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Professor Emeritus

Research Interests

Anthropology of Science,Technology and Medicine; Humanitarianism and Human Rights; Colonial History; Ethics, Nongovernmental Organizations and Transnational Experts; Europe; French Guiana; Uganda; South Africa

Research Background

My first research project focused on the European space program in French Guiana, comparing it to earlier French efforts to develop the region, especially the notorious penal colony known as Devil’s Island. Between 1990 and 1994 I worked in both French Guiana and France, combining ethnographic fieldwork with archival research; the results appeared as a book for the University of California Press in 2000. At its core the book addresses the greater ecology of modern technology, examining the reconfiguration of French Guiana’s social and natural landscape into a proper habitat for the assembly and launch of satellites into high orbit. My larger goal in writing it was to interrogate the success of a distinctly planetary system with a more local history, one rife with repeated colonial failure and unintended consequences.

My second major research project extended this concern for global projects, but shifted focus to non-state actors and a moving frontier of health crises, examining the nongovernmental organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Founded four decades ago as a French effort to establish a more engaged and oppositional form of medical humanitarianism, MSF has grown into a transnational institution, known both for excellent logistics and for outspoken independence. MSF missions now stretch well beyond emergency responses to humanitarian disaster to target specific diseases and structural inequities in global health, always struggling between twin goals of efficacy and advocacy. I conducted fieldwork both at MSF’s operational headquarters in Europe (especially sections in France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland), and multiple project sites in Uganda. The book appeared on the University of California Press in 2013. During this period I also collaborated with Erica Bornstein on an edited volume through the SAR Advanced Seminar series, and engaged in other collective work addressing humanitarianism.

My present work follows examples of science, technology and medicine beyond reliable infrastructure. I am particularly interested in emerging forms of humanitarian design, and a varied array of efforts to produce innovative fixes and solutions in a box (examples range from nonprofit pharmaceutical production to minimalist life technologies related to food, shelter, water and sanitation). My goal is to consider the complicated ethics and politics of interventions that seek to do good by saving lives, particularly as they relate to past utopian projects of social welfare and justice.


PhD, University of California Berkeley, 1995; MA, U.C. Berkeley, 1989; AB, Harvard University, 1987


2018 “On Band-Aids and Magic Bullets.” Limn 9, Little Development Devices/Humanitarian Goods. Edited by Stephen J. Collier, Jamie Cross, Peter Redfield and Alice Street.

2016 (with Steven Robins) “An Index of Waste: Humanitarian Design, ‘Dignified Living’ and the Politics of Infrastructure in Cape Town.” Anthropology of Southern Africa, 39: 2: 145-162.

2016 “Ebola and the Vulnerable Volunteer.” Volunteer Economies: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labor in Africa. R. Prince and H. Brown, eds. James Currey, 2017, 222-233.

2016 (with Steven Robins) “Toilets for Africa: Humanitarian Design Meets Sanitation Activism in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.” World Anthropologies in Practice. John Gledhill, ed., Bloomsbury, 173-187.

2016 “Doctors Without Borders and the Global Emergency.” Vital Signs: Medical Anthropology in the 21st Century, L. Manderson, A. Hardon and E. Cartwright, eds. NY: Routledge, 359-363.

2016 “Imagined Immunities” theme issue on Clinic in Crisis. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 40:263–267.

2016 “Fluid Technologies: The Bush Pump, the LifeStraw® and Microworlds of Humanitarian Design.” Social Studies of Science, 46(2): 159–183.

2015 “A Measured Good.” Medical Humanitarianism: Ethnographies of Practice (S. Abramowitz and C. Panter-Brick, eds.) University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 242-251.

2015 (with Emma Kowal et al). “The Open Question: Medical Anthropology and Open Access.” Medicine, Anthropology and Theory 2, no. 1: 75–94.

2014 Entry for “Human” in Commonplaces project, Somatosphere (

2014 “Medical Vulnerability, or Where There Is No Kit.” Limn, issue 5 (Ebola’s Ecologies),

2014 “Triage sans frontières.” La médecine du tri: Histoire, éthique, anthropologie (G. Lachenal , C. Lefèvre, and V.K. Nguyen, eds.) Presses Universitaires de France. 81-102.

2013 “Eyes Wide Shut in Transnational Science and Aid.” Invited response to “Public Secrets in Public Health: Knowing Not to Know While Making Scientific Knowledge” (Geissler) American Ethnologist, 40: 1: 35-37.

2013 Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders. University of California Press.

2012 “Sleeping Sickness and the Limits of Biological Citizenship.” In Rethinking Biomedicine and Governance in Africa (W. Geissler, R. Rothenburg and J. Zenker, eds.). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 229-249.

2012 “Humanitarianism.” In A Companion to Moral Anthropology (D. Fassin, ed.) Malden, MA: Blackwell, 451-467.

2012 “The Unbearable Lightness of Expats: Double Binds of Humanitarian Mobility.” Cultural Anthropology, 27: 2: 358-382.

2012 “Bioexpectations: Life Technologies as Humanitarian Goods.” Public Culture 24:1: 157-184.

2012 “Secular Humanitarianism and Sacred Life.” In What Matters? Ethnographies of Value in a (Not So) Secular Age. (C. Bender and A. Taves, eds.). SSRC/Columbia University Press, 144-178.

2011 (co-edited with Erica Bornstein) Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism Between Ethics and Politics. School for Advanced Research Press.

2011 “Cleaning up the Cold War: Global Humanitarianism and the Infrastructure of Crisis Response.” In Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War (MIT Press), 267-291.

2010 “The Verge of Crisis:Doctors Without Borders in Uganda.” In D. Fassin and M. Pandolfi, eds. Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. Zone Books, 173-195.

2009 (with Ed Rackley) “The Explosive Remnants of War. In A. Sarat and J. Lezaun, eds., Catastrophe: Law, Politics and the Humanitarian Impulse. University of Massachusetts Press, 212-235.

2008 “Vital Mobility and the Humanitarian Kit.” In A. Lakoff and S. Collier, eds. Biosecurity Interventions: Global Health and Security in Question. Columbia University Press, 147-171.

2008 “Sacrifice, Triage and Global Humanitarianism.” In T. Weiss and M. Barnett eds., Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics. Cornell University Press, 196-214.

2008 “Doctors Without Borders and the Moral Economy of Pharmaceuticals.” In A. Bullard, ed., Human Rights in Crisis, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press, 129-144.

2006 “A Less Modest Witness: Collective Advocacy and Motivated Truth in a Medical Humanitarian Movement” American Ethnologist. 33: 1 (Feb.), 3-26.

2005 “Doctors, Borders and Life in Crisis.” Cultural Anthropology. 20:3 (Aug.), 328-361. (Winner of the 2006 Cultural Horizons Prize, Society for Cultural Anthropology)

2005 “Foucault in the Tropics: Displacing the Panopticon.” Jonathan Xavier Inda, ed. Foucault and the Anthropology of Modernity. Blackwell Books, 50-79.

2003 (with Silvia Tomaskova) “The Exile of Anthropology.” In Rebecca Saunders, ed. The Concept of the Foreign. Lexington Books (Rowman & Littlefield), 71-90.

2002 “The Half-Life of Empire in Outer Space.” Social Studies of Science (special issue on “Postcolonial Technoscience”) 32: 6 (Dec.), 791-825.

2000. Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana. University of California Press.

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