I am a medical anthropologist whose research focuses on the interaction between global health policy and discourse and local health systems.
Currently, I am co-PI of a National Science Foundation-funded project in rural Amhara, Ethiopia. Our focus is on local, materially-impoverished volunteers who serve the rural health system of one of the poorest countries in the world, as well as on the Ethiopian and transnational health officials who rely on and organize these volunteers. Our research goals are to understand how and why global health projects justify the use of volunteer labor in the context of historically unprecedented funding for global health, and how the well-being of volunteers is affected by their service.
Previously, I was the PI of a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that explored the effects of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative on Primary Health Care and routine immunization. This project involved field research in seven countries (Nepal, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Angola). Information on this study and our findings is available at our study website,
Since 2005, I have been studying the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a 20 year, 9 billion dollar project aiming to eliminate poliovirus from the world forever—a goal that thus far has proved elusive. My book, Chasing Polio in Pakistan (Vanderbilt University Press, 2010) explores why eradication is so difficult in Pakistan, one of the last countries with endemic polio.
Along with Peter Brown, I am editor of the textbook Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology (Left Coast Press, 2015).
Recent Articles (asterisks indicate Middlebury student coauthors):
Closser, Svea, Anat Rosenthal, Kenneth Maes, Judith Justice, Kelly Cox, Patricia Omidian, Ismaila Zango, Aminu Mohammed Dukku, Adam Koon, and Laetitia Nyirazinyoye. “The Global Context of Vaccine Refusals: Insights from a Systematic Comparative Ethnography of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative." Medical Anthropology Quarterly, forthcoming.
Closser, Svea. 2015.“Pakistan’s Lady Health Worker Labor Movement and the Moral Economy of Heroism.” Annals of Anthropological Practice 39 (1): 16-28.
Maes, Kenneth, Svea Closser, Ethan Vorel*, and Yihenew Tesfaye. 2015. "Using Community Health Workers: Discipline and Hierarchy in Ethiopia's Women's Development Army." Annals of Anthropological Practice 39 (1): 42-57.
Closser, Svea, Kelly Cox, Thomas M. Parris, R. Matthew Landis, Judith Justice, Ranjani Gopinath, Kenneth Maes, Hailom Banteyerga Amaha, Ismaila Zango Mohammed, Aminu Mohammed Dukku, Patricia A. Omidian, Emma Varley, Pauley Tedoff, Adam D. Koon, Laetitia Nyirazinyoye, Matthew A. Luck, W. Frank Pont, Jr, Vanessa Neergheen*, Anat Rosenthal, Peter Nsubuga, Naveen Thacker, Rashid Jooma and Elizabeth Nuttall*. 2014. “The Impact of Polio Eradication on Routine Immunization and Primary Health Care: A Mixed-Methods Study.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 210 (S1): S504–13. http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/210/suppl_1/S504.full
Maes, Kenneth, Svea Closser and Ippolytos Kalofonos. 2014. “Listening to Community Health Workers: How Ethnographic Research can Inform Positive Relationships between CHWs, Health Institutions, and Communities.” American Journal of Public Health, 104(5): e5-e9.
Mounier-Jack, Sandra, Ulla K Griffiths, Svea Closser, Helen Burchett and Bruno Marchal. 2014. “Measuring the Health Systems Impact of Disease Control Programs: Critical Assessment of the WHO Building Blocks Framework.” BMC Public Health 14: 278. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/14/278
Closser, Svea and Rashid Jooma. 2013. “Why We Must Provide Better Support for Pakistan's Female Frontline Health Workers.” PLOS Medicine 10(10): e1001528.
Courses offered in the past four years.
▲ indicates offered in the current term
▹ indicates offered in the upcoming term[s]
FYSE1402 - The Social Life of Wilderness
The Social Life of Wilderness
In this seminar we will examine evolving American ideas of “wilderness” from a social science perspective. We will explore how ideas of what wilderness is—or should be—play out in complex cases including the removal of Native Americans from some U.S. National Parks and the establishment of wilderness parks in poor countries that cater to tourists. Through a focus on the nearby Adirondack Park, which contains both land designated in the New York state constitution as “forever wild” and the homes of 130,000 people, we will explore historian William Cronon’s question: “How do you manage a wilderness full of human stories?” 3 hrs. sem. CW NOR SOC
FYSE1485 - Vaccines
Vaccines: History, Science, Society
In this seminar we will examine vaccines and vaccination programs from the perspective of anthropology. First, we will delve into the history of vaccination, from practices in Asia and Africa dating back to the 10th century, to Cotton Mather’s experiments with smallpox inoculation in Colonial Boston, to the development of modern vaccines. Next, we’ll look at global attempts to control diseases using vaccines, from the successful Smallpox Eradication Program to current projects targeting polio and measles. We will use this material to examine the science, politics, and culture of vaccination programs, and to investigate why some people refuse vaccination. 3 hrs. sem. CMP CW SOC
IGST0705 - African Studies Senior Thesis ▹
African Studies Senior Thesis
Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Fall 2014, Winter 2015, Fall 2015, Winter 2016, Fall 2016, Winter 2017, Fall 2017
SOAN0159 - Human Origins and Biodiversity ▲
Human Origins, Culture, and Biodiversity
This course will provide an overview of the field of physical anthropology. The topics to be addressed include the mechanisms of genetics and evolution, human variability and adaptation, our primate relatives and fossil ancestors (hominins), as well as bioarchaeology. Through a combination of lectures and discussions, we will explore human origins and the overall development of the species through time. Likewise, we will look at how language, art, and religion emerge as well as the interplay between environment and biology in human evolution. The course finishes by examining contemporary issues in human biodiversity, from molecular genetics and biotechnology to problematic categories like race, gender, and sexuality. 2 hrs. lect./1 hr. lab. (Anthropology) SOC
SOAN0267 - Global Health ▲
This course provides an introductory survey of the basic issues and initiatives in contemporary global public health, including in-depth case studies of public health projects in locales including Haiti, Venezuela, Brazil, Rwanda, and Pakistan. We will explore the political, socioeconomic, and cultural complexity of health problems, and critically examine the structure and methods of global public health institutions. 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology) AAL CMP SOC
Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2016, Spring 2017
SOAN0302 - Ethnographic Research ▹
The Research Process: Ethnography and Qualitative Methods
The aim of this course is to prepare the student to conduct research, to analyze and present research in a scholarly manner, and to evaluate critically the research of others. Practice and evaluation of such basic techniques as observation, participant-observation, structured and open-ended interviews, and use of documents. Introduction to various methodological and theoretical frameworks. Thesis or essay prospectus is the final product of this course. Strongly recommended for juniors. Three-hour research lab required. (SOAN 0103 or SOAN 0105) 3 hrs. lect./disc./3 hrs. research lab (Anthropology) CW DED SOC
Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017
SOAN0353 - Anthropology Muslim Cultures
Islam in Practice: Anthropology of Muslim Cultures
In this course, we will explore Muslim cultures across the world. We will approach Islam from an anthropological, as opposed to a text-based or theological, perspective. We will take a global view, focusing not only on the Middle East but on Muslim societies in North America, Europe, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and South-East Asia. Topics we will cover include: (1) the diversity of Muslim identity and practice; (2) the impact of colonialism and empire on Muslim societies; (3) women's experiences of Islam; and (4) the politics of religious practice. (Prior coursework in anthropology, sociology, or religion recommended) 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology) AAL CMP PHL SOC
SOAN0358 - Anthropology of Corruption
Anthropology of Corruption
In this course we will explore the wide variety of human exchange practices glossed under the term “corruption”, such as Nigerian e-mail scams to American election financing and petty bribes in North India. We will use classic anthropological theories of bureaucracy, gift exchange, and patron-clientism to understand the ubiquity of these practices, with close attention to how they are related to structures of power. We will also critically examine popular writing about corruption. (Prior coursework in SOAN recommended) 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology) CMP SOC
SOAN0361 / GSFS0361 - Anthropology of Pakistan
Anthropology of Pakistan
In this course we will explore the structure and meaning of Pakistanis’ everyday lives. We will discuss large-scale forces like colonialism, Partition, and the War on Terror, but the focus will be on the ways these forces affect people whose names will never appear in news reports or history books. We will focus particularly on the experiences of women. Readings will include anthropological theory, ethnography, and fiction. In addition, we will also watch some Bollywood cinema. (Prior coursework in SOAN recommended) 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology)/ AAL SOA SOC
SOAN0387 - Medical Anthropology
Medical Anthropology: Approaches to Affliction and Healing
In this course, an introduction to medical anthropology, we will explore cultural and political-economic perspectives on health, illness, and disease. Topics covered include: (1) biocultural approaches to understanding health; (2) medical systems, including biomedicine and others; (3) the effects of poverty and inequality on health outcomes; and (4) the social construction of health and illness. Students will apply these concepts in understanding an aspect of health, illness, or healing in their own research project with an ethnographic component. An introductory course in anthropology or familiarity with medical or public health issues is recommended. 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology) CMP SOC
SOAN0468 - Success/Failure Global Health
Success and Failure in Global Health and Development Projects
In 1977, the Smallpox Eradication Program obliterated a disease that once killed almost two million people a year. In contrast, the Malaria Eradication Program of the same era blanketed much of the world in DDT, yet failed to make much of a dent in incidence of malaria in Africa. Through case studies and critical engagement of readings from political science, economics, and anthropology, we will explore the questions: Why do a few global health and development projects succeed? Why do most fail? Why do some make things worse for the people they are supposed to benefit? Does a productive way forward exist? (One course in global health or development, such as SOAN 0267, SOAN 0360, SOAN 0387, SOAN 0467, PSCI 0258, ECON 0325, ECON 0327, ECON 0425, ECON 0429, or GEOG 0210) 3 hrs. sem. (Anthropology) SOC
SOAN0494 - Writing for Social Change ▹
Writing Ethnography for Social Change
In this course we will use frequent writing assignments, extensive peer reviews, and analysis of famous texts in a concentrated and intensive effort to improve our own ability to communicate in writing. In the first half of the course, we will focus on writing conventions and controversies in Anthropology, building skills useful in preparing senior work. In the second half of the course, we will break out of these academic conventions to focus on writing for broader audiences. We will ask: how can we successfully communicate the relevance of theoretical concepts in sociology and anthropology to the general public? (SOAN 301 or SOAN 302) 3 hrs. sem. (Anthropology) CW SOC
SOAN0500 - Advanced Individual Study ▲ ▹
Prior to registering for SOAN 0500, a student must enlist the support of a faculty advisor from the Department of Sociology/Anthropology. (Open to Majors only) (Approval Required) (Sociology or Anthropology)
Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Winter 2015, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Winter 2016, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Winter 2017, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018
SOAN0700 - One-Semester Senior Project ▲ ▹
One-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a student will carry out an independent, one-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 25-40 pages, due the last day of classes. (Sociology or Anthropology)
Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018
SOAN0710 - Multi-Semester Senior Project ▲ ▹
Multi-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a senior will carry out an independent multi-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 60-100 pages, due either at the end of the Winter Term or the Friday after spring break. (Sociology or Anthropology)
Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Winter 2015, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Winter 2016, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Winter 2017, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018