Unexpected effects of economic and environmental crisis

“Creative cultural shifts are possible, but they don’t come out of nowhere,” observes Dr. Kath Weston, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. Dr. Weston’s current research focuses on how people mobilize culture (and technology) to create new forms of connection in the face of severe social disruptions such as banking crises, environmental contamination, and the many kinds of dislocation associated with rising inequality. “Disruption” has a positive ring for companies that actively seek it out in order to gain market share. But for most people, disruption arrives with a shock, as they find themselves newly unemployed, divorced, or transformed into refugees as the result of wars and environmental crises. Life simply can’t go on as before. Yet people often manage to meet the challenges of disruption with grace and innovation. In addition to understanding how cultural legacies allow people to make creative connections under disruptive circumstances, Dr. Weston is interested in how those same legacies can shape perception in ways that limit imaginative responses to crisis.

With a wide range of areas of expertise that includes the anthropology of finance, ecology/environmental studies, kinship, and science and technology studies, Dr. Weston’s research has lessons for business leaders, policymakers, community members, and scholars alike. Of particular interest are her insights into effects of the global economic crisis of 2008 that are still unfolding.

Dr. Weston’s work has been celebrated for its innovation and excellence. In 2011 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete the initial stage of archival research for a project entitled, The Magic of Capital.  Her research brings science, economics, ecology, and history into close communication to allow them to “talk” to one another in ways that matter for public policy. Her ability to write in a compelling way about different communities and different places, as well as the experience of living within them, has culminated in wide dissemination of her publications and even a couple of book awards!

Current research includes:

  • Kith and Kin: Most people have heard the phrase "kith and kin," but they are likely to know far more about kin--families and relatives--than kith. Who are these "kith"--otherwise known as friends, neighbors, and members of your networks? Can a better understanding of how to cultivate and mobilize kith help people live well at a time of growing inequality, uncertain incomes, plug-and-play jobs, shredded government safety nets, geographic mobility, and other factors that seem to be rendering daily life more precarious?

  • Traveling Light Film Project: This film version of Dr. Weston’s book, Traveling Light: On the Road with America’s Poor, will take to the road by bus to explore what it means to live poor and travel poor in the world’s wealthiest country. Characters include T.J., a food processing worker who can’t afford food; Isa, who is traveling with her children to a funeral; The Taker, who finances his trips by playing the shell game in the back of the coach; and the missing Aunt Matilda who never gets off the bus. Salem Mekuria, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and Emmy nominee whose work has screened at the Venice Biennale, will direct.

  • The Magic of Capital:  Capitalism can appear almost magical, with the power to alter relationships, transform landscapes, and turn small stakes of money into fortunes. As world leaders searched for explanations of why that magic faltered during the global financial crisis of 2008, they compared the crisis to a cardiac arrest and tried to “get capital moving again” through schemes which depended on medical analogies that likened credit circulation to blood circulation. This Guggenheim award-winning project asks what sorts of policies we could frame if we were to imagine the movements of capital differently.

  • Techno-Revivalism:  Techno-revivalism is Dr. Weston’s term for initiatives that use technologies inspired by “tradition” (broadly conceived) to address environmental problems. Examples include the revival of ancient rainwater harvesting structures in India using modern polymers, waru-waru agriculture in Latin America, and the restoration of pre-Roman water tunnels in the Middle East. While ingenious, such projects still face significant challenges, since the social relations that maintained these technologies hundreds or even thousands of years ago have changed as much as the climate.

  • Environmental Crisis: Dr. Weston’s latest book project is Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World, which explores how people forge intimate bodily connections to “the environment.” The book includes a case study on the aftereffects of the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Japan, where ordinary people have turned their phones into radiation detectors to protect their health, and another from India called “The Greatest Show on Parched Earth,” where displays of crystal-clear water draw people to an ecologically damaging mall for reasons even an environmentalist could love.

Bio

At a young age, Dr. Kath Weston discovered the power of words to move people and to encourage them to reach for the best in themselves. She resolved to be a writer when she grew up and has been fortunate to realize that dream. Raised in a family that worked hard for the modest amount of money they were able to bring home, Dr. Weston was familiar with inequality and financial struggle long before she studied such things. She wakes up every day with gratitude to the mentors, teachers, and relatives whose stories opened the “book” of Chicago’s streets to her and who encouraged her to pursue a college degree. Benefiting from an era in which she could qualify for scholarships, financial aid, and reasonably priced student loans, she earned her B.A. at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s and later went on to complete a Ph.D. at Stanford.

As an anthropologist, she has had the chance to investigate cultural and historical differences in how people have lived, which can expand our sense of what is possible and offer new ways of looking at the challenges of living in today’s world. In many cultures, for instance, eating in front of someone without offering to share would seem strange. The idea that a society could criminalize the act of feeding hungry people in public places, as some jurisdictions in the U.S. now do, would be inconceivable. One of Dr. Weston’s books, Traveling Light: On the Road with America’s Poor, sounded a warning about rising inequality early on, during the “boom years” before the financial crisis, when the rising tide of prosperity was already stranding the dinghies while it lifted the yachts. Many of the people she met while riding buses cross-country to research the book had undergone profound dislocations related to work, health, or the simple conviction that they needed to show up to support someone who mattered to them. They might not have had much in the way of money, but they still had something to give, and many benefited from the kindness of strangers along the way.

Dr. Weston’s seminal book, Families We Choose, contributed to the revival of kinship studies in anthropology, but it didn’t stop there. Lawyers cited the book to argue for the rights of same-sex couples. People gave the book to their parents when they came out in order to help their parents understand. Dr. Weston, in turn, discovered new ways to apply what she had learned from watching people form innovative and supportive relationships at a time when coming out often threatened to disrupt family ties. Those early observations inform her current research on how people make creative sense of economic and ecological disruption.

Dr. Weston’s commitment to conveying the results of her research to non-specialists in clear, often lyrical, language has established her as both an academic and a community leader. From her experience working with young people in the classroom, she knows that this is a generation looking for ways to make a meaningful difference in the world. Her research is dedicated to giving them the tools to do so. New knowledge and social critique are essential, but so, too, is inspiration.

Awards

Global Research Program of Distinction (team member, “Food, Fuel, and Forests: Effects of Climate Policy on the Whole Earth System,” UVA, 2014-15)

Guggenheim Fellowship (2011)

Leverhulme Trust Grant to the University of Cambridge to fund Wyse Visiting Professorship (2011)

International Studies Research Grant (UVA, 2011)

Board Member, Society for Cultural Anthropology (2009-14)