The Medical Anthropology Program at Wayne State is the oldest in the country and the past editorial home of Medical Anthropology Quarterly: The International Journal for the Analysis of Health. Medical Anthropologists conduct research, teaching, and practice relating to health and the ways in which health is maintained, experienced, promoted and threatened in groups past and present throughout the world. 

The faculty and students in Medical Anthropology at Wayne State share a common commitment to documenting, understanding and addressing how health and illness are produced in different communities, cultures and societies. They study how health problems, health inequalities and health systems are shaped by and reflect specific historical, geographic and political-economic contexts and change over time. Using methods drawn from ethnography biomedical and epidemiological research alike faculty and students work to generate empirically grounded, conceptually sophisticated, analytically powerful accounts of people’s words and deeds, their aspirations and struggles, their suffering and efforts to address it. They situate these experiences  with health and illness within the increasingly interconnected global environment.  Funding from NIH, NIMH, CDC, EPA, MDCH, and a range of local foundations has supported research by the WSU Medical Anthropology Program

A key focus of attention at Wayne State is public anthropology. By this we mean a commitment to translate scholarship to address social problems. To this end we engage in research that focuses on problems of immediate social significance as well as those whose relevance engages scholarly debates and issues. We encourage student involvement in community issues. In pursuit of this goal, we offer a joint doctoral degree in Anthropology and Social Work. The joint Social Work/ Anthropology (SWAN) PhD program draws on the strengths of these disciplines to create a single doctorate degree with a global and urban emphasis. 

The public focus of medical anthropology is enriched by our location in Detroit. Urban settings and Detroit in particular, are important centers of innovation and problem solving for health related issues.  At a global level, international policy and humanitarian organizations, governments, and a variety of funding agencies are increasingly focused on issues raised by the rapid urbanization of the world’s population. With the greater part of the world’s population, urban settings now have the majority of social problems. Detroit exemplifies some of the challenges of the growing urbanism. Detroit is undergoing changes that are garnering national and international visibility. Long known as an iconic city of postindustrial decline, Detroit is increasingly seen as a frontier for experimentation in urban recovery, particularly in areas such as land and water use and food security. 

The goals for the Medical Anthropologist program are:

  • Training students in interdisciplinary scholarship and service that is grounded in ethnographic theory and practice.
  • Encouraging students to explore the social, cultural and political practices shaping health and illness, including health disparities.
  • Fostering collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship and policy initiatives that lead students to engage with both public and private health institutions,           NGOs, advocacy and activist groups and a range of researchers across the disciplines.

Areas of specialization: Social gerontology, Care, Environmental Health, Urban Health, Culture and Disability, HIV/AIDS


Andrea Sankar’s (Ph.D. U Michigan) research asks how values, meanings, relationships and practices of care, for the self, for others, for the community, and for the environment, influence the health and well-being of individuals and communities.  She conducts research on this and related questions using large-scale qualitative and mixed methods approaches as well as ethnographic and case study methods.  She seeks to understand the basic elements of care, the sense of the person, sociality, embodiment, instrumentality, and role of economic structures in its enactment. Her work on care has recently expanded to include the environment and people’s understanding of the various locations of responsibility and power in caring for it. To this end, she is exploring the role of shoreline fishing in the lives of anglers, their families and communities. She works collaboratively to develop health promotion interventions to improve anglers’ health and well-being and promote community action to improve the environment.  These studies are funded by local, state, national, and international agencies including the State of Michigan Health Department, the City of Detroit Health Department, NIH, NIMH, CDC, USAID/FHI, and the Erb Foundation.

She co-curated he museum exhibit “Follow the Lines: Environmental legacy, health, and fishing the Detroit River” (WEBSITE ADDRESS HERE), a community collaboration featuring findings from her environmental health research.

Mark Luborsky’s (Ph.D. U Rochester) research asks, why do some people function well reorganizing their life during hardships yet others struggle over the life course?  He conducts basic and translational research on this question using primarily large scale qualitative and mixed methods designs, but also population-based, clinical, and case studies. Building theory and methods to advance a life course framework he seeks the nature, components, and outcomes of social, individual and health transitions across adulthood and later life. Studies and publications focus on normative transitions (eg. retirement; generativity; household downsizing), acute and chronic physical issues (e.g, polio, hip fracture, stroke, spinal cord injury), infectious diseases (e.g, HIV; polio) and, mental health issues in illnesses or death (eg. loss of spouse; or child), and depression.  These studies are funded by national and international agencies including NIH (NIA, NIMH, NICHD, NIAID),  CDC,  NSF, USAID/FHI, and foundations.   

Jessica Robbins

Education: Ph.D., University of Michigan, 2013


Research interests: Medical anthropology, aging and the life course, kinship and personhood, memory, postsocialist studies, political economy, morality, education and learning, palliative and hospice care, gardens. 

Geographical research areas: Poland, Central/East Europe, European Union, US.


Select recent publications:

Forthcoming. Responsibilities of the Third Age and the Intimate Politics of Sociality in Poland. In Competing Responsibilities: The Ethics and Politics of Responsibility in Contemporary Life. Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle, eds. Duke University Press. 


2015 “Active” Aging as Citizenship in Poland. In Generations: Rethinking Age and Citizenship. Richard Marback, ed. Pp. 270-286. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 


2014 National Dimensions of Personhood among Older People in Poland. Etnografia Polska [Polish Ethnography] 58(1-2):159-174.


2014 Thinking with “Postsocialism” in an Ethnographic Study of Old Age in Poland. Cargo: Journal for Cultural/Social Anthropology 12(1-2):35-50. 


2013 Challenging Marginalization at the Universities of the Third Age in Poland. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(2):157-169.


*2013 Shifting Moral Ideals of Aging in Poland: Suffering, Self-Actualization, and the Nation. In Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. Caitrin Lynch and Jason Danely, eds. Pp. 79-91. New York: Berghahn Books. 


*2013 Understanding Aktywność in Ethnographic Contexts: Aging, Memory, and Personhood in Poland. Forum Oświatowe [Educational Forum] 1(48):87-101. 


*2013 Aktywność i jej etnograficzne konteksty: starzenie się, pamięć i podmiotowość w Polsce. Translated by Patrycja Poniatowska. Forum Oświatowe. 1(48):103-119. 


* denotes publications as Jessica C. Robbins. 



ANT 2100 Introduction to Anthropology

ANT 7020 Anthropological Theory II

ANT 7630 Seminar: Kinship and Social Relations


Ongoing research:

I am a sociocultural and medical anthropologist with research interests in personhood, kinship, care, memory, the body, and historical political economy. My research aims to understand aging in sociocultural and political-economic context from comparative ethnographic and historical perspectives. I am particularly interested in health and illness as kinds of experience, forms of social life, and ways of knowing that are simultaneously intimate and expansive. 


Currently, I am working on my book manuscript on aging, memory, and personhood in Poland. The book explores seemingly divergent contemporary experiences of aging in diverse institutional sites in Wrocław and Poznań, Poland to argue that similar practices of relatedness exist in both the “third” and “fourth ages.” I draw on theoretical perspectives from studies of kinship, postsocialism, and memory to show how contemporary desires for “active aging” in Poland exceed standard postsocialist narratives and instead are rooted in particular national understandings of the links between person and place. Research for the book was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the International Research Exchange Board (through a grant from the US Department of State Title VIII), Elderhostel/Road Scholar, and several units at the University of Michigan.

I have ongoing research interests in the production of knowledge about aging and its relation to contemporary and historical forms of sociality. In a project on the (pre)/(post)socialist histories of the sciences of aging in Poland, I explore connections between contemporary educational institutions for older persons and the historical development of disciplinary knowledge about aging, education, and social change (i.e., gerontology, geriatrics, andragogika, pedagogy, social work). Research for this project was funded by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (through a grant from the US Department of State Title VIII). In a project on late-life education in the US, with my colleague Dr. Mark Luborsky, we seek to understand how leisure-focused, vocational-focused, and health-focused education differently shape personhood in late life.    

I am developing several new ethnographic projects that explore questions of age, personhood, kinship, and politics in diverse settings where life is fostered in the face of decline. These range from the Polish-American community in Michigan, and palliative and hospice care in Michigan and Poland, to a comparative study of urban gardens/działki in Detroit and Poland


I also work with Dr. Krysta Ryzewski and colleagues on the Ethnic Layers of Detroit interdisciplinary digital storytelling project, focusing on historical sites of institutional care in Detroit. 



Jonathan Stillo

PhD City University of New York Graduate Center

Research interests: medical anthropology, global health, tuberculosis, infectious disease, antimicrobial resistant infections (AMR), health and human rights, patient-centered care, social diseases, social determinants of health, health disparities.

I am a critical medical anthropologist whose work focuses on the social determinants of health, particularly in connection to tuberculosis. By this I mean things that are commonly considered social determinants such as individual and community-level poverty and membership in vulnerable groups, but also technical and clinical matters such as diagnosis and treatment access, regulatory matters that determine the availability of medications, health system organization, and how all of these factors lead to heath inequity and ultimately the violation of people’s human rights—specifically the right to health and the right to the benefits of scientific progress. For the last twelve years, I have conducted research and advocacy in Romania and Republic of Moldova on drug resistant tuberculosis.

In addition to my research, I am also involved in efforts to improve health policy at the local and international level and have worked with a number of organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on issues related to vulnerable populations, human rights and ethics, access to diagnosis and treatment, and patient-centered care.

At Wayne State, I am continuing my research on TB and am the faculty advisor for the Partners Health Engage and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) student organizations.


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