- Associate Professor of Anthropology
- Postdoctoral research fellow, Brown University Pembroke Center, 2011–12
- PhD, anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 2011
- BA, anthropology, Bryn Mawr College, 2003
My research explores the ethics and politics of intervention in the global South. I take interest in how the growing presence of humanitarian, global health, and scientific projects in Africa reconfigures local social geographies, producing new kinds of status, mobility, expertise, and exclusions. My body of work traces the social and political lives of metrics and data amid the rise of audit cultures, particularly in global health worlds, contributing ethnographic insights to the emerging field of critical data studies.
My first book (Duke University Press, 2018), titled Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World, is an ethnography of the production of quantitative data by survey projects in Africa. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Malawi with demographic projects in sites ranging from questionnaire design meetings, trainings for data collectors, fieldworker-led data collection in the field, and policy venues, Cooking Data presents a fine-grained analysis of data’s handling by diverse actors to critically examine the criteria and metrics that help numbers in the era of global health attain their legitimacy.
The chapters illustrate how on-the-ground dynamics and practices of research cultures mediate the production of numbers. Throughout, the book foregrounds how quantitative data and their social worlds are co-produced and demonstrates the consequences for local economies, formulations of expertise, and lived experience. Cooking Data contends that the lives of data and the lives of those who produce it are impossible to disentangle; data reflect and cohere new social relations, persons, forms of expertise, and expectations.
Research for the book project was funded by NSF, Wenner Gren, and SSRC fieldwork grants.
I am working on a second book project, titled Fake Gays: Metrics, Ethics and Authenticity in African Aid Economies, that takes interest in how LGBT-identified Malawians navigate economies of harm, or networks of social relations that hinge on transactions that are simultaneously risky and potentially profitable. Fake Gays tells the story of how the massive presence of AIDS research alongside LGBT activism reconfigures social worlds, refashions meanings attached to sexual and gendered identifications, and makes vulnerability into a site of risk, surveillance, and value.
The book’s interventions sit at the intersection of queer African studies, critical data studies, and anthropologies of global health and foreign aid. This project has been awarded a Wenner Gren Postdoctoral Research Grant and a Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant. Alongside this project, I am also working with a Malawian NGO to create an archive and ethnographic history of LGBT identities and activism in Malawi.
At Oberlin, I teach Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Culture Theory, Medical Anthropology, Empire and Science, and a seminar titled The Anthropology of Good Intentions. Teaching interests include, generally, critical global health, humanitarianism, science and technology studies, history of anthropology, Africa, and queer studies. I have also taught courses at Penn, Brown, Haverford, and the University of Malawi.
I enjoy travel, running, marine life, and learning about medicinal herbs.
- Biruk, C. 2018. Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Biruk, C. Forthcoming. “On soap: Touching objects, feeling critique in critical global health studies.” Medicine Anthropology Theory.
- Biruk, C. and G. Trapence. 2018. “Community engagement in an economy of harms: Reflections from an LGBTI-rights NGO in Malawi.” Critical Public Health 28(3):340-351.
- Biruk, C. 2017. “Ethical gifts?: An analysis of soap-for-information transactions in Malawian survey research worlds.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 31(3):365-384.
- Biruk, C. and G. Trapence. 2017. “Gay for pay in an economy of harms.” Anthropology News.
- Biruk, C. and K. Xaba. 2016. Proudly Malawian: Life Stories of Gender Non-Conforming Individuals in Malawi. Johannesburg, South Africa: MaThoko Books.
- Biruk, C. 2016. “Studying up in critical NGO studies today: Reflections on critique and the distribution of interpretive labour.” Critical African Studies 8(3):291-305.
- Biruk, C. 2014. “Ebola and emergency anthropology: The view from the global health slot.” Somatosphere.
- Biruk, C. 2014. “Aid for gays: The material and the moral in African ‘homophobia’ in post-2009 Malawi.” Journal of Modern African Studies 52(3):447-473.
- Biruk, C. 2012. “Seeing like a research project: Producing 'high quality' data in AIDS research in Malawi.” Medical Anthropology 31(4):347-366.
- Biruk, C. and D. Prince. 2008. “Subjects, participants, collaborators: Reading community in public health literature.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 10(2):236-246.
- Wittink, M., B. Dahlberg, F. Barg, C. Biruk. 2008. “How older adults combine medical and experiential notions of depression.” Qualitative Health Research 18:1174-1183.
Grants and Fellowships
- Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Engaged Anthropology Grant (2018)
- Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (2017)
- Alliance for the Advancement of Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC)/Mellon grant for African Studies Collaborative Workshop (2014)
- School for Advanced Research Summer Scholar in Residence (2009)
- Social Science Research Council (SSRC) International Dissertation Research Fellowship (2007-08)
- National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (2007-08)
- Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (2007-08)
Cal Biruk Presents, Acts as DiscussantDecember 3, 2018
Associate Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk presented work in progress and acted as a discussant on two panels sponsored by the Queer African Studies Association at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association held on November 30 and December 1, 2018, in Atlanta.
Cal Biruk Appears as Featured PanelistNovember 21, 2018
Associate Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk was a featured panelist on a New Books in Medical Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings in November 2018. They presented on their recently published book Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World.
Cal Biruk Gives Invited Talk at PrincetonOctober 11, 2018
Associate Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk gave an invited book talk (Cooking Data, Duke Universtiy Press) at Princeton University's Global Health Colloquium on October 5.
Cal Biruk Presents WorkSeptember 12, 2018
Associate Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk presented at paper at the Society for Social Studies of Science annual meeting in Sydney, Australia and also presented work at the National Science Foundation-funded AfricaSTS pre-conference.
Cal Biruk Awarded GrantAugust 28, 2018
Associate Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk was awarded an Engaged Anthropology grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation.
Cal Biruk Publishes BookMarch 29, 2018
Associate Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk's book, Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World was published on Duke University Press.
Crystal (Cal) Biruk Presents Chapter of Second BookNovember 7, 2017
Crystal (Cal) Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, presented a chapter of their second book from October 6 to 8, 2017, at the Northeastern Workshops on Southern Africa in Burlington, Vermont.
Crystal Biruk PublishesJune 7, 2017Assistant Professor of Anthropology Cal Biruk published Proudly Malawian: Life Stories from Lesbians and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals, which was co-edited with Makhosazana Xaba and published by Ma'Thoko's Books. Biruk also authored "Ethical gifts?": An analysis of soap-for-data transactions in Malawian research worlds" in Medical Anthropology Quarterly and co-authored with Gift Trapence "'Gay for Pay' in an Economy of Harms: Reflections from an LGBTI Rights NGO in Malawi" in Anthropology News.
Crystal Biruk PresentsApril 5, 2017
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal (Cal) Biruk presented a paper on March 31, 2017 at the American Ethnological Society's meetings at Stanford University.
Crystal Biruk Delivers LectureApril 5, 2017
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal (Cal) Biruk delivered an invited lecture on their forthcoming book, Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World on April 2, 2017 at University of Cincinnati's Taft Research Center.
Crystal Biruk Gives LectureFebruary 24, 2017
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, delivered an invited lecture on her forthcoming book Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World at Oxford College of Emory University on February 16, 2017.
Crystal Biruk Gives Lecture on Forthcoming BookDecember 16, 2016
Crystal (Cal) Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, gave an invited lecture on the forthcoming book Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World to the University of Virginia Anthropology Department on October 21, 2016.
Crystal Biruk Publishes Article in Critical African StudiesDecember 12, 2016
Crystal (Cal) Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, published an article in Critical African Studies titled "Studying up in Critical NGO Studies Today: Reflections on Critique and the Distribution of Interpretive Labor."
Crystal Biruk Participates in RoundtableJune 15, 2016
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal Biruk participated in an invited roundtable on Global Health Trials and Technologies at the joint African Studies Association and American Anthropological Association conference Innovation, Transformation, and Sustainable Futures in Africa held June 1-4 in Dakar, Senegal.
Crystal Biruk PresentsMay 17, 2016
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal Biruk presented the paper "Raw Data and its para-publics in survey worlds in Malawi" at the Biennial meetings of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) in Ithaca, New York, May 13-14.
Crystal Biruk Gives Invited TalkMay 4, 2016
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal Biruk gave an invited talk on her book project Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World on May 4 at Northwestern University's program on African studies.
Crystal Biruk Gives Invited LectureApril 18, 2016
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal Biruk gave an invited lecture at a workshop on health and science in the African world on April 15 at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Crystal Biruk Gives Invited LectureMarch 30, 2016
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal Biruk delivered an invited lecture to Johns Hopkins University's Critical Global Health Seminar on March 22.
Crystal Biruk Gives Invited LectureFebruary 29, 2016
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Crystal Biruk gave an invited lecture on February 26 at Yale University's Symposium on Gender and Sexuality in Africa.
Crystal Biruk Presents PaperNovember 24, 2015
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, presented her paper "Fixed categories, liminal selves: Becoming "MSM" and "WSW" in Malawi" at the American Anthropological Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado (November 18-22).
Crystal Biruk Awarded GrantOctober 22, 2015
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, was awarded a Wenner-Gren Foundation postdoctoral research grant to fund research in Malawi and South Africa.
Crystal Biruk Presents ChapterJune 25, 2015
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, presented a chapter of her book in progress at Dreaming of Health and Science in Africa: Aesthetics, Affects, Poetics, and Politics, a conference convened at the Wellcome Trust Conference Center in Cambridgeshire, UK, June 13-15.
Crystal Biruk Delivers Invited LectureMay 5, 2015
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, delivered an invited lecture titled "Cooking and Cleaning Data: Embodied Enumeration in a Malawian Research World" on April 30 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies.
Crystal Biruk Presents PaperMarch 9, 2015
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, presented a paper at the Africanizing Technology Conference at Wesleyan University on March 6. The paper was titled "Standards and gifts: Soap as improvisational technology in Malawian survey research worlds."
Crystal Biruk Gives Talk at Council on African StudiesJanuary 26, 2015
Crystal Biruk, assistant professor of anthropology, delivered an invited talk at Yale University's Council on African Studies in January. The talk was titled "Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in a Malawian Research World."
Crystal Biruk Publishes ArticleNovember 21, 2014
Crystal Biruk published an article titled “‘Aid for gays:’ The moral and the material in ‘African homophobia’ in post-2009 Malawi” in “The Journal of Modern African Studies.”
Crystal Biruk Presents Paper and Organizes WorkshopAugust 27, 2014
Crystal Biruk organized and co-led a Mellon/AALAC sponsored workshop on teaching African Studies at small liberal colleges at Swarthmore College in May 2014. In June 2014, she presented a paper titled "The politics of voluntarism in survey research in Malawi" at the Social Science Conference at the University of Malawi.