Department Chair:
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway, Associate Professor/Chair

Administrative Assistant:
Jackie Fortino

Department Email:

Phone: (440) 775-8970
Fax: (440) 775-8644

King Building 305
10 N. Professor St.
Oberlin, OH, 44074-1019

Crystal Biruk

Crystal Biruk

Assistant Professor of Anthropology (2012)

Contact Information


King Building 320B
(440) 775-5662

Personal Office Hours:
W 12-2pm or by Appointment

Crystal Biruk

Crystal Biruk

Crystal Biruk

Educational Background

  • Bachelor of Arts, Bryn Mawr College, 2003
  • Doctor of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, 2011

My research centers on the ethics and politics of intervention in the global South.  I take interest in how the growing presence of humanitarian, development, and scientific projects in sub-Saharan Africa reconfigures local social geographies, producing new kinds of status, mobility, expertise, and exclusions.

My book (forthcoming with 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 dissertation fieldwork grants.

I am beginning a second book project, tentatively titled "Gay for Pay:" The Labor of LGBT vulnerability in African NGO worlds, that takes interest in the emergence of same-sex identities and activism in Malawi, with particular focus on how "lesbians' and 'gays' in Malawi come to occupy, perform, and know their vulnerability in the context of transnationally circulating LGBT-rights frames and language amid the AIDS epidemic. This project has been awarded a Wenner Gren Postdoctoral research grant to fund fieldwork in 2017-2018. 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, global health, humanitarianism, science studies, Africa, and global sexualities. I have also taught courses at Penn, Brown, Haverford, and the University of Malawi.

I have a PhD in Anthropology (concentration in African Studies) from University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Anthropology from Bryn Mawr College. In 2011-12, I held a postdoctoral research fellowship at Brown University's Pembroke Center.

I enjoy travel, running, marine life, and learning about medicinal herbs.

Selected Publications:

Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (forthcoming with Duke University Press, 2018)

Biruk, Crystal  (Forthcoming). "Ethical gifts?: An analysis of soap-for-information transactions in Malawian survey research worlds." Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Biruk, Crystal and Khosi Xaba,eds. 2017. Proudly Malawian: Life Stories of Lesbian and Gender Con-conforming Women in Malawi. Johannesburg, South Africa: MaThoko's Books.

Biruk, Crystal. 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, Crystal. 2014.  "Ebola and emergency anthropology: The view from the global health slot." Somatosphere. Available at

Biruk, Crystal. 2012. "Seeing like a research project: Producing high quality data in AIDS research in Malawi." Medical Anthropology 31 (4):347-366.