Jan Brunson, PhD

Assistant Professor

Curriculum Vitae

Office: Saunders Hall 309
Office Hours: click here
Phone: 956-2007
Email: jbrunson@hawaii.edu

Find out more about the Medical Anthropology Specialization

General Interests
Current Research
Selected Publications


Jan Brunson is a medical anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Brown University, specializing in anthropology and population studies. She studied the Nepali language at Cornell University. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Hawai`i, she was Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bowdoin College from 2008 to 2011. She is currently serving on the Steering Committee of the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction, a Special Interest Group of the Society for Medical Anthropology.

General Interests

  • Medical Anthropology
  • Discourses on Women, Development, and Global Health
  • Fertility and Reproduction
  • Maternal Health
  • “Family Planning”
  • New Medical Technologies
  • Intimate Partner Violence
  • Nepal

Current Research

Married women waiting to present offerings at a Hindu naming ceremony, Kathmandu Valley

My book manuscript, “Planning Families in Nepal,” is the culmination of several years of research in Nepal. During field research in 2003-2005, I documented the persistence of son preference and the joint family ideal amongst Hindu-caste women living in a semi-urban village in the Kathmandu Valley. At that time, despite new economic opportunities and increased schooling for girls, mothers expressed reluctance to invest in girls because they would be lost to other lineages and households after marriage. Having a son was highly valued by women because of the promise of old-age care, even amongst de facto nuclear family households. Observing their teenage sons’ behavior, however, a few women wondered whether sons these days would be worth the investment. Five years after this initial research period, the sons of these women are young men poised for major demographic and cultural events such as marriage. These young men and their peers have grown up during the Maoist insurgency and come of age in a time of instability and dramatic social change. The ethnography captures snapshots of two generations and genders dealing with global and local pressures to reproduce in socially prescribed ways, yet imparts a sense of the vertigo experienced as a result of competing discourses and rapid social change.

Another project that developed out of this research addresses strategies of reducing maternal mortality in the Global South. This paper, “Confronting Maternal Mortality, Controlling Birth in Nepal: The Gendered Politics of Receiving Biomedical Care at Birth,” asks what is the appropriate level of biomedical intervention in birth in this particular social, economic, and political context. At the time of the study, 2003-2005, giving birth at home was the predominant practice in Nepal. I conducted the study after realizing I was working with a population of women who had access to obstetric care and claimed that economic and infrastructural reasons were not preventing them from utilizing it, but who nonetheless ended up giving birth at home without a skilled attendant. I focused on delayed responses at the household level to obstetric emergencies – particularly acute scenarios in which it would be difficult to dispute the need for biomedical intervention. Women in labor did not have the power to demand emergency care, and men still viewed birth as the domain of women and remained mostly uninvolved in the process. This resulted in unnecessary delays in transporting women in danger of dying to the nearby hospital.

In future research, I will continue to evaluate the causes and contexts of maternal morbidity and mortality in Nepal, particularly in terms of the role of suffering in defining womanhood. Currently I am researching the subjectivities of motherhood amongst former members of the People’s Liberation Army in the Maoist People’s War in Nepal. For the future, I am developing an investigation of claims of an “overuse” of cesarean sections in Nepal and other countries in the Global South, focusing on the meanings of time, measurements, and statistics for births in hospital settings. My long-term research agenda will continue to evolve as new medical technologies and new global flows of people, discourses, and commodities develop.

Selected Publications

Edited Volumes

2014. Aengst, J. and J. Brunson (eds). Intimacies and sexualities in out-of-the-way places. Ethnos 79(5).

2011. Brunson, J. (ed). Anthropological encounters with intimate partner violence: Reflections on our roles in advocating for a safer world. Practicing Anthropology 33(3).

Journal Articles

2014. Brunson, J. ‘Scooty girls’: Mobility and intimacy at the margins of Kathmandu. Ethnos 79(5):610-629.

2014. McCullough, M., J. Brunson, and K. Friederic. Introduction: Intimacies and sexualities in out-of-the-way places. Ethnos 79(5):577-584.

2011. Brunson, J. Introduction: Ethnographic encounters with intimate partner violence. Practicing Anthropology 33(3):2-3.

2011. Brunson, J. Moving away from marital violence: Nepali mothers who refuse to stay. Practicing Anthropology 33(3):17-21.

2010. Brunson, J. Confronting maternal mortality, controlling birth in Nepal: The gendered politics of receiving biomedical care at birth. Social Science and Medicine 71(10):1719-1727.

2010. Brunson, J. Son preference in the context of fertility decline: Limits to new constructions of gender and kinship in Nepal. Studies in Family Planning 41(2):89-98.