We are pleased to welcome Erik Otárola-Castillo to our department. Erick has recently co-authored and published an article "When mothers need others: Why does it take a village to raise a child." It has almost become cliché to say ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Why do human mothers, unlike most among mammals, rely on help to raise children? To answer this question, a new study co-authored by Karen Kramer and Erik Otárola-Castillo published in the Journal of Human Evolution, and highlighted by the Harvard Gazette and other popular-media news sources, uses mathematical and numerical modeling to explore mother-offspring characteristics throughout the human evolutionary trajectory. The work shows that during many of the early changes in our evolutionary past, a mother and her children can cooperate as a group to provide sufficient support each other—later in time, however, as more modern human characteristics developed (e.g., earlier weaning, shorter birth intervals, longer juvenile dependence) mothers began to need cooperation from other adults and the community at large."
The Anthropology Department is hosting a visiting undergraduate research student this summer and in the fall term. Karen Lorena Romero Leal, who is joining us as part of Purdue’s UREP-C program, comes to us from Colombia with an interest in Amazonian indigenous peoples, testimonial literature, and oral histories. Karen will be working with Dr. Laura Zanotti and Dr. Sherri Briller.
An illustrated profile of Prof. Laura Zanotti’s environmental anthropology research and field school in the Amazon rainforest is featured in the latest issue of CLA's THiNK Magazine.
Congratulations to Professors Laura Zanotti and Kory Cooper who have been promoted to Associate Professor!
Ellen Gruenbaum presented a lecture on her research to about 40 UN staff at the United Nations Development Program in Khartoum, Sudan, on Feb. 25th. Her topic was "Generation of Change: FGM/C and Abandonment Efforts in Sudan.”
Ellen Gruenbaum gave a series of lectures to Public Health Master’s students at the Ahfad University for Women in Omdurman, Sudan, in February, during her sabbatical affiliation there.
Dr. Bryce Carlson was recently interviewed about his upcoming participation in the Race Across the USA. Dr. Carlson will be participating as well as serve as the research director for the 140 day, 3080 mile event. You can read the interview here.
Professor Ian Lindsay's work with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or 'drones') at atchaeological sites in Armenia is featured in an upcoming episode of 'Boiler Bytes' on the Big Ten Network.
Congratulations to Ian Lindsay for receiving an Enhancing Research in the Humanities and the Arts Grant from the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships for his research project entitled, “Investigating Territorial Commitments and Long-Term Political Process within Bronze and Iron Age Fortified Landscapes in Armenia.”
Congratulations to Sarah Caldwell for receiving a Global Synergy Grant for Students from the Office of the President for her research project entitled, “In the Wake of War: Population Health in Ottoman-Occupied Croatia, 14th-17th Centuries.” Congratulations to Ingrid Ramon Parra who also received this award for her research project entitled “Menire Making Movies: A Participatory Video Project with Kayapó Women in the Brazilian Amazon.”
Dr. Audrey Ricke was the invited speaker for Lafayette’s Daybreak Rotary Club on Thursday, September 11th. Her presentation was entitled “Supporting the Community: German Identity and Traditions in Brazil.”
On September 4th, Dr. Bryce Carlson spoke with the Greater Lafayette Daybreak Rotary Club about his upcoming Race Across USA and research project on biocultural adaptation to very long distance running.
Dr. Bryce Carlson was recently featured in a Purdue Exponent story questioning the validity and health promoting claims of the Paleo Diet. Among other criticisms, Carlson notes that (1) there is no single human diet consistent with our collective Paleolithic ancestry, (2) our genes are not stuck in the Paleolithic, and have in fact evolved in response to agriculture, and (3) excluding products of agriculture from the diet is arbitrary and silly, considering most Paleo approved foods are themselves highly altered products of agriculture (e.g. fruits, vegetables, lean meat). Click here to read this article.
Dr. Ian Lindsay is using emerging drone and mobile-GIS technologies in support of his archaeological research on Bronze Age societies in Armenia. Read more about his latest fieldwork in this article from Purdue News
Dr. Ellen Gruenbaum is spending part of her sabbatical on a fellowship for a 4-week Writing Residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center at the Villa Serbelloni, located in Bellagio on Lake Como. She’ll be working on a project entitled, “Generation of Change: New leaders and initiatives on female genital modifications in Africa and beyond.”
Assistant Professors Kory Cooper and Laura Zanotti are part of an 8 member team of interdisciplinary scholars recently awarded a $57,000 Mellon Grand Challenge Exploratory Award to investigate e-waste. One result of rapid innovation in the electronics industry is that electronic devices now often have very short use-lives. Electronic devices are consumed and discarded in increasing numbers and most of these devices contain metals or plastics that are harmful to human health. This project will investigate public understanding of this phenomenon and engage the local community in finding solutions.
The Department of Anthropology would like to welcome two new faculty and 2 Visiting Assistant Professors.
Dr. Sherylyn Briller has been appointed Associate Professor of sociocultural anthropology/applied and practicing. She holds degrees from Carleton College (BA), and Case Western Reserve University (MA and PhD). She most recently has been teaching Anthropology at Wayne State University (Detroit) where she also served in the Institute of Gerontology and the Interdisciplinary Center to Advance Palliative Care Excellence. This fall she will be teaching our course Global Health: Anthropological Perspectives (Anth 340). She will be taking a lead role in the development of our Master’s degree track in Applied and Practicing Anthropology.
Dr. LaShandra Sullivan will be joining us as assistant professor of sociocultural anthropology a year from now, in fall 2015. She studied Philosophy at Howard (BA), International Relations at Yale (MA), and Anthropology at the University of Chicago (MA, PhD). Her doctoral research was on labor, agribusiness, and land protest camps in Brazil, and she previously did research and also worked as an economic attaché for the State Department in West Africa. She will expand our department’s curriculum on Latin America, rural-urban anthropology, development, diversity and globalization.
Audrey Ricke-Visiting Assistant Professor, Fall 2014-Spring 2015
Dr. Ricke is a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on transnational German identity in Brazil and the United States. She has done research on German folk dances, festivals, and gardens in southern Brazil and the role that the aesthetics at these tourism activities play in navigating race, class, and transnational identity.
Elizabeth Rowe—Visiting Assistant Professor, Fall 2014-Spring 2015
Dr. Rowe is a biological anthropologist whose research focuses on gene-environment interactions in the menstrual cycle and other aspects of women’s reproductive physiology. She is also interested in the consequences of persistent social inequalities on women’s reproductive biology.
Dr. Rowe recently gave a talk about The Evolution of Menstruation (and why you should care) at Science on Tap at Lafayette Brewing Company. Science on Tap is a forum for scientists to give public talks about their research during happy hour. In her talk, Dr. Rowe discussed the fact that there are several species of mammals that menstruate besides humans, but all species that menstruate share some features of the placenta. However, humans have unusually copious menstrual bleeding compared to other species, which may be a consequence of changes to the human placenta that are adaptations to bipedalism. These changes in turn likely explain why only humans have preeclampsia, a potentially fatal disease that occurs during pregnancy. More about Dr. Rowe’s talk can be found here.
Congratulations to Verity Whalen, who has been selected as one of the two recipients of the 2014 College of Liberal Arts Distinguished Dissertation Award. Verity Whalen recently completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Purdue, under the supervision of Professor Kevin Vaughn.
In addition, Beth Gravalos was notified that she is the winner of the 2014 College of Liberal Arts Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award!
Both will receive plaques and monetary awards in recognition of their achievements.
O. Michael Watson Award for Outstanding Graduating Senior
Congratulations to the following students who received the Department of Anthropology's top honors for academic achievement and service, the O. Michael Watson Award for Outstanding Graduating Senior. The Award is named in honor of our legendary professor, Dr. O. Michael Watson (1936-2012), whose dynamic undergraduate courses excited decades of anthropology students. Each year, the student selected goes on to be nominated for consideration for the college of Liberal Arts Outstanding Student Award.
2015 Michael Lockman
Walter Hirsch Award
Walter Hirsch was a Purdue faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology from 1947 until his retirement in 1989, who specialized in social movements and the sociology of science. His family and friends established this award in his memory in recognition of his long time interest in and support of graduate students. Each year, the award provides approximately $1,000 to help with the costs of dissertation research for one doctoral candidate in Anthropology and one in Sociology.
2015 Ingrid Ramon Parra
Congratulations to our recent PhD graduate, Dr. Ryan Plis, for receiving the College of Liberal Arts' Distinguished Dissertation Award for his dissertation, "Families in Transition: Gender Non-Conformists and their Kin Networks in the Mid-Southern U.S.” This is the highest award given to dissertations in the College!
Congratulations to the winners of the 2015-16 PRF Research Grants:
Ingrid Ramon Parra and Laura Zanotti have received a 2015-16 Purdue Research Foundation Research Grant for "Menire
making Movies: A Participatory Video Project with Kayapo Women in the Brazilian Amazon".
Matthew Pike and Kory Cooper have received a 2015-16 Purdue Research Foundation Grant for "Prehistoric Copper Technology in the Arctic and Subarctic: A Geospatial Analysis of Hunter-Gatherer Innovation".
Congratulations to Elizabeth Hall who has just been notified that she has received a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellowship to support her doctoral studies. Liz is currently completing her MS in our program which is serving as a pilot for her developing PhD research on Zoonotic Pathogens: Disease Transmission among Apes and Humans in Mosaic Habitats in West and Central Africa.
Prof. Richard Blanton, Lane Farger (Purdue Research Affiliate), and Verenice Heredia Espinoza have been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to support their project "The Relationship Between Household Organization And Governance.” The aim of their research is to uncover changes in household formation and economies in a newly-forming republican system of governance in the Postclassic Period of Tlaxcala, a site in the Central Highlands of Mexico.
Dr. Abdul Khabeer is co-PI on the “Muslims in the Midwest: An Oral History Project” that was recently awarded a grant as part of the Global Midwest initiative by the Humanities Without Walls consortium. The project will establish and build a digital archive that documents the varied experiences of American Muslims in the Midwest through testimonies across generational, gender, geographical, socio-economic, and ethnic differences. Dr. Abdul Khabeer’s contribution will focus on African American Muslims in the Midwest. The Senior Project Advisor is Mohammed Khalil (Michigan State and other co-PI’s are Junaid Rana (Illinois), Nadine Naber (Illinois-Chicago)and Asma Afsaruddin (Indiana).
Congratulations to Dr. Michele Buzon who was appointed by the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts in June 2014 to a five-year term (2014-2019) as a University Faculty Scholar. This honor provides additional annual research support.
Congratulations to Associate Professor Michele Buzon on her 2014 award from the National Science Foundation for her project entitled, “Collaborative Research: Impact and Accommodation Through Cultural Contact.” She will use the funds ($135,272) to support her bioarchaeological research investigating the impact of Egypt’s New Kingdom Empire (c. 1500-1050 BC) on the Kerma culture in Nubia through an examination of identity and health before and after the conquest and colonization of the area (with UCSB collaborator Stuart Tyson Smith). This research is also being supported by the Purdue Office of the Vice President for Research Bridge Funding Program ($48,045).
Dr. Ian Lindsay won the Departmental Excellence in Teaching Award for 2014. He was honored for his work in utilizing student-centered hands-on teaching and technology. He teaches archaeology, technology and culture, and the large lecture Intro to General Anthropology course.
In November 2013, Dr. Ian Lindsay was awarded two grants from Purdue's Office of the Vice President for Research in support of his archaeological work in Armenia:
- Transdisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Research Grant ($8778): “Using Purdue’s MSE Electron Microscopy Facility to Study Pottery Technology and Social Organization among Bronze Age Fortress Settlements in Armenia.”
- Non-laboratory Research Infrastructure and Equipment Program Grant, Tier 2 ($17,861): "Funding Request for Archaeological Survey and Remote Sensing Equipment."
Franco Lai won the 2013 Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion Graduate Student Award for Research Excellence! Her award-winning paper is titled “Sexualities in Transnational Migrant Circuits: Female same-sex relations among female domestic migrant workers in Hong Kong.” For further information about the award click here.
Dr. Cooper was awarded a $512,950 grant from the National Science Foundation's Arctic Social Sciences Program for a 3-year program of research titled “Prehistoric Native Copper Technology in Northwest North America: Innovation, Diffusion, and Heritage.”
Professor Evelyn Blackwood was awarded a Title IX service award as a pioneer, advocate, and mentor in the area of gender equity in November 2012. Congratulations Dr. Blackwood! Click here for Purdue Today's feature of Dr. Blackwood's accomplishments.
Graduate Student Diana Steele has won the 2012 Central States Anthropological Society student paper competition (graduate division) for her paper, "Punarunas and Llamativos: Place-Based Identities of Amazonian Migrant Tour Guides in Cusco, Peru." The award comes with a $300 cash prize. Congratulations to Diana!
At the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings in Seattle in 2011, grad student Elizabeth Wirtz's poster was selected as the second place winner in a large field of presenters.
Katelyn Reavis presented her research with Dr. Michele Buzon at the American Association of Physical Anthropology in Calgary, Alberta Canada, April 2014.
Melissa Remis and Carolyn Jost Robinson published an article in 2014 on ethnoprimatology and multispecies approaches, with coauthors Nick Malone, Alison Wade, Agustin Fuentes, and Erin Riley. The article is titled, “Ethnoprimatology: Critical interdisciplinary and multi species approaches in anthropology.” Critique of Anthropology 341(1):8-29.
Three undergraduate students showcased their anthropology research at the annual Honors Colloquium on March 5, 2014 (PMU Room 118, 12-2 p.m.). They are:
Michael Lockman (Buzon, ANTH 336) "Mesoamerican Cultural Accommodation of Deformity"
Katelyn Reavis (Buzon, ANTH 498) "Investigating Senescence in Ancient Nubia"
Tyler Pitts (Nolan, ANTH 205) "Conformity and Individuality: Female Circumcision and Genital Piercing"
Congratulations to Diana Steele who received a Global Synergy Research Grant for Students from the Office of the Vice President for Research in spring 2014. The grant funds her dissertation work on “Geographies of Difference: Examining Race and Place through Amazonian Migrants Livelihoods in Peru.”
Dr. Bryce Carlson has authored a paper on diurnal variation in nutrient consumption appearing in this month's issue of the American Journal of Primatology. With co-authors Dr. Jessica Rothman and Dr. John Mitani, Dr. Carlson showed that wild chimpanzees at Kibale National Park, Uganda preferentially consumed two common dietary resources late in the day when their nutritional quality was highest. This study suggests chimpanzees may be capable of tracking changes in nutritional composition on the order of hours, not just weeks or months. For more information please click here.
A publication based on MS research by recent PhD recipient Sarah Schrader is now available online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, entitled “Activity patterns in New Kingdom Nubia: An examination of entheseal remodeling and osteoarthritis at Tombos.”
Dr. Evelyn Blackwood and Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer presented papers at the Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion’s Spring Symposium on March 29, 2012. The presentations focused on cultural marginalization (Abdul Khabeer) and Trans Embodiment (Blackwood).
Anthropology graduate student Elizabeth Wirtz (second from left) presented a paper in a Purdue collaborative conference on “The State and Social Movements: Violence, Health, and Food Security” in India in March 2013 at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Wirtz is standing next to conference organizer Dr. Mangala Subramaniam (center) of the Department of Sociology at Purdue.
Professor Melissa Remis’s research was featured in Purdue News on May 20, 2014. The research studied the effects of integrated conservation and development in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Reserve, including the first look at the impact on people's health. Click here to read the article.
Dr. Evelyn Blackwood was interviewed by The Daily Beast about her research among the Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia. You can find the full article here.
Purdue anthropologist Bryce Carlson was selected for the 2015 Race Across USA. Along with running this 3,000-mile journey, he will be in charge of research during their outreach stops along the way. Read details here.
Assistant Professor Kory Cooper’s collaborative archaeological research and teaching with the School of Materials Engineering was highlighted in the April 8th, 2014 installment of “Purdue Profiles.” In this piece Cooper talks about the course “Archaeology and Materials Science”, which he co-teaches with MSE faculty. Click here for a link to this article.
Associate Professor Kevin Vaughn traveled to Japan in February 2014 to participate in two international symposia in Osaka and Yamagata. His presentation on his research in Peru was featured in the newspapers there.
Dr. Evelyn Blackwood was interviewed on the topic of “Global Genders” on Public Radio International’s weekly program “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which aired on Aug. 30, 2013. You can listen to the program here.
Evelyn Blackwood was interviewed on BBC Radio's Today Programme concerning her research on the matrilineal Minangkabau in Indonesia. The interview focused on the lives of men in a matrilineal society, and was part of a BBC mini series examining changing Western conceptions of masculinity.
Dr. Michele Buzon spoke with the National Geographic Radio Weekend Show about the Nubian Pharaohs and her research in the Nile Valley. You can listen to it here.
Annual Anthropology Association Annual Meeting Grad Fair On November 23, 2013, our department participated at the Grad Fair at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois. Over 50 people stopped by our table to ask about our program, and had a chance to chat about the many different aspects of graduate school. Many thanks to everyone who helped, Anjali Bhardwaj, Ryan Plis, Ellen Gruenbaum, and Talin Lindsay!
Other Graduate Student Awards, Fellowships, and Activities
In summer 2012, high school student, Brooke Benner, a senior at Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, worked with associate professor Michele Buzon and MS student, Andrew Baker for two weeks on the analysis of muscle markers on bone using a 3-D scanner. This project was part of the Research Seminar Program at Catholic Central where students choose to learn how to conduct scientific research with a research mentor in their area of interest.
Doctoral student Ryan Plis and Dr. Evelyn Blackwood received the Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion 2012 award for the best paper in the category of Faculty research. The paper is entitled, “Trans Technologies and Identities in the United States.” It is published in Technologies of Sexuality and Sexual Health, Lenore Manderson, editor, Routledge, 2012.
The Spring issue of THiNK magazine features the work of several anthropology faculty members and students. We invite you to check out the news here.
Graduate student Jonas Ecke received the Human Rights Defender Award from the Society of Applied Anthropology (SfAA) for his efforts of combining his research on West African refugees with activism work.
Doctoral student Kyle Jones is the 2012 recipient of the Committee for the Education of Teaching Assistants Award (CETA).
Doctoral student Elizabeth Wirtz was recently awarded a Purdue Research Foundation Grant for her dissertation work "Measuring the Impact of Physical and Structural Violence on Somali Refugee Women's Perceptions of Fertility and Motherhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya”
Ian Lindsay presented a talk at the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival entitled "Can you Dig It?: Technology in the Archaeological Record."
Latino Learning Center
Dr. Blackwood's “Community Engagement” course (Anth 392, F '11), which offered students hands-on engagement with Latino communities in Indiana, was featured in the Spring 2011 CLA Think magazine.
PhD recipient Sarah Schrader was featured in an article about her Sudan fieldwork in the Purdue Exponent.
The American Anthropological Association’s Association for Queer Anthropology (AQA, formerly the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, SOLGA) awarded Evelyn Blackwood the 2011 Ruth Benedict Book Prize in the category “Outstanding Monograph” for her book Falling into the Lesbi World: Desire and Difference in Indonesia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010). For more information please see the full press release here.
Brazilian Field School Dr. Laura Zanotti recently returned from Brazilian Amazon, where she co-taught a study abroad course on indigenous peoples and conservation. Purdue anthropology major Alexandra Furman (pictured here) was among the select number of students that joined the course this year.
Kyle Jones was selected as the 2011 recipient of the College of Liberal Arts Distinguished Master's Thesis Award. His thesis on hip-hop artists in Peru is titled, "Hip Hop Huancayo: Youth Identities, Performative Sites, and the Politics of Legitimation". Kyle is supervised by Dr. Brian Kelly.
Before her graduation, Sarah Schrader (PhD 2012) (with advisor Dr. Michele Buzon), was a recipient of the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant entitled, “Bioarchaeological Analysis of Diet and Activity Patterns in the Nile Valley."
The recipient of the Ethnographic Essay Award in 2011 was Jaime Kruis, who wrote about her participant observation of a shabbat service on campus.
At the Graduate School's annual event honoring graduate student teaching award winners on April 26, 2011, Ryan Plis was honored as the Anthropology Department winner, with Dr. Evelyn Blackwood in attendance.
Dr. Laura Zanotti was awarded a Kinley Trust grant to carry out ethnographic research in Barrow, Alaska, an Inupiat whaling community. Dr. Zanotti works with women in the community to better understand well-being and natural resource management.
Dr. Laura Zanotti presented a talk entitled, “Amazonian Landscapes” as part of Eastern Illinois University’s Redden lecture series. Zanotti was hosted by Dr. Donald Holly.
Students and faculty of the department frequently reach out to local schools and community groups to present anthropological ideas and research findings. Here are just a few samples:
On July 31, 2014, Dr. Elizabeth Rowe presents her talk on “The Evolution of Menstruation” to the “Science on Tap” series at the Lafayette Brewing Company, on Main St. in Lafayette. A previous speaker in the series was Dr. Sharon Williams (in 2011) whose topic was on aging in cross-national perspective, which focused on her research on the significant differences in how humans age across the globe, work she pursued with the World Health Organization.
Anthropology Students at Purdue Spring Fest 2011.
Left to right - Patty Glen, Andrea Ochab, Rachel Duttlinger, Anjali Bhardwaj, and Sirisha Kandukuri
Alumni at Work
Ashley Ruse (BA 2011) accepted an RN position at Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel, Alaska, in the YK Delta. Post graduation, Ashley continued to pursue her bachelors in nursing, which she completed in August 2013. YKHC serves over 50 villages populated predominately by the Yup’ik Eskimo.
Katie Smith (PhD 2012) accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Houston. Katie is working in the lab of Dr. Ezemenari Obasi, where she studies stress and addiction in African American populations. The study will be examining the role of addiction as a coping mechanism for stress in a population that deals with multiple daily chronic stressors, including health disparities and discrimination.
Jennifer Studebaker (MS 2012) worked as Office Coordinator at the Society for Ethnomusicology at Indiana University following graduation. She reported that she really likes the position and is learning a lot about non-profit organization management.
Evelyn Latour (MS 2012) was hired as a Market Research Strategist for an international firm, CarbonSix, doing client interfacing, field research study management, qualitative data analysis and report writing. Her coworkers include a nice mixture of academic and business backgrounds—MAs, a couple of PhDs, and some MBAs—which is just the sort of interdisciplinary work environment she hoped for.
Remembering Those That Went Before
O. Michael Watson (1936-2012)
Dr. Watson was born in 1936 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Colorado. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he studied anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and earned a BA and Ph.D. In 1967 joined the Purdue University faculty as one of the founders of the Anthropology Department. Professor Watson’s early research focused on proxemic analysis, which he published in Proxemic Behavior: A Cross-Cultural Study (Mouton, 1970). He subsequently turned to visual anthropology, which led to a number of publications and graduate seminars, as well as his production of the classic film Spirit of Ethnography. Professor Watson was one of the founders of anthropology at Purdue, and he devoted his career to the growth of the discipline and to the department. A renowned teacher and beloved professor, he won numerous teaching awards during his 40 years at Purdue. Generations of students took his love of anthropology and enthusiasm for human cultural diversity along with them as they pursued their many directions. Known for his energy and amazing ability to find humor everywhere, he is remembered for the joy and laughter he brought to so many lives. When Professor Watson retired in 2007, the Department of Anthropology honored him by naming our annual student award after him.
Jay O’Brien (1947-2013)
Jay O’Brien was born in New Jersey, in 1947 and grew up in California. He came of age influenced by the music, activism, natural beauty, and the social concerns of 1960s California. After being an exchange student in Sweden when he was 17 and doing a study abroad in Germany, he was inspired to become an anthropologist. He studied anthropology at Stanford University and the University of Connecticut (Ph.D. 1980).
Professor O’Brien studied the long-term effects of colonial regimes in Africa, and wrote his master’s thesis on Portuguese empire in Africa, 1415-1961. Subsequently he spent 5 years in Sudan, researching agricultural labor and development, using political economy and ethnography to understand family dynamics, ethnic identification shifts, and development dilemmas in Sudan. Among his publications were three books—on political economy and development in Sudan, and on the intersection of history and anthropology.
His career was about social justice and the process of change, analyzing the conditions of poverty, the dilemmas of development, and their impacts on human cultural life. He became deeply engaged in teaching, achieving tenure at Lawrence University and teaching at a dozen other universities in Sudan, Sweden, Botswana, and the U.S. He came to Purdue in 2008 with his life partner, Ellen Gruenbaum, to be part of the newly launched independent Department of Anthropology.