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

Administrative Assistant:
Judi Davidson

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:
T 1:30-3:30 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.  

I am working on a book titled Cooking Data: Politics and Culture in an African Research World that explores how the commodification of health-related data intersects local social worlds, producing new political subjectivities and modes of governance. Cooking Data draws on 18 months of ethnography in Malawi to tell the life story of data itself, tracking its transformation from pencil marks on a survey page into the statistics consumed by policy makers, researchers, and the public. The book uncovers hidden relationships between the knowledge work that produces data and its value to various audiences. I analyze, for example, the consequences and contradictions of accumulative “giving and taking”—of information, blood tests, informed consent, and so on—in survey research encounters between “insiders” and “outsiders” in Malawi. I also show how research projects that return to Malawi to collect data year after year become important sites of social mobility for the young Malawians they hire as fieldwork supervisors and data collectors. 

I am engaged in a second project 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. Alongside this project, I am working with a Malawian NGO to produce a book of Malawian lesbian life histories. 

At Oberlin, I teach: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Empires of Science, Culture Theory, and Medical Anthropology. In Spring 2015, I will be teaching a seminar titled The Anthropology of Good Intentions. Teaching interests include, generally: global health, humanitarianism, science studies, Africa, and global sexualities. 

I grew up in New Jersey, but I’ve spent most of the past decade in Philadelphia and Malawi. I enjoy running, marine life, and airport ethnography. 

Recent publications:

Biruk, Crystal. 2014. “Aid for gays: The moral and the material in ‘African homophobia’ in post-2009 Malawi.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 52(3):447-473.

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