Research Overview

Archaeologists washing their hands with a libation, prepared for them the previous evening by a shaman. Peru 2006. (Photo: M. Leighton)

My research explores the stakes of gendered, colonial, and racial inequalities within scientific and educational communities that transverse the US and Latin America.

Theoretical themes that can be found in each of my projects include embodiment and tacit knowledge, material culture, and an interest in definitions of work and labor.

This page provides a brief overview of how my various research interests intersect. The links to the right provide more detail on individual topics.

Where? Transnational Field Sciences: collaborations between the Global North and South

Social scientists, and particularly those in STS, have long critiqued the assumptions of ‘universalism’ in science: the idea that scientific truths and facts have the same impact and meaning, no matter where in time or space they are created or applied.

In anthropology we tend to critique this universalism by contrasting indigenous knowledge and techno-science, or drawing attention to examples where science doesn’t ‘work’ the way it does elsewhere. We think about this as a problem of assumed globalism and universalism confronting the realities of the local, situated, and specific.

However, while attention has been paid to case studies that contrast scientists to non-scientists (patients, publics, indigenous communities) it is generally assumed that the ‘scientists’ in each example form a coherent community. Terms like ‘western science’ imply that science is a coherent set of practices, values, and meanings, at least within the same discipline. So, for instance, all physicists generally have the same ‘epistemic culture’, as do all geographers, or archaeologists, or any other scientific profession.

Taking part in a dawn ‘pago’ (Andean offering ceremony) ahead of excavations. Chile, 2007. (Photo: M.Leighton)

My work challenges this assumption, by examining the roots and consequences of epistemic, social, and economic inequalities within scientific communities, particularly when they involve collaborations that cross geopolitical and disciplinary borders. Using examples from archaeology, from public health, and from refugee scientists who traveled to the US from Europe in the 1930s-40s, I show that what science means in one country does not necessarily align with what it means elsewhere.

Moreover, I argue that the exceptions that there is a shared community of practice and values — a shared epistemic culture — masks both difference and inequalities. This is particularly the case when scientists from the Global North work with those in the Global South.

My first project in this area, “Uneven Fields: Transnational Expertise and the Practice of Andean Archaeology,” was a multi-sited ethnography of transnational collaborations between Andeanist archaeologists from the US, Canada, Chile, and Bolivia who conduct fieldwork in the Bolivian altiplano and the Chilean Atacama desert.

At Michigan I work with Liz Roberts on the Mexican Exposures project where I study interdisciplinary and transnational collaborations between public health officials, ethnographers, and engineers.

My new historical and ethnographic project explores the experiences of refugee academics and the impact they have on the foreign scientific communities they join.


How? Anthropological Methods: Ethnographic and Archaeological Epistemology

I have an on-going interest in methodology and epistemology in anthropology; specifically how knowledge-making practices in both ethnography and archaeology are embodied, in that they are reliant on the tacit and affective skills of individual scientists whose bodies become tools.

My work in this area includes an article on how British archaeologists (including field archaeologists, museum curators, forensic anthropologists, and osteoarchaeologists) conceptualize human remains as ‘people’ or ‘objects’, and two published pieces on method and epistemology in Andean Archaeology. (PDFs available here)

Desiccated 19th century animal remains, found during archaeological survey. Chile, 2007. (Photo: M.Leighton)

In Uneven Fields I studied how archaeologists transcend the contradictions of an embodied practice of knowledge-making in a team-based discipline; in the Mexican Exposures coding lab I will be exploring how this same contradiction is tackled when there are a team of ethnographers analyzing someone else’s field notes.

As part of the NESTSMX project, I study how ethnography is being transformed through involvement in a multi-disciplinary research collaboration. I am in the process of writing a paper with Elizabeth Roberts that theorizes the role of epistemic trust in such collaborations (see publications).

Who? Access to Knowledge: Universities and Museums

I have a series of parallel projects that explore, through ethnography and archival study, the sites and institutions where knowledge is officially housed, shared, and curated; namely, universities and museums.


I became interested in the anthropology of higher education through my research on international academic communities. This work is described in more detail on the project pages devoted to Uneven Fields and Academic Refugees. However, I also have first-hand experience of higher education administration and the broader institutional culture of U.S. universities.

Banners protesting the privatization of higher education in Chile. Santiago, 2009. (Photo: M.Leighton)

In 2014 I worked as a project manager and researcher with the Chicago Collaborative for Undergraduate Success, which is now the Office for Research on Student Success, at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Working as part of an interdisciplinary team, we focused on understanding the barriers to graduation faced by low-income, minority, and first-generation students students from Chicago Public Schools.

As a researcher on this project, I worked with a broad range of social scientists, education policy makers, and education NGOs, and became cognizant of the wider literature and policy work on higher education beyond the rather limited number of anthropological studies of higher education. I also gained some fascinating insights into upper level university administration.

In January 2015 I moved to Northwestern University, where I served as the Assistant Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research until August 2017 (see teaching and advising). The experience of working in parts of the university that are usually less visible to students and faculty (my informants in my earlier ethnographic research studying four universities in North and South America as part of Uneven Fields) has been instrumental to my understanding of universities as contested sites of knowledge production at the national and global level.

Hands-on science education in a science museum, as part of the MSCOPE project. Chicago, 2006. (Photo: P. Oikonomou)


I have undertaken a series of independent research projects exploring and comparing science, art, and archaeology museums. In line with my interest in knowledge communities, these projects explore museums as sites where knowledge is disseminated to non-academic audiences. Following Conn (1998), I’m interested in the parallel history of museums and universities, as places where the humanistic, social, and natural sciences create and share knowledge, and the shifting role of material objects themselves in this process. I describe these projects in more detail on this page.