissertation focuses on the women of Girlfriend Tours International (GFT), a regionally and socio-economically diverse group of Americans who are members of the virtual community at The women establish a complex concept of happiness that can only be fulfilled by moving–virtually and actually–across national borders: they require American economic, national, and social capital in order to travel to Jamaica, but also need the connection to Jamaica in order to remain hopeful and happy within the national borders of the U.S.
  20. Rituals of Ethnicity: Migration, Mixture, and the Making of Thangmi Identity across Himalayan Borders by Sara Beth Shneiderman, Cornell University. Advisor: Kathryn March
    This ethnographic study examines the relationships between political discourse, ritual practice, cultural performance, and circular migration in producing ethnic identity for the Thangmi, a Himalayan community dispersed across border areas of Nepal, India, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. Findings reveal Thangmi participation in the “indigenous nationalities” movement in Nepal and their campaign for government recognition as a “Scheduled Tribe” within India’s reservations system.
  21. Putting Kinship to Work: Gender and Relatedness in a Wyoming Coal Mining Community by Jessica M. Smith, University of Michigan. Advisor: Stuart Kirsch
    I examine the history of the region surrounding a coal mining community in Wyoming, family life at home, workplace relatedness, gendered places and divisions of labor, mine radio talk about technical expertise, and corporate social responsibility. One conclusion is that contemporary debates about national energy policies must include attention to the social implications of work, especially those related to gender, in the coal industry.
  22. The Barriers to Economic Self-reliance: An Ethnographic Study of Low-Income Single Mothers in Prince George’s County Maryland by Lexine M. Trask, The Ohio State University. Advisor: Jeffrey Cohen
    This study documents the economic insecurity and material hardship experienced by low-income African American single mothers and examines how single mothers’ and social welfare service providers’ perceptions differ with respect to the barriers hindering economic self-reliance. Perspectives from individuals on both sides of welfare reform provide the basis for a renewed discourse on the effectiveness of policies and programs in lifting families out of poverty.
  23. Being a Man in a Transnational World: Masculinity and Sexuality among Peruvian Immigrants in New York City by Ernesto Vasquez del Aguila, Columbia University. Advisor: Richard Parker
    This study, located in New York City and Lima, Peru, focuses on how masculinity and sexuality intersect in the experiences of Peruvian immigrant men. I explore two questions: what does being a man mean in the context of transnational migration and how does transnational migration shape sexuality and romance? I demonstrate how the male group provides a space for the creation of contradictory performances of homophobia and homoerotism, as well as social images of female sexual reputation that shape men’s social interactions with men and women.
  24. Hiwar in Albuquerque: Members of an American Muslim Community in Conversation by A. Michael Weinman, The University of New Mexico, 2009. Advisor: Jane Collier
    This dissertation takes an interpretive approach in which diverse voices of American Muslims describe their community as they negotiate and express their Muslim identity in dialogue. An American Muslim discourse emerges, informing American society, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, about the American Muslim community and its place in the American public square. Results demonstrate the importance of understanding inner speech and shadow dialogues that interlocutors bring with them.
  25. “Little Tibet” with “Little Mecca”: Religion, Ethnicity and Social Change on the Sino-Tibetan Borderland (China) by Yinong Zhang, Cornell University. Advisor: David Holmberg
    This dissertation examines the complexity of religious and ethnic diversity in the context of contemporary China. Fieldwork in Taktsang Lhamo, southern Gansu province, informs my study of ethnic and religious revival in two communities since the Chinese political relaxation in the 1980s. Both Tibetan monastic ceremonies and Hui entrepreneurship are intrinsic to local ethnoreligious revival. These seemingly unrelated phenomena are in fact closely related and reflect Chinese nation-building and an increasingly globalized and government directed Chinese market.

14 thoughts on “Top 25 North American dissertations in cultural anthropology 2009

  1. baptiste

    what is this top 25 based on?
    I am happy “Butoh Ritual Mexicano” in this top 25, but I really wonder who’s in charge of this list.

    I actually wonder how many people will be reached by this classification and consequently how many people will learn about the transformative potential of butoh dance.

    Thanks for your answer.


  2. Hi, thanks so much for reading the post and sending your comment. I noted briefly at the beginning that the list is the result of “my scan” —and that I used only a limited number of search terms, so it’s obviously biased toward my interests and more publically “relevant” dissertations. I can’t say that this post will get the word out about the transformative potential of butoh dance as widely as one would want, but it’s one step in that direction. Let’s hope the author of the dissertation publishes and otherwise promotes the findings! All the best and thanks again, Barbara


  3. Thanks for reading, enjoying, and promoting my diss. I was afraid it would just end up on the shelf of a virtual library! I’m so glad someone else is reading it. Now, can someone please give me a tenure track job in New York?!?!


  4. Neely Myers

    Thank you so much for the compliment! It’s nice to know someone is reading. I am trying to prepare the dissertation for publication but a new baby and my postdoc are keeping me busy. Let’s hope I can pull it off soon 🙂


  5. It gives me joy and happiness to see the dissertation of Abraham Lotha, “Articulating Naga Nationalism” has become one of the top 25 Dissertations published in Cultural Anthropology in America. In the first place my heartiest congratulations to you Fr. Abrham. I am sure your study is going to throw light into the hearts and minds of many people across the globe and more especially to people in Nagalnd. I pray that your study will bear fruits in the years to come.


  6. Kholamo Yanthan

    Ematha longshi evon. It is indeed an affirmation of the hard work that Abraham Lotha has put in, in his dissertation “Articulating Naga Nationalism” . It is a milestone that all aspiring Nagas will look up to his work. KUDOS. Keep it up. Your hard labor will ensure others to see you as a person who has achieved against all odds. God Bless you in you endevor. CONGRATULATIONS.


  7. Antony Rozu Dukru

    Congratulation Fr.A Lotha to be on the Top 25 North American dissertation in cutlural anthropology 2009. It is a big achievement. Your dissertation “Articulating Naga Nationalism” has made every Naga proud because you have make known to world who the Nagas are, through your hard work. May the Good Lord continue to bless you in all your undertakings.


  8. Hi,
    Al Ngullie asks about the “yardstick” I used to come up with the list. A good question. Here’s my attempted answer:

    First, my search was limited to the search words I noted at the beginning of the post. So many, many excellent dissertations outside those topical areas didn’t come into my purview. In that sense, it’s a “Barbara Miller/anthropologyworks” themed-pool.

    Second, I looked for dissertations that appeared to me to have “relevance” to important social issues/policy debates and questions.

    So: there was no “selection committee” involved or any other kind of “accountable” group input.

    The list is simply those dissertations that I would most love to read and learn from. My original list had 35 dissertations in it. I thought that was a bit long for a blog, so I went through the painful process of trimming it down to 25.

    Question for you and others: should I do it again for 2010 dissertations?

    Thanks for your input,


  9. Hi there! I just found this on line by chance! Such an honor to be included on this list, and among such great company! Thank you! As for publication…I’m working on it!!!


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