Our Story

The Anthropology Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was inaugurated in 1971. Anthropology is the comparative study of human cultures, how customary ideas, actions, and institutions shape individual and collective experience. Originally, work in that discipline, as well as in archaeology, had been sited in the History Section. An initiative to establish an autonomous section began in 1969, when faculty with backgrounds or training in anthropology met to discuss the role and status of the field in the MIT curriculum. The consensus, as described later by Martin Diskin, who became the first section head, was that anthropology would become a separate section yet continue to be located in the Department of Humanities, which "stresses the variety and creativity of human accomplishment and provides a physical and intellectual place which we feel is appropriate to our endeavor." As the Program became established, anthropology - "the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanistic of the sciences" - helped bridge the "two cultures" at MIT. Anthropology faculty analyze how social identities and hierarchies are established or contested, cultural values are transmitted and transformed, and community and state organizations operate.

Erica Caple James, Associate Professor of Anthropology, launched the Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative (GHMHI) at MIT in 2014, where she has taught for nearly a decade. The goal of GHMHI, housed within MIT's Anthropology Department in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciencesis to promote an understanding that “health,” whether local or global, requires interdisciplinary analyses of its complex determinants. The Initiative aspires to combine best practices in global health and the classical medical humanities to add a distinctive approach to the study of human health at MIT grounded in the social sciences. Professor James's proposal of GHMHI was prompted in part by a request from the MIT Committee on Prehealth Advising to aid in preparing pre-health/medical undergraduates for changes to the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) Exam in 2015 with the addition of a new section of the exam that, “…recognizes the importance of socio-cultural and behavioral determinants of health and health outcomes” [Preview Guide for the MCAT2015 (Second Edition): 4, 7]. Moreover, while GHMHI will have a practical dimension of aiding in MCAT preparation, it will also add a distinctive approach to thinking about the field of medical education critically and comprehensively, even for students who do not choose to pursue health-related studies. 

In addition to supporting the preparation of pre-health students at MIT, the establishment of GHMHI offers a vision of several pathways to the study of “health” that MIT could offer as an Institute-wide endeavor, one that aids in fulfilling our mission to, “advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.” Through research, courses, seminar series, and interdisciplinary fora, GHMHI provides training and mentorship in qualitative research methods to support directed research in global health, cross-cultural psychiatry, gender and health, bioethics, and human rights and health.

GHMHI is dedicated to diversity and inclusion for our students, faculty, and staff with regard to their backgrounds and opinions. We applaud MIT's nearly-met 2004 goal of doubling the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty over ten years and we vigorously endorse the as-yet-unmet 2004 aim of tripling the percentage of underrepresented minority MIT graduate students over the same period.

We are presently working to develop new qualitative research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students within the Greater Boston area, the United States and overseas; our team traveled to Uganda in 2015 to explore one such possibility. As project designs are finalized, additional information will be posted to this website so please check back often!

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" (Preamable to the Constitution of the World Health Organization, entered into force on 7 April 1948).