Associate Professor and Department Chair of Anthropology
Media, journalism, the Middle East, expressivity, human rights, knowledge production, democracy, ethnography of place
My research revolves around expression, space, media, and settler colonialism. I am currently working on two book projects. The first, tentatively entitled "Permission to Converse: Laws, Bullets, and other Roadblocks to a Palestinian Exchange," addresses the relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank, two groups that are positioned slightly differently in relation to Israeli settler-colonialism. Through ethnographies of protest as well as of more everyday forms of expression, I analyze the barriers to these two groups speaking to and with each other. I argues that speech is always an embodied and emplaced act.
My second ongoing project examines Palestinian popular politics in a West Bank refugee camp. It examines how Palestinians in this refugee camp strive to resist three authorities, the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian Authority administration, and the United Nations Relief Works Agency through struggles over land, water, bodies, and expression.
My first book, Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics (Stanford University Press 2013) is an ethnography of production of US news during the second Palestinian Intifada. It asks what we can learn about journalism and popular political action when we place Palestinian journalists at the center of an inquiry about U.S. journalism.
In addition to academic writing, I also regularly write for such outlets as Jadaliyya, Middle East Report. I have produced the documentary "Degrees of Incarceration" (2010), an hour-long documentary that explores how, with creativity and love, a Palestinian community responds to the crisis of political imprisonment. Finally, I have been involved with the production of bilingual Arabic and English children's books about refugee lives, including The Boy and the Wall.
Associate Professor and Interim Director of Environmental Studies
My research is concerned with the politics of industrial labor and life in the post-industrial United States. My first book, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm (Duke University Press 2020), is an ethnography of work within some of the world's largest meat corporations, one that follows the making of the modern pig across every facet of its existence from genetics to 1,100 post-death commodities. It examines the transformations to human existence — in terms of living arrangements, the value of labor, biological embodiment, and senses of identity — necessary to sustain contemporary qualities and quantities of industrial animal life in the rural United States. Porkopolis was awarded the 2021 Diana Forsythe Prize (CASTAC/SAW/GAD), 2nd place for the 2021 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing (Society for Humanistic Anthropology), and an honorable mention for the 2021 Gregory Bateson Prize (Society for Cultural Anthropology). In collaboration with the anthropologist Sarah Besky and others, I have also published an edited book called How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (SAR/UNM Press 2019) that surveys how transformed, unstable, and ruined environments are altering the value of human work and livelihood. How Nature Works was awarded the 2021 Society for the Anthropology of Work Book Prize.
I am in the planning and research stages of two subsequent book-length projects. The first concerns the many lingering traces of large-scale animal slaughter in Chicago, and it begins with the closing of the Union Stock Yards in 1971. This book will explore how a wide range of people struggle to redeem, remake, and overcome the social legacies and ecological remains of those infamous meatpacking yards that generated facets of industrial capitalism as it still exists it today. The current aspiration of this research is to be able to articulate more positive and radical visions of deindustrialization and deindustrial futures -- distinct from the precariousness, poverty, and diminished livelihoods that have tended to follow urban industrial divestment. A germinal second project is a wide-ranging oral history collaboration that seeks to document how diverse people have tried to build fulfilling lives on the margins and outside of capitalist work structures and values.
At Tufts University, I teach a wide range of classes on environmentalism, capitalism, labor politics, value beyond work, interspecies relations, food production, political economy, ethnography, and the rural United States.
Medical anthropology, science and technology, environment, ethnicity and indigeneity, nationalism, post-socialism. Geographic focus: Russia; North Asia
My first book project focused on how postsocialist economies of health are shaped through the cultural politics of indigenous knowledge, the remaking of ethnoecologies, and the commodification of ethnic identities. I combine these theoretical concerns with an interest in the afterlives of Soviet scientific and state-building projects in Russia and Inner Asia. I am currently working on a book, provisionally titled Mixing Medicines: the Politics of Health in Postsocialist Siberia, which follows Russia's official medical sector's attempts to reinvent itself through state-led initiatives of "medical integration" that aim to recuperate indigenous therapeutic traditions associated with the state's ethnic and religious minorities. Based in Buryatia, a traditionally Buddhist region on the border of Russia and Mongolia known for its post-Soviet revival of "Tibetan medicine" and shamanism, the book traces the uneven terrains of encounter between indigenous healing, the state, and transnational medical flows.
My current research project explores how the use of "smart drugs" reconfigures discourses and experiences of clinical, social, and work-related efficacy, as they circulate across borders and enter divergent pharmaceutical, medical, and ethical regimes between Russia and the United States. Focused on a contentious category of pharmaceuticals labeled "nootropics" – a chemically fluid taxonomic classification that encompasses a variety of synthetic and naturally-derived substances designed to enhance cognitive functions – the project interrogates what types of selves, regimes of labor, therapeutic ideologies, and temporalities of embodiment these substances help mediate and enact.
Kathryn A. McCarthy, J45, AG46 Assistant Professor in Women's Studies
Sex work, migration, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, borders, Mexico, United States
My research focuses upon how the US/Mexico border is both productive of and made legible by socially meaningful forms of difference through categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. My first book, Love in the Drug War: Selling Sex and Finding Jesus on the Mexico-US Border, is based on twelve months of ethnographic research conducted from 2008 to 2009 in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas during the height of the drug war. My analysis of two groups of migrants – Mexican sex workers and the white American missionaries who seek to love them – reveals how both groups create value through relations of obligation and love. I am in the early stages of two research projects. The first examines gender and sexuality-based activism in Mexico City. The second is about gender and fitness culture in the United States.
I am interested in histories and cultures of medicine, especially as they pertain to gender, kinship, caste, law, and everyday intimacies, with a regional focus on South Asia. I am also interested in the ways knowledge about bodies and minds moves across time and place, and how, in such movements, colonial, anti-colonial, and postcolonial scientific imaginations seed critical genealogies, often counterintuitively. In the diverse ways people make use of medicine and science, I am drawn to the forms of creativity, imagination, and ethical world-making that emerge in the interstices of authority and power. My research has considered childbirth, infant mortality, and birth-work in Uttar Pradesh, India, noting the way reproductive health interventions reiterate caste and the marginalization of Dalit women; women's movement through psychiatric care settings in urban north India and the intersections of kinship dissolutions with crisis and care; and histories of psychiatry and psychoanalysis in South Asia as they pertain to women's lives and gendered diagnoses, notably "hysteria" and its avatars.
Computing and algorithms; sound and music; knowledge and attention; taste and classification; media technologies; science and technology studies
I study how people who make technology deal with cultural materials. My current book project, Computing Taste, draws on several years of ethnographic research and interviews with US-based developers of algorithmic music recommender systems – services that model their users' taste. Where popular critical accounts presume that engineers inevitably misunderstand culture, I instead examine how they theorize about culture and technology – what they are and how they should interact. These theories can have broad consequences, as they shape the design and evolution of influential algorithmic systems. Because many engineering practices are protected by corporate secrecy, I am also interested in developing new ethnographic techniques for accessing and examining the cultural worlds of engineers.
In my new research, I am investigating the technocultural life of attention in the United States. Recently, attention and its technical mediations have become objects of great popular concern—filter bubbles, fake news, political distractions, and shortening attention spans are all blamed on technologies that have been designed to manipulate their users' attention. In this project, I look to see how the people building some of these systems understand attention themselves: how they navigate public concerns about their work, and how their engineering practices relate to ideas about what attention is. I am interested in how the many understandings of attention – as a currency, a capacity, a filter, a spotlight, a moral responsibility – come together in the design of computational systems aimed at quantifying, attracting, or paying attention. This project engages people working in machine learning, facial recognition, and online advertising, as well as the recent movement to "reclaim" attention from the software platforms that have tried to capture it.
Tourism, museums, myth and ritual, cultural performance, culture-led redevelopment, mobilities, farm history/heritage
I am an interdisciplinary scholar and practitioner working at the intersection of cultural anthropology and public history. My published work focuses largely on the uses of history, heritage, and culture in redevelopment projects, particularly in former industrial settings. I am particularly interested in foregrounding the presence and contributions of knowledge producers and cultural workers within processes of postindustrial transformation. My 2006 book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City explores the role of those who helped to reframe a New England textile city for the "new economy" of the late 20th century. My current research and writing asks about the potential for workers in these settings to engage productively with the realms of advocacy and activism, particularly around issues of energy use and food production. A book project in progress, co-authored with Michelle Moon and subtitled How History Can Help Reinvent the Food System, sets out a rationale and methodology for nudging historic sites and practice into closer dialogue with the contemporary "food movement," with the goal of bringing greater historical nuance and critical complexity to present-day understandings of the dominant industrial food system and other possible models.
As an engaged scholar, I have served as a consultant to the U.S. National Park Service's Ethnography Program for more than 15 years, producing a number of peer-reviewed, publicly-accessible book-length studies of military reenactments, farming, and ethnic, avocational, and seasonal communities associated with national parks. I also have an interest in digital scholarship and publication, mostly through my involvement with the National Council on Public History and its evolving digital publications (particularly its History@Work blog, of which I was the founding editor).
Mesoamerican Archaeology, Ceramic Analysis, Rise and Fall of Complex Societies
My research interests are in the social mechanisms involved in the development and demise of complex societies, concentrating on Mesoamerica. The central theme behind my research is to gain a better understanding of the processes involved in the establishment and collapse of social hierarchies and how these are expressed in the archaeological record. I examine these issues though a contextual analysis of material culture (specifically pottery) from a number of different sites. As the ceramicist for the Programme for Belize Archaeology Project in the Three Rivers Region of northwestern Belize, I am in the process of developing a regional chronology for the area which involves the analysis of ceramics recovered from a number across the region(ranging from isolated finds to large cities such as La Milpa) and dating from the Middle Preclassic (900 B.C.) to Terminal Classic (A.D. 900).
I am also the Associate Director of the St. George's Caye Archaeological project where we are excavating the remains of the first capital of Belize. This project is focused on historic period occupation where we are finding some of the forefathers of Belize that were associated with the Battle of St. George's Caye in 1798 when the Baymen fought off the Spanish. A significant part of this public archaeology project involves working closely with the local community on the island to carry out research that is of importance to them and to share our findings.