Jan Brunson, PhD
Associate Professor and Graduate Chair
Jan Brunson is a medical anthropologist (Ph.D. Brown University) specializing in discourses on women’s health. Her research intertwines medical anthropology, gender studies, demography, and cultural studies of science, technology, and medicine. She has conducted ethnographic research in Nepal on women’s health and the politics of reproduction for over a decade. Her research portfolio includes studies of contraceptive technologies and family planning discourses, maternal health in resource-poor settings, Maoist motherhood, and women’s autonomy and spatial mobility. Brunson is the Chair of the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction, under the auspices of the Society for Medical Anthropology, from 2015 to 2018. Her first book is in the final stages of production at Rutgers University Press, and her articles appear in the scholarly journals Social Science and Medicine, Ethnos, Studies in Family Planning, Practicing Anthropology, and Studies in Nepali History and Society.
- Medical Anthropology
- Discourses on Women, Development, and Global Health
- Fertility and Reproduction
- Maternal Health
- "Family Planning"
- The Standardization of Knowledge in Biomedicine
Married women waiting to present offerings at a Hindu naming ceremony, Kathmandu Valley
Promoting a two-child norm, global family planning programs have spread the slogan, “A small family is a happy family,” throughout much of the global South. Taking up the question of how such programs impact women's everyday lives, Planning Families in Nepal: Local and Global Projects of Reproduction provides an intimate look at Hindu Nepali women’s negotiation of global and local pressures to reproduce in prescribed ways. Based on years of ethnographic research in a community at the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, the book offers a unique picture of family life as it unfolds over time. In a context where multigenerational families were highly valued, and daughters move into their husband’s home at the time of marriage, women felt compelled to have a son – for a son will bring a daughter-in-law into the household. Yet roughly a quarter of women will not conceive a son within two attempts. Moreover, observing their teenage sons’ rebellious behaviors, women wondered with amusement whether sons would fulfill their duties. Five years later, as those sons prepared for adulthood and marriage, they proclaimed devotion to caring for their aging parents despite the dizzying social and political upheaval occurring around them. The book captures multiple generations and genders dealing with social change and continuities, while uncovering the ways global projects of family planning articulate with local projects of making families. In the process, it raises important questions regarding the notion of “planning” when applied to conception and family formation, arguing that reproduction is better understood as ongoing projects wrought with revisions, stalling, and improvisation. And while acknowledging the suffering women faced due to various combinations of caste, class, gender, and household status inequities, the book concludes by challenging the common assumption that women’s freedom is the means to achieving women’s well-being.
Another project that developed out of this research addresses strategies of reducing maternal mortality in the global South. This article, “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. 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 experiencing obstetric emergencies to the nearby hospital.
In ongoing and future research, I will continue to evaluate the causes and contexts of maternal morbidity and mortality in Nepal. I am finishing a project, titled Maoist Motherhood, on the subjectivities of motherhood amongst female ex-combatants 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, focusing on the meanings of time, measurements, and statistics for biomedical interventions in births in hospital settings. And in the wake of the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, I am proposing a project on the political economy of post-disaster maternal and infant health during the lengthy reconstruction period. My long-term research agenda will continue to evolve as new medical technologies and new global flows of people, aid, and discourses develop.
In press. Brunson, J. Planning Families in Nepal: Global and Local Projects of Reproduction. Rutgers University Press.
Under contract. Riley, N. and J. Brunson (eds). The International Handbook of Gender and Demographic Processes. Springer Press.
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).
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.
2013. Brunson, J. A review of women’s health: The hegemony of caste, development, and biomedicine. Studies in Nepali History and Society 18(2):279-304.
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.