Bioethnography: A How-To Guide for the Twenty-First Century

  • Elizabeth F. S. Roberts
  • Camilo Sanz


This chapter describes our efforts to develop what we call “bioethnography,” a research platform that combines ethnographic and biological data to arrive at better understandings of the histories and life circumstances that shape health and inequality. This platform is made possible through our collaboration with environmental health scientists involved in a longitudinal, pregnancy-birth-cohort and chemical exposure study in Mexico City. Bioethnography is a slow process due to the epistemic, temporal and logistical coordination of disparate and differently positioned intellectual research ecologies. To illuminate these efforts, we reflect on key issues and challenges that have arisen so far within three specific investigations within the larger collaboration (neighborhood dynamics, sleeping and eating), to provide a preliminary guide for social scientists contemplating similar bioethnographic projects.



Abundant thanks to Maurizio Meloni for providing us with the opportunity to gather our thoughts about bioethnography; Des Fitzgerald for an engaged set of critical comments about the original manuscript; the ELEMENT team, and especially Ana Benito, Jackie Goodrich, Adriana Mercado, Belinda Needham, Karen Petersen, Brisa Sanchez, Howard Hu, Luis Bautista Arredondo, Alejandra Cantoral, Linda Luna, Beti Escobedo, Bekki Tutino, Angeles Martinez Mier, Martha M. Téllez-Rojo, Erica Jansen and Deborah Watkins for conversations, meetings and guidance through this process. Martha M. Téllez-Rojo and Karen Petersen in particular for being such wise co-visionaries in making bioethnography happen. ELEMENT project coordinator Robin Lee and database managers Maritsa Solano and Lu Tang for their endless patience. ATLAS.ti staff, program specialists Susanne Friese and Ricardo Contreras for their expertise and willingness to guide us throughout the coding endeavor, and ATLAS.ti account manager Eve Weiss; Hannah Marcovitch and Erica Jensen for their dynamic experimentation with bioethnography and eating in Mexico City; the families in Colonia Periférico and Buena Vista who gave us the time and space to embark on todologia in accompaniment with them; Dean Hubbs for extensive editing and in-depth, iterative conversations that forced us to articulate our arguments more clearly and elegantly; the University of Michigan Department of Anthropology at Michigan, especially Andrew Shryock and Amy Rundquist for finding us lab space; and to all the students in our Mexican Exposures lab for figuring out with us how to do this very complicated thing; Faith Cole, Emily Hogan, Lauren Lund, Shiv Sharma, Kate Vogel, Raquelle Sewell, Kelsey Merritt, Kaavya Puttagunta, Hailey Briscoe, Clara Cullen, Sophie Geyer, Alexandria Choi, Sahar Gowani, and Hannah Marcovitch.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth F. S. Roberts
    • 1
  • Camilo Sanz
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.University of IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA

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