Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations 2015



Welcome to another year of my cultural anthropology dissertation picks. Every year my scanning of the year’s dissertations reveals different prominent themes, as informed by my search of Dissertation Abstracts International (which as I have noted in previous year’s posts, is anything but international; as far as I can tell, the scope is nearly 100 percent U.S.).

This year I was struck by the many studies related to food and to gender, and more studies focusing on race, education, and media. Health continues to be important as do rights and the rise of activism, both intersecting with race, class, gender, and ability.  The rise of food as a topic is particularly poignant given the recent death of Sidney Mintz. Mintz can well be considered the founder of “food anthropology” with his landmark publication of Sweetness and Power in 1985. He would no doubt have been pleased to see this trend and these many wonderful studies.

My usual search terms reflect the focus of the anthropologyworks blog: social diversity, social inequality, structural violence and resistance, and the importance of cultural anthropology in studying and revealing complex relations in all the above and offering findings that can help change the world for the better through their research, writing, teaching, advocacy, and activism.

The question of open access to these sources thus arises. As far as I can tell, of these 40 dissertations, only four are open access (Antoine, Donaldson, Oliveiria, and Richard); one is embargoed until April 30, 2017, after which it will presumably be open access.

Given the facts that many of these dissertations are the product of education at publicly funded institutions and that much of the research was funded by public money such as the National Science Foundation, it is difficult to understand why the public is excluded from accessing most of these works. I have no idea what kind of a deal ProQuest has with universities in the United States, but Proquest is likely making quite a nice profit from payment to access dissertations. Or, it may not be, since the price is so high in which case the Proquest arrangement serves to keep important new knowledge out of the public domain because of its pricing, just like the scholarly journals.  [Readers, if I am missing something important here, please let me know].

On a brighter note: Congratulations to these 40 dissertation writers. I wish you well and look forward to hearing about your accomplishments in the future.

See also the best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2009, 2010, 2011,20122013, and 2014.

“Pushing the edge”: Challenging racism and sexism in American stand-up comedy.
Antoine, Katja Elisabet, University of California, Los Angeles. Advisors: Karen Brodkin, Jessica R. Cattelino. [open access]

This dissertation examines how stand-up comedians challenge racism and sexism in their performances. I focus on comedians who challenge racism and sexism through joke material and in their affective and performative work on stage. Key ways they do so include: performing slavery as anti-racist critique; targeting genocide and colonialism; challenging the “terrorist label” and racialized masculinities, and through female embodiment. I conducted 18 months of ethnographic research in Los Angeles, focusing on male and female comedians of color, but also producers and managers. I show the discourses on race and gender that circulate in the comedy world and the US more broadly. These comedians’ work becomes part of broader anti-racist discourses through social media, film, and television.


Embodying scales of Filipina/o American sporting life: Transnational sporting cultures and practices in the Filipina/o diaspora. Arnaldo, Constancio Realiza, Jr.. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Advisor: Martin F. Manalansan, IV

This multi-sited ethnographic study examines how Filipina/o Americans take up sporting cultures and practices in Southern California in the twenty-first century. I show how sports figure prominently in the everyday lives of Filipina/o Americans by documenting the multiple sporting spaces they navigate, including internet sports websites, basketball gyms, sports tournaments, Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao family fight nights, Pacquiao boxing matches, and social media spaces. I explore how power circulates across intersecting categories of difference, including, race, class, gender, and sexuality as they correspond with sport discourses, embodied meanings/gestures, spatialized practices and sporting ideologies and traditions.


Anthropology of transnational mass media: An ethnographic incursion into Brazil’s cable TV emergence in the 1990s.  Torres, Joao Batista de Miranda. The University of Chicago. Advisor: William T. S. Mazzarela.

This dissertation investigates the domain of Brazilian television in the context of cable and satellite technologies’ inauguration of broadcasting and consumption of transnational TV networks. Its central idea is recapturing the 1990s process by which a new viewing technology was implemented, in order to study tensions and contradictions arising from a globalized commodity enterprise, under the sign of a vivid confrontation with local ambiguities and differences. Brasilia is the ethnographic site from which I will examine how Brazilian TV viewers have assimilated the new visual technology, and to what extent middle-class culture affects and shapes this new process of reception.


How social forces don a white coat: The social context of childbirth management in Metro Detroit. Boffi, Emilia. Michigan State University. Advisor: Linda Hunt.

This dissertation presents the findings of a qualitative research study of childbirth management in Metro Detroit. I explore pregnancy experiences among urban and suburban expectant mothers, examining the creation and maintenance of authoritative hierarchies through the use of obstetrical tools and techniques, and how sociocultural context impacts the level of agency achieved by local expectant mothers in the decision-making process. I argue that the perceived objectivity of biomedicine veils the influence of socio-cultural context on obstetrical practice and physician perspectives, such that hegemonic social ideologies relating to race, gender, and class infiltrate institutionalized birthing practices.


The globalization of the breast cancer awareness campaign in Austria, 2012-2014. Bouskill, Kathryn. Emory University. Advisor: Peter J. Brown.

The globalization of the American-style breast cancer awareness campaign has added new dimensions to the breast cancer illness experience and to notions of breast cancer risk and prevention. This ethnography explores the globalization of the breast cancer awareness campaign in Austria from 2012-2014. Narrative interviews with 55 women undergoing treatment for breast cancer revealed psychosocial issues that are not addressed by the campaign. The sexualized imagery of the campaign and the inability for women with breast cancer to attend key campaign events creates a sense of exclusivity that fails to establish solidarity.


Choosing methadone: Managing addiction and the body politic in Ukraine. Carroll, Jennifer J. University of Washington. Advisor: Laada Bilaniuk

This dissertation explores the lived experience of opiate substitution therapy (OST) patients in Ukraine. To complete this research, I conducted fourteen months of ethnographic research in OST programs across Ukraine between 2012 and 2014. I conducted extensive clinical observations and collected more than fifty interviews with patients and clinicians. This dissertation argues that clinical cultures and treatment-seeking behaviors are shaped by a ‘somatic ethic,’ which not only governs discourses on drug use and addiction but also places social integration and acceptable personhood at odds with the practicalities of treatment. In the last chapter, I outline practical recommendations for improving OST programs in Ukraine and elsewhere.


Aftermath of a riot foretold: Violence, impunity and sovereignty in Gujarat, India Chatterjee, Moyukh. Emory University. Advisor: Bruce M. Knauft. 

This dissertation examines processes that allow Hindu nationalists and state officials in the state of Gujarat, India, to perform mass, public, anti-minority violence that expands and deepens their power. I argue impunity is not merely the breakdown of law and order but a systematic and ongoing process of legitimizing and performing Hindu sovereignty in India. Ethnographic and archival research reveals the long-term official and unofficial practices by which political violence against Muslims is denied and authorized within a liberal secular state. My investigation of legal technologies, state writing practices, and everyday techniques of Hindu nationalist activists uncovers the infrastructure of impunity that outlives recurring episodes of anti-minority violence in contemporary India.


The world where you live — Environmental literacies, climate change, and young people in American Samoa. Christian Ronning, Evelyn G.. Temple University. Advisor: Judith Goode.

This dissertation examines the production of knowledge around global climate change and the character of environmental literacy among youth in Tafuna, on Tutuila, American Samoa. I analyze this production of environmental knowledge across multiple social fields (i.e. status hierarchies, governance structures, etc.) and subjectivities (school-specific, village-based, and Samoan cultural identities) during a period of social, political, economic, and environmental transformation. American educational ideals continue to be contradictory in the American Samoan context; whereas schools value and promote individually-oriented goals and responsibility, youth are also embedded in the values of communal identification and practice known as fa’a Samoa. Youth plan for a future away from American Samoa.


Farmers and farmworkers: Negotiating labor and identity in rural northeast Tennessee. Donaldson, Susanna Meredith. The University of Iowa. Advisor: Michael Chibnik.

Burley tobacco–a key component in American-made cigarettes–has been produced in northeast Tennessee for over a century. In Austin County, Tennessee, burley tobacco has become a marker of local identity. Traditionally, Austin County farm families have met their crop’s demand for labor by “swapping” work. This reciprocal tradition was made possible by the ubiquitous production of the leaf in Austin County on a relatively small-scale. The persistence of reciprocal labor in Austin County has influenced the ways in which rural families (particularly white, land-owning families) conceptualize burley tobacco farming and farm work. Even though most have adopted the use of migrant labor, the tradition of reciprocity contributes to locally specific ways of organizing and managing seasonal farm work. [open access]


“I only want two”: Aesthetics, race, and sterilization in Brazil. Edu, Ugo Felicia. University of California, San Francisco. Advisors: Ian Whitmarsh and Vincanne Adams. 

The adoption in Brazil of a national family planning program and legalization of tubal ligation took place within a pre-existing economy of race, sexuality, and aesthetics. This dissertation examines the factors that influence women’s decisions and their experiences trying to secure tubal ligations in Brazil. My work reveals the intersections of race, reproduction, gender, sexuality, class, agency, necropolitics and aesthetics and links Brazilian notions of beauty, desirability and family aesthetics to women’s reproduction. I also explicitly connect the history and legacy of slavery and racism in Brazil to health disparities as experienced by women in their attempts to control their fertility.


Authenticating sexuality: Sexual ideology and HIV science in South Africa. Fiereck, Kirk John. Columbia University. Advisor: Richard G. Parker.

This dissertation examines the emergence of queer personhood among black publics and medical cultures in South Africa over the past century. Based on more than two years of fieldwork in South Africa, it contains both a historical and an ethnographic component. The historical research comprised participant observation, archival research and interviews exploring how black South Africans reference multiple cultural fields of sexual and gender identities to elaborate composite formations of sexual subjectivity and personhood. I examined how social actors, in the context of community settings and global health and community development projects, address sexual and gender nonconformity.


The ends of coffee: State, work, and identity in post-CAFTA Costa Rica. Fischer, Katherine Virginia. University of Colorado at Boulder. Advisor: Donna Goldstein.

In this dissertation how ideas about what makes coffee good, and what makes good coffee, change across space and time. I take a multi-sited approach that combines participant-observation within the specialty coffee industry and with coffee growers in the Orosi Valley of Costa Rica. Coffee production once supported Costa Rica’s welfare state model. Since the 1980s, however, the ways in which farmers labor and connect with the state have been refigured. The   Central American Free Trade Agreement of 2009 has bred distrust because it has begun dismantling state support systems. As coffee and the state have retreated from their roles as anchoring points for identity, Orosians express anxiety and fear about the future.


When food becomes money: Care and belonging in a Fijian Village. Garibaldi, Lisa Rachaille. University of California, Riverside. Advisor: Juliet McMullin.

This dissertation examines the tension between differing conceptions of what the “good life” is and the regimes of care that are necessary to create it in the context of a Fijian village. Food is a lens for understanding the shifting economic climate and the effects of care in well-being and the security of belonging in a rural village. In Fiji, there is increasing tension between local regimes of care and belonging and the penetration of late liberal ideology, nucleating families and encouraging individually motivated behavior to remedy behaviors that are classified as pathological, such as participating in exchange relationships. This dissertation analyzes how rural Fijians provide for their needs and create and maintain networks of care and belonging.


Finding meaning through illness narratives: Latino perceptions of diabetes in a post-industrial American city. Glaser, Kathryn Marie. State University of New York at Buffalo. Advisor: Ann P. McElroy.

This research entailed an ethnographic study of Latinos living with diabetes receiving health care services in an urban community health center in Buffalo, New York. The study included qualitative interviews and demographic surveys of thirty individuals (18 years and older) of self-reported Latino/Hispanic origin. Those with more support from family, community, or friends had better health outcomes. In this study, differences in self-management were observed between those with ample resources compared to those with fewer resources. Variables such as age, gender, and marital/living status were also indicators of better self-management of diabetes.


Inaccessible accessibility: An ethnographic account of disability and globalization in contemporary Russia. Hartblay, Cassandra. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Advisor: Michele Rivkin-Fish.

Focused on the personal, embodied narratives and experiences of five adults with mobility impairments in the regional capital city of Petrozavodsk, this dissertation draws on participant observation, ethnographic interviews, performance ethnography, and analysis of public documents and popular media to show how the category of disability is reproduced, stigmatized, and made meaningful. I argue that Russian adults with disabilities expertly negotiate multiple modes of understanding disability, including historically and culturally rooted social stigma; psychosocial, therapeutic, or medicalized approaches; and democratic minority group citizenship.


Mentally disordered or culturally displaced? How the PTSD label transforms personhood in US military veterans. Hooyer, Katinka. The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Advisor: Paul Brodwin.

This ethnography interrogates the failure in care and vectors of blame that surround PTSD by documenting veterans’ reactions to being diagnosed and/or labeled with PTSD. Everyday life for veterans becomes a clash of cultural models, worldviews and various stakeholders of their care. The lack of common ground or “cultural consonance” (versus PTSD/stigma) lies behind the social processes that contribute to veterans’ uneven reintegration into civilian life. Counter-narratives of emergent veteranhood challenge the dominant cultural script of “stigma as the main barrier to care.” These narratives dismantle concepts of self-stigma by shifting the focus from the standard trauma model of victimization towards a productive veteranhood, where agency remains essential to identity and everyday life.


Transformation of sympathies: Gendered mediation of Jordanian education reform for a knowledge economy. Hodges, Rebecca McLain. Washington University in St. Louis. Advisor: John Bowen.

This dissertation aims to understand how teachers at a typical Jordanian public school navigate the political, cultural, economic, and social changes in their society, for themselves and for their students, during their daily work of defining, transmitting, and assessing culture and truth. I argue that the operationalization of education policy reforms relies on state actors to transform teacher sympathies in a way that makes state goals and visions of the future more sympathetic, emotionally salient, and persuasive reasons for action. I interpret interactions between teacher trainers and teachers to show how state social policy works in lived experience.


The taste of distinction: Culinary education and the production of social difference in Lima, Peru. Lasater-Wille, Amy. New York University. Advisor: Thomas A.Abercrombie.

Everyday culinary practices have both maintained and transformed social hierarchies in the wake of a period of massive internal migration to Lima, Peru. Peru’s culinary industries are prominent sources of jobs and income. Lima’s many low-cost culinary schools promise their students, many of them lower-class migrants, a relatively affordable education, near instantaneous insertion into the job market, and the potential for international fame. As a result they are seen as key sites for the distribution of the knowledge needed to be upwardly mobile, a focal point in the country’s conscious efforts to narrow its longstanding inequalities. This dissertation, based on sixteen months of research, analyzes the effects of the gastronomy boom in Peru by seeing it as a series of social and political maneuvers targeting the body.


Rebellion under the palm trees: Memory, agrarian reform and labor in the Aguan, Honduras. Léon, Andrés. City University of New York. Advisor: Marc Edelman.

This dissertation explores this history and the process of creation of the Aguán region of Honduras from the perspective of impoverished peasant families that migrated from different parts of Honduras to the Aguán starting in the 1970s. It asks about the processes by which the region went from supposed “empty” space to centerpiece of the Honduran agrarian reform in the 1970s and 1980s and the principal location of the country’s palm oil industry and the site of one of the most intense agrarian conflicts in Latin America at the same time. I argue that analysis of the history of the palm oil industry in the region reveals how agrarian structure and political power come together.


Tracking identity: Opportunity, success, and affiliation with science among fifth-grade Latina/o youth of Santa Barbara, California. Maas, Grayson Ford. University of California, Santa Barbara. Advisor: Susan C. Stonich.

This dissertation is an investigation into the American public education system at the elementary school level. It highlights factors that shape the organizational structure of schools and classrooms, and in turn, how they engender disparities in the ways students experience education, namely, in the opportunities made available to them to achieve and succeed at a high level. I collected data throughout an ethnographic study of two tracked fifth-grade classrooms at a school serving a socioeconomically disadvantaged Latina/o student population in Santa Barbara, California. Findings indicate that not all students were expected to succeed in the same ways and with the same frequency.


Desde la raya: Fast food and immigration in Orange County, California. Martinez, Eudelio P. University of California, Irvine. Advisor: Leo R. Chavez.

The U.S. fast food industry is a multi-billion dollar affair, posting sales of over 195 billion in 2014 and employing nearly four million people nationwide. Fast food enterprises subsist largely upon the labor of a small group of 10-15 core staff members. These individuals perform the majority of the most difficult and labor-intensive restaurant tasks. Participant observation research in an Orange County fast food restaurants attempts to explicate what it is like to work fast food, why it is that it is predominately Mexican immigrants and the children thereof that are found behind the counter of these restaurants in Orange County.


Schisms and solidarities: Feminism, LGBT rights, and reclaiming politics on Russia’s New Left. Mason, Jessica. The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Advisor:  Maria Lepowsky.

Set within the broader landscape of the mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin that swept Moscow beginning in 2011, this dissertation is an ethnography of micro-conflicts among protesters. I examine the mass mobilization as a site of self-transformation and contentious solidarity-building, drawing on research I conducted with young feminist, LGBT, and leftist activists in Moscow. Situating my ethnographic data in the context of international shifts in power, including the withdrawal of Western development aid and the Kremlin’s attempt to construct itself as a global power in opposition to Western liberalism, I argue for an understanding of deliberate conflict as a productive, but risky strategy for marginalized social groups for whom authoritarianism and repression are everyday experiences.


Not fooling around: The politics of sex worker activism in Brazil. Murray, Laura Rebecca. Columbia University. Advisor: Richard G. Parker.

Brazil was once a model country in terms of government support for sex worker rights organizations and its solidarity based approach to HIV prevention. In the early 2010s, however, political setbacks in these areas raised important questions regarding the limits of state sanctioned activism. Using the extended case method approach, I conducted an ethnography of sex worker activism and the complex bureaucratic field in which this advocacy took place in three Brazilian cities. My results suggest that the difficulties sex worker activists faced are related to a broader pattern of how the Brazilian state has historically structured its relationship to prostitution. I conclude that sex worker activists produced new meanings of prostitution and activism through what I term “puta politics.”


Making popular and solidarity economies in dollarized Ecuador: Money, law, and the social after neoliberalism. Nelms, Taylor Campbell Nahikian. University of California, Irvine. Advisor: Bill Maurer.

This dissertation examines the intersection of two projects of state and social transformation in Ecuador with the activities of bureaucrats and experts, market vendors, and members of family and neighborhood savings and credit associations. From policy to practice, market stalls and middle-class living rooms to government offices and neighborhood meeting houses, this dissertation explores efforts to imagine and institutionalize this popular and solidarity economy alongside the everyday politics and pragmatics of money and law. I track how the mundane techniques and technologies of money and law–cash and coin, account books and Excel files, the rules and regulations of bureaucratic administration and vernacular institution-building–are folded into people’s everyday efforts to navigate the relational complexities of associational life in the context of dollarization and post-neoliberal state transformation.


Transnational care constellations: Mexican immigrant mothers and their children in Mexico and in New York City. Oliveira, Gabrielle Marcelletti Rocha de. Columbia University. Advisor: Lesley Bartlett.

This dissertation asks how Mexican maternal migration to the United States has influenced care arrangements and education trajectories for their children who were left in Mexico, comparing these to their siblings who were brought to America or who were born in the United States. I examine transnational caregiving practices among women with children in New York and Mexico. I compare the educational experiences and social trajectories of three groups of children: the ones left in Mexico, the undocumented children and youth brought to the U.S., and those born in the U.S. The children and youth in what I refer to as “care constellation” share the same biological mother who has migrated to New York City, but their lives differ dramatically in terms of academic achievement and familial support. [open access]


Myths and miracles in Mexico City: Treatment seeking, language socialization, and identity among deaf youth and their families. Pfister, Anne E.. University of South Florida. Advisors: Daniel H. Lende and Karla Davis-Salazar.

This dissertation investigates the experience of deafness among deaf youth, adults, and their families in Mexico City, Mexico. Deaf children cannot fully access the spoken languages of their hearing families and mainstream society. Families embarked upon extensive treatment-seeking pilgrimages, encountering myths about deaf lifeways and the promise of miracle cures that formed Mexico City’s cultural system for coping with childhood deafness. This ethnography uncovers persistent misconceptions in medical and mainstream discourse, including strong recommendations against exposure to sign language, which directly impacted participants’ access to relevant communities of practice, the social networks that proved most significant to these families.


Diabetes in Native Chicago: An ethnography of identity, community, and care.  Pollak, Margaret E.. The University of Wisconsin – Madison. Advisor: Claire L. Wendland.

Today American Indians have some of the highest rates of diabetes worldwide. I explore experiences with, understandings of, and care for diabetes in Chicago’s Native community, a community that is made up of individuals representing more than 100 tribes from across the United States and Canada. I illustrate that diabetes in Native Chicago is understood and organized by a local system of classification that has been shaped by what community members observe in cases of the disease among family and friends. In the face of this epidemic, care for disease is woven into the everyday lives of community members. I argue that the relationship between human culture and human biology is a reciprocal one, in which history and culture shape modern human health and human health shapes modern culture.


Decayed, missing, and filled: Subjectivity and the dental safety net in central Appalachia. Raskin, Sarah E.. The University of Arizona. Advisor: Susan J. Shaw.

Access to dental care within the U.S. model of fee-for-service dental private practice follows existing lines of social stratification. Dental disparities, a term that calls attention to the relationships between maldistributed disease and maldistributed care, reflect deep ontological, moral, and political differences about responsibility for the prevention and treatment of dental disease, the quality and distribution of dental care, and even what constitutes health and well-being. In this dissertation, I explore how the sociopolitical relations of dental disparities are enacted through the dental safety net. Drawing on ethnographic research in clinical and community settings in central Appalachia, a region that has come to symbolize the dental crisis in the popular imagination, I show how the dental safety net exemplifies health governance in a neoliberal milieu.


Becoming Roma: Gypsy identity, civic engagement, and urban renewal in Turkey. Schoon, Danielle V. The University of Arizona. Advisors: Brian Silverstein and Salih Can. 

This dissertation is a study of economic, political, and social reforms in contemporary Turkey and how they are experienced by the country’s Romani (“Gypsy”) population. By focusing on urban renewal projects, the pluralization of cultural identities, and the proliferation of civil society organizations, this dissertation analyzes these changes in urban Romani communities, examining how state and civil society initiatives impact identity and civic engagement. While Turkey’s Roma are being integrated into discourses, practices, and institutions of Turkish national belonging and transnational Romani rights solidarity, they are also facing the dissolution of their local communities, traditional occupations, and cultural life. [open access *after April 30, 2017]


Being Ladakhi and becoming educated: Childhoods at school in the Western Himalayas. Richard, Bonnie Olivia. University of California, Los Angeles. Advisor: Nancy E. Levine.

Young Ladakhis experience markedly different childhoods from those of their parents and previous generations. In this rural region of the western Himalayas, since the 1990s education is now widely supported among Ladakhis as a priority for children, and provisions from the government and NGOs make school accessible. While financial returns on education are not guaranteed due to slow job growth, being educated has become a valued social marker. This dissertation explores what is at stake for Ladakhi youth in light of significant socioeconomic transformations. Teenagers hope to be able to support their families and improve their communities, but family obligations can lead to friction with students’ individual hopes. Children from poor families struggle to complete enough education to compete for good jobs that will move them out of poverty due to their obligations to assist their families. [open access]


Coming of Age on Bangladesh Avenue: The remaking of love, kinship and property in Detroit. Samaddar, Sunanda. Columbia University. Advisor: Herve Varenne.

Exploring arranged marriage as a register for larger social formations, this study shadowed the lives of Bangladeshi ESL (English as a Second Language) students attending high school in Detroit’s inner city. It examines the life trajectories of working class Muslim students navigating between the institutions of transnational kinship and the Detroit Public Schools. Whereas the bodies of working class Muslim school girls became the sites for inscribing competing ideals of modernity, self-realization and womanhood, boys were condescended toward as enjoying chauvinistic privilege by the family. The lack of academic achievement for boys was oftentimes rationalized as the general chauvinism of the family’s patriarch.


Fashioning subjectivity and community among young queer women in Seoul. Shin, Layoung. State University of New York at Binghamton. Advisor: Deborah A. Elliston.

This dissertation traces the intertwining of neoliberalism and sexuality through fieldwork with young queer women (iban) in Seoul, South Korea, focusing on cultural activities such as fan-costume-play (imitating pop singers, particularly boy group singers) and one-day queer parties prepared and attended by queer women in their teens and early twenties. I find that neoliberal reconstruction in terms of the labor market, education, increased class gap, and an ethic of human capital and “self-help” has facilitated the exclusion of certain queer subjects, such as gender-nonconformative working class young iban women, so-called “king lesbians” or “surplus queers.”


Islamic charity in India: Ethical entrepreneurism & the ritual, revival, and reform of zakat among a Muslim minority. Taylor, Christopher Brennan. Boston University. Advisors: Robert W. Hefner and Filippo Osella.

New Islamic charities and madrasas in Lucknow, India are promoting Islam as a means of development, through revival and reinterpretation of Islamic almsgiving (zakat) and ethical teachings on money and community. This dissertation examines the rise and transformation of zakat in contemporary India. The contemporary practice of zakat reveals contradictions that invite reconsideration of our ideas about philanthropy, civic engagement, and Islam. I explore the paradox of zakat as “obligated voluntarism” that is at once selfless and self-interested and analyze the cultural implications of such ethics. While the Qur’an encourages giving in modest secrecy, new forms of zakat are not secret but publicly institutionalized and visible. These shifts even alter the practice of piety by incorporating a more individually accountable, calculative dimension to Muslims’ faith.


The spectral city: Cultural belonging, urban space, and post-conflict reconstruction in Dili, Timor-Leste. Tusinski, Gabriel Omar. The University of Chicago. Advisors: Susan Gal and Danilyn Rutherford.

This dissertation is an urban ethnographic study of state and international post-conflict interventions into housing and urban space in the capital city of Timor-Leste. I examine projects to rebuild the urban architectural fabric, resettle displaced people, and formalize land-claims through national mapping projects. By tracing how nation-building discourses and architectural reconstruction at once revitalize indigenous Timorese cultural sensibilities about house-based kinship and yet simultaneously frame these kinship practices as incompatible with democratic ideals, I reveal and analyze a contentious urban politics of cultural and national belonging. I suggest that Dili is often experienced as a “spectral city” at once haunted by ancestral obligations among kin and subject to unprecedented international visibility and scrutiny oriented towards building national unity and promoting neoliberal development within a global political economy.


“May God cure you”: Contemporary Egyptian therapeutic landscapes between Qur’anic healing and psychiatry. Vinea, Ana Maria. City University of New York. Advisor: Talal Asad.

This dissertation investigates the constitution and the practice of a Qur’anic healing technique practiced in Cairo. .It is a revivalist, Salafi-based therapy of jinn exorcism and counter-sorcery that is rooted in centuries-old Islamic practices of healing while also developed into a new configuration. By examining Qur’anic healers’ therapeutic techniques and their modes of reasoning, epistemologies, and authoritative claims, I demonstrate that the contemporary practice of Qur’anic healing is constituted through an articulation of Islamic and psychiatric, biomedical, and modern scientific more generally, practices, epistemologies, and sensibilities.


The black swans of Greece’s global countrysides: Post-socialist immigrant farmers, small Greek farms, integration, and [under]development. Verinis, James P.. State University of New York at Binghamton. Advisor: Thomas M. Wilson.

Small-scale olive farmers in semi-mountainous areas of Greece who have found themselves economically uncompetitive, especially in light of the current European financial crisis, have developed a variety of unprecedented relationships with many Southeastern European immigrants they now work with. In reclaiming abandoned fields and centuries-old farm enterprises, collecting foodstuffs that Greeks now seldom collect, and continuing other traditional rural activities, immigrant farmers link rural Greeks back to their agrarian lives, grounding them all in the security of agricultural livelihoods amidst the European social and financial crises and connecting them to new international value-added food markets for boutique or heritage food products.


Structural violence and homelessness: Searching for happiness on the streets of Manila, the Philippines. Visetpricha, Boonlert. The University of Wisconsin – Madison. Advisor: Katherine Bowie.

This dissertation investigates the causes and the ways of life of homeless people on the streets of Manila, the Philippines. I argue that high unemployment in the Philippines is the primary cause of homelessness along with family problems and lack of access to cheap housing in squatter areas. I show how homeless people in Manila survive on the street both in material and cognitive terms. Their survival involves getting food from soup kitchens, doing odd jobs, providing self-explanations of their homelessness, and thinking positively about their lives. The dissertation suggests that several faith-based organizations provide food for homeless people to survive from day to day, but are less concerned about how to help homeless people overcome homelessness. Accordingly, they are a part of everyday violence that routinizes street homelessness and perpetuates social injustice.


Food on the move: Gendered representation, cultural sustainability, and culinary practices of Gullah women. White, Katie Marie. University of Maryland, College. Advisor: Augusta Lynn Bolles.

This study looks at the preparation and presentation of food as an integral part of a sustained Gullah culture. I discuss how movement of peoples into and out of the Sea Islands of South Carolina complicates the relationship between the sensory, particularly taste, memory and home. Most importantly, through food-centered stories combined with analyses of cookbooks and other culinary notations, this dissertation examines the vital role women have played in maintaining Gullah culinary history and the dissemination and sustenance of Gullah culture. Food is a site for mapping the traditions, pressures, changes, adaptations, and resistances within the Gullah as it encounters dominant cultures, as well as a site of creativity, pleasure, and survival.


The dynamic interrelationships between ethnicity and agrobiodiversity in the Pearl Lagoon Basin, Atlantic Nicaragua. Williams, Nicholas Enyart. University of California, Santa Barbara. Advisor: Susan C. Stonich.

This dissertation characterizes the ways in which increased global connectedness differentially impacts agricultural decisions among the ethnically-diverse farming households in Atlantic Nicaragua’s Pearl Lagoon Basin, with specific focus on farmers’ maintenance of agrobiodiversity. Research conducted in other parts of the world has shown correlations between a farmer’s ethnic identity and the agrobiodiversity they maintain within their farming systems. These trends remain even as small-scale farmers are connected to extra-local political and economic systems, which are cited as the drivers of global agrobiodiversity erosion. Yet, how ethnicity influences the maintenance of agrobiodiversity is poorly understood.


Contesting the future of the campo Mexicano: Food sovereignty and the cultural politics of transgenic corn. Wilson, Alice Brooke. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015.  Advisor: Dorothy Holland.

This dissertation analyzes the social-spatial knowledge practices that have emerged in the controversy over genetically modified (GM) transgenic corn in Mexico. The concept of food sovereignty, as developed within the Vía Campesina social movement, has emerged as a powerful discursive alternative on this terrain. Mexico is one of the most active sites of dispute over the future and meaning of maize and small-scale farming in North America. I describe and analyzes three sets of practices in the struggle against transgenic corn in Mexico: testing, mapping, and the international Permanent People’s Tribunal. These practices emerged in moments of crisis–of contamination, of defining the centers of origin of maize, and of state impunity–framed within the larger discourse of crisis that sees rural Mexico as under “attack” by the Mexican government.



One thought on “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations 2015

  1. JP

    i suspect that in many cases, the lack of access issue is related to the authors’ future publication plans. it has become quite common for academic publishers to have authors embargo their dissertations if they’re going to publish a book that is based on a dissertation.

    the point regarding public funding is certainly valid, and it’s one of the better arguments for open access, more generally.


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