Coming Soon

Myths of meritocracy, friendship, and fun work: class and gender in North American academic communities. Forthcoming, American Anthropology

Using the example of Andean archaeology, this article focuses on subtle forms of inequality that arise when academic communities are conceptualized as friendship-based and egalitarian, rejecting explicit hierarchy. I describe this as performative informality and argue that it stems from a meritocratic ideology that inadvertently reproduces Euro-American white-male privilege. In a discipline that prides itself on its friendliness, openness, and alcohol-fueled drinking culture, those who find themselves unable to enact or perform informality appropriately are at a distinct disadvantage. Drawing from a multisited ethnography of Andeanist archaeologists, I make the case that it is the ephemerality and plausible deniability of performative informality that makes it hard to recognize and thus mitigate against it. In doing so, I draw on and contribute to the theorization of gender/class intersectionality in anthropology and science studies, US conceptualizations of meritocracy in academia and higher education, and feminist Jo Freedman’s concept of “the tyranny of structurelessness.” [anthropology of science, ethnography of archaeology, class, gender, anthropology of work and education]

To Stand There Silent: Blackboxing Embodied Expertise in Transnational Field Science. Under review Social Studies of Science

Drawing on an ethnography of North and South American archaeologists working in Bolivia, this paper explores how facts are made in a science that takes the human body as the primary tool through which knowledge is made. Archaeology does not rely on standardizable machines or technologies to produce its facts, but rather on individual people who use their eyes, hands, voices, and sociability to turn material objects encountered in the field into bundles of facts. The way these people are organized and structured on an excavation turns them into archaeology’s knowledge producing machinery. This reliance on individual embodied skills, however, is rarely recognized and almost never discussed or described in texts. The importance of embodied expertise to creating facts is thus blackboxed, and the expertise required is devalued. In this paper I use archaeology as an example of devaluing tacit expertise in scientific practice, with particular attention to how this contributes to disparities in epistemic power between the Global North and South. Although archaeology is assumed to be a single, universal discipline, different countries have non-commensurable epistemic cultures. When archaeologists from the US/Canada and Bolivia work together, disagreements of interpretation, and of what counts as expertise (speaking versus doing), are interpreted as Bolivians failing to adhere to ‘universal’ standards, rather than as non-commensurability. To explain how this unintended discrimination comes about, I trace the micro-processes that lead to conversational skills being valued over tacit interaction with material objects.

Trust as Co-constituted Process and Practice: Multi-disciplinary Approaches to Understanding Water Trust in Mexico City. Under revision Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. Mary Leighton and Elizabeth F.S Roberts

Taking water distribution as a topic that surely counts as a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Weber 1974), in this paper we discuss trust in terms of both water trust in Mexico City, and how epistemic trust emerges in a multidisciplinary collaboration that brings together three very different field sciences. Through the fieldwork we are currently conducting with NESTSMX, we aim to contribute to an STS understanding of the practice and process of trusting a substance like water, its infrastructure, and the people/institutions who deliver it into homes. In the meantime, however, we propose to theorize trust as an oscillation between different contexts of risk, privacy, and experience that are inextricably bound to both materiality and intimacy. To illustrate this argument, we draw upon the contrast between our varied disciplinary approaches to studying people in the field as data.

Already Out There

Exploring dietary patterns in a Mexican adolescent population: A mixed methods approach. Appetite (2019): 104542. Jansen, Erica C., Hannah Marcovitch, Julia A. Wolfson, Mary Leighton, Karen E. Peterson, Martha Maria Téllez Rojo, Alejandra Cantoral, and Elizabeth FS Roberts. (Link)

To explore dietary patterns within the context of the nutrition transition among Mexican adolescents, we employed a mixed-methodology that included survey data from a cohort of 550 adolescents and direct ethnographic observations of six families. From the cohort study, we found that diet tended to cluster into 3 patterns. Interpreting the patterns using the ethnographic observations showed that the dietary clustering likely reflected differences in meal organization driven by socioeconomic status (SES). In particular, families of higher SES could afford to prepare larger home-cooked meals on a regular basis while lower SES households had less-stable patterns and greater reliance on processed food. These findings provide a more nuanced interpretation of dietary patterns observed in the Mexico population than is afforded by the food items alone (i.e. a “healthy” or “prudent” pattern versus “unhealthy” or “Westernized”).

Bioethnography as a Methodological Approach to Social and Chemical Life in Mexico City. Anthropology News website, March 27, 2018.  Mary Leighton and Elizabeth F.S. Roberts. (PDF)

The most prevalent form of lead exposure in Mexico City today is culinary: lead glazed ceramic dishes that are prized within families. Lead glaze makes the dishes shine and the food taste sweeter, and the enormous ollas (pots) that hang on kitchen walls connect current generations to past and future family celebrations. What if anthropology could tell the broader story of what these pots do, and their effects, by intertwining their social and chemical lives? Our bioethnographic project, Mexican Exposures (MEXPOS), seeks to do just that; we insist that, to understand lead exposure and working-class life in Mexico City, we need to keep glaze, sweetness, celebrations, and toxicity together.

Indigenous Field Technicians at Tiwanaku, Bolivia: A Hybrid Form of Scientific Labor. American Anthropologist 118:742–754. (2016) (PDF)

Archaeology is a science with an intimate investment in the bodies that labor to produce its objects of knowledge. Data comes into being through tactile skills: eyes that see, hands that touch, voices that name and debate. It matters, therefore, who constitutes and controls the labor force; yet little has been written about archaeological workers. Here I outline the relationship between archaeologists and indigenous workers at Tiwanaku, Bolivia, showing that archaeologists did not have direct control over labor on their sites, including who was hired, how much they were paid, and how jobs were defined. These decisions are made by the community’s Mallkus in active (sometimes protracted) negotiation with the archaeologists. While active and constant, the process of bargaining was not necessarily conflicted; moreover, it led to a form of labor organization and scientific practice that was neither entirely “Aymara/indigenous” nor entirely “archaeological/scientific.” It thus forms an intriguing example of a form of hybrid scientific practice that incorporates two very different conceptualizations of labor, both as it relates to specific individuals (who is capable of occupying specific jobs) and how it is valued (what the underlying purpose of scientific work should be).

Excavation Methodologies and Labour as Epistemic Concerns in the Practice of Archaeology. Comparing examples from British and Andean archaeology. Archaeological Dialogues 22 (01): 65-88. (2015) (PDF)

Archaeologists’ excavation practices vary significantly from country to country and site to site. But variation in the most fundamental, ‘common-sense’ excavation practices is ‘black-boxed’ – it is not discussed outside casual, informal contexts, and is treated as having no effect on higher-level interpretation. These practices can, however, be a source of conflict when archaeologists from different communities of practice work together. In this paper, I explore what variation in excavation methodology reveals about the nature of archaeological knowledge itself. By comparing methodologies and the organization of labour on British and Andean excavations, I argue that archaeologists in different communities of practice have divergent understandings of what the object of archaeological investigation is, and of how it can be known, and by whom. This results in contrasting understandings of the nature of material/archaeological objects, as well as contrasting conceptualizations of excavation as an ‘expert’ practice – one requiring skills, knowledge and bodily practices that are specific to trained archaeologists. Situating these concerns in historical and ethnographic context, this paper suggests that archaeological excavation is, in fact, a far more complex, nuanced and variable practice than the lack of attention paid to it implies.

Personifying Objects/Objectifying People: The Ambiguity of Human Remains in the Practice of Contemporary Archaeologists. Ethnos 75 (1): 78–101. (2010) (PDF)

Death and the bodies of the dead are managed and handled in contemporary Western society by various professions that include archaeology. The bodies of the dead exist in a variety of material forms, and generate conflicting responses from the archaeologists who work with them. Positioning archaeologists as professionals within a wider society, this article explores the relationship between the physicality of the body, the (de)construction of personhood and the problem of mortality in contemporary Western (British) society.

Breathing Life into the Archives: reflections upon decontextualisation and the curatorial history of V.G. Childe and the material from Toszeg. European Journal of Archaeology 7 (1): 41-60. (2004). Mary Leighton, and M.L. Sorenson (PDF)

What is the fate of the material from old excavations? This article aims to generate attention towards this question by discussing the fragmentation of assemblages due to long and disjointed excavation campaigns as well as the eagerness of museums to have representative objects from famous sites. The challenge emerging is the need to explore ways of reinstating objects that may be widely dispersed and entirely decontextualized into our database. The tell at Tószeg-Laposhalom, Hungary, is used as a case study with particular attention to the campaign of 1927. This case is important for several reasons. Tószeg is a key European Bronze Age site. It is also a good example of a site with numerous excavation campaigns and many different teams being involved. Moreover, the 1927 campaign, which is documented through the correspondence between the partners, was V.G. Childe’s first excavation, and the data recovered played a key role in his Central European Bronze Age chronology.

In Prep

Missing Data: Lost And Found Figures in U.S. – Mexican Interdisciplinary Research. In prep

The empty cell on the spread sheet, a torn page in a field journal: In this paper I explore what can be salvaged from field work disasters and missing data. I propose that lost data isn’t always a disaster: much can be learnt from the gaps it leaves behind. What goes missing when data leaves the field, particularly when the field is in the Global South and the researchers analyzing it are in the Global North? What is then re-found when different kinds of data come together (ethnographic and biological) in an epistemic collaboration?

To answer these questions, I discuss the Mexican Exposures project: an experimental ‘bioethnography’ that requires collaboration across both disciplinary and national borders. Bioethnography is a methodological approach that combines two different kinds of methodologies—ethnographic observation and biological sampling—in a synthetic, symmetrical analysis (Roberts 2015). Mexican Exposures brought together data from a year-long ethnography of six working class families in Mexico City, and biological data from the same families that has been gathered as part of a 25+ year-long epidemiological birth cohort study. In practice, the attempt to bring together researchers from Mexico and the US, epidemiology and anthropology, has been both inspiring and infuriating – particularly as we grapple with the gaps in what we think we should know.

As an ethnographic experiment, Mexican Exposures was both deliberately and accidentally complicated. A deliberate decision was made to make this a collaborative ethnography: not only do several field researchers write field notes, those raw notes are then read, analyzed, and written about by other people (students included) who have never visited the site itself. The accidental complication, however, was the discovery that one of the field researchers had been inventing and plagiarizing field note. Taken together, these two issues raise fraught questions about the epistemic and interpersonal trust we place in ethnographers and ethnographic data, and the extent to which anthropological data can be separated from the body of the ethnographer.

On the epidemiological side, a different fieldwork tradition already presupposes that some data is lost or stripped away when it leaves the field. For instance, the situated knowledge of female field technicians and administrators in Mexico is lost, as biological samples and data-sets cross national borders. A different kind of embodied knowledge is being created and then dissipated in epidemiology: one that echoes but also challenges our presumptions about the value of ethnography. In our collaboration, we attempted to re-center this situated knowledge. But does this in itself create more problems than it solves, if it rarifies the bodies and lives of women in the field?

Anthropology as Critical Empathy: The deliberate work of humanizing Objects and Others, in the practice of North American archaeology and ethnography. In prep.

This paper comes out of my long-term ethnography of transnational archaeological practice in the Andean archaeology, and earlier qualitative research on British and Finnish archaeologists who work with human remains. Focusing on North American four-field anthropology, I explore similarities between archaeological and ethnographic methods, specifically the way both subfields search for humanness in material objects and in other people. My aim is to argue for a re-appreciation of anthropology as a science of the human. But rather than look at writing and the circulation of texts, I take an STS approach to understanding epistemology in practice, by looking in detail at how ethnographers and archaeologists use their own bodies and selves as tools.


“An Oasis on Campus”: Experiences of Community, Trust, and Employment Among Students Who Work at the Smart Museum of Art. Report commissioned for the Smart Museum of Art, Chicago. (Aug 2014) (PDF)

Predicting Student Success: Student, Family, and Pre-Matriculation Factors at a Diverse, Urban University. UIC Office for Research on Student Success Research Brief Farruggia, S., Bottoms, B.L., Leighton, M., Wellman, M., Moss, T. and Brow, M. (Aug 2015) (Link)