A revived PhD program mentors a new generation of anthropologists > News > USC Dornsife

With a focus on specialties such as medical and visual anthropology, the newly launched program at USC Dornsife aims to equip students with skills for a changing world. [5¾ min read]

In the letter:

  • USC Dornsife’s Department of Anthropology has restarted its PhD program, which has not graduated a student in more than a decade.
  • The newly launched program emphasizes topics with practical applications to the public, such as medical and visual anthropology.
  • Students in the program are encouraged to pursue training at other USC schools such as USC School of Cinematic Arts and USC’s Keck School of Medicine, as well as USC Dornsife.

“The last thing the world needs is another 20th-century PhD program,” says Peter Redfield, professor of anthropology and chair of the department of anthropology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “We had to rethink doctoral education.”

Last fall, the Department of Anthropology restarted its PhD program, which had been dormant since 2009. The reboot was also an overhaul, prompted by the major cultural and technological shifts in the field, as well as in higher education as a whole.

“We couldn’t just plug it back in and pretend it was the year 2000,” says Redfield, Robert F. Erburu Chair in Ethics, Globalization and Development. Focusing on areas such as medical and visual anthropology, the renewed program encourages students to pursue filmmaking or study how health is influenced by social forces. cooperation with the USC Keck School of Medicine and USC Cinematic Arts provides students with access to resources across the USC campus.

It is all designed to produce graduates who are prepared for the modern world of work and who have also undergone the academic rigor of a PhD program.

“Many of those who graduate from the program will go into careers that aren’t purely academic,” says Redfield. “We would like to encourage them to develop other skills while pursuing the scientific project of the PhD.”

Inspiration from legends and future needs

For the restart of the program, the department took inspiration from both the past and the future.

Barbara Myerhoff founded the Center for Visual Anthropology at USC Dornsife in the 1970s. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The department has been producing important works in visual anthropology for nearly 50 years. in the 1970s, Barbara Meyerhof founded the Center for Visual Anthropology at USC Dornsife. Her short film Number Our Days, which explores the lives of elderly Jews at a senior citizens’ center in Venice, California, won an Oscar in 1976.

After her death in 1985 Professor of Anthropology Timothy Ash was director of the center until 1994. He has produced over 70 ethnographic films, often in collaboration with other anthropologists in Afghanistan and Indonesia.

“The department has a rich tradition of filmmaking, and we wanted to preserve that, but also expand on it,” says Redfield. “We now live in a very complex, media-saturated world where everyone is constantly making movies on their phones. It’s a different environment than it was 20 years ago, let alone 30 or 40.”

Medical anthropology has boomed in recent years, Redfield says, in part because healthcare is playing an increasingly larger role in our lives and because discussions about healthcare inequality have increased, especially during the pandemic.

“People working in healthcare have become increasingly aware of cross-cultural issues, structural inequities, the fact that access to healthcare is not equal, and that medical education does not produce consistent outcomes,” says Redfield, who has written a book on the ethics of Doctors Without Borders.

The acquired ethnological training predestines the graduates for the analysis of these social problems. “Anthropologie has always tried to talk about human problems from a geographically broad and historically deep perspective,” says Redfield.

“This tradition can be extremely valuable in almost any area of ​​work. Anthropology isn’t always good at finding solutions, but it’s good at encouraging people to see problems, push boundaries, and ask questions.”

New kids on the block

A revitalized program was a good opportunity to bring some fresh faces into the department. One of these newcomers is Fiori Berhane, an assistant professor of anthropology who studies the politics of African migrants in Europe.

Berhane just completed a PhD in anthropology herself after graduating from Brown University in 2021. This means that she is acutely aware of all the challenges faced by today’s PhD students and the need to balance passion and practicality.

“I want students to not only learn the formal stuff, like how to write grants, but also how to build a sense of confidence, curiosity, and a drive to continue their work,” says Berhane. “Seeing a PhD only through the lens of professionalization is not good for creativity, and seeing it only as a vocation is not good for people’s mental health.”

New anthropology professor Seth Holmes spent years traveling with immigrant farm workers to study their healthcare experiences. (Photo: Courtesy of Seth Holmes.)

Another newcomer, Seth Holmes, Dean’s Professor of Anthropology and Medical Education, focuses on how economic and cultural stressors impact the health and healthcare of immigrant field workers.

While studying medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, Holmes noticed that his textbooks often overlooked how economic inequality, racism, and sexism played a role in health outcomes.

He decided to pursue PhDs in medical anthropology from UCSF and the University of California, Berkeley, and began researching how factors such as market forces and racism affect immigrant field workers and their healthcare delivery. Holmes spent several years traveling alongside these workers, living in farm camps, picking strawberries, and escorting workers to clinics. His dissertation resulted in the award-winning book Fresh fruit, broken bodies (University of California Press, 2013).

Now at USC Dornsife, he looks forward to helping students who want to add a rigorous training in anthropology to another field of study.

“Some of our students will be academics, but many students will go on to do other things, like make films, run a museum, become doctors or social workers,” explains Holmes. “Our department is very supportive of students who want to become an academic anthropologist or pursue one of those other careers with a strong anthropological perspective.”

First through the gate

El Whittingham, one of the program’s first PhD students, is working on a documentary about queer communities in Senegal. (Photo: Courtesy of El Whittingham.)

El Whittingham is one of the first students to enroll in the program. Whittingham, who uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “they,” can speak five languages ​​and recently earned masters degrees in French and Spanish from the University of Washington.

Whittingham hopes to create a comprehensive body of work examining LGBTQ experiences in the post-colonial world. Filmmaking allows these stories to reach a wider group of people. “It makes the work of anthropology more accessible and interesting to a larger audience,” they said.

Whittingham is currently working on a documentary that examines underground queer communities in Senegal, where homosexuality is banned, and said the renewed emphasis on film in the PhD program was exactly what motivated her to apply.

“There are very few universities in North America that focus on visual anthropology, and that’s what drew me to the program,” says Whittingham, who took technical courses at film school alongside her anthropology degree. “The resources are endless and you are encouraged to take advantage of those resources.”

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