Nancy Hughes
Alma materUniversity of California - Berkeley
AwardsRudolf Virchow Award (2003), Margaret Mead Award (1980)
Scientific career
FieldsCultural anthropology, medical anthropology, critical theory
InstitutionsSouthern Methodist University University of California, Berkeley

Nancy Scheper-Hughes (born 1944 in New York City) is the Chancellor’s Professor Emerita of Anthropology and the director and co-founder (with Margaret Lock) of the PhD program in Critical Medical Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.[1] She is known for her writing on the anthropology of the body, hunger, illness, medicine, motherhood, psychiatry, psychosis, social suffering, violence and genocide, death squads, and human trafficking.

She is the author of several books, including Death Without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (UC Press); Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Ireland (UC Press, in three editions); Commodifying Bodies (UK Sage) with Loic Wacquant; Violence in War and Peace (Wiley-Blackwell) with Philippe Bourgois; and, most recently, Violence in the Urban Margins (Oxford University Press), with P. Bourgois and J. Auyero.

Scheper-Hughes has conducted anthropological fieldwork in Northeast Brazil, Argentina, Israel, South Africa, Moldova, the Philippines and the U.S. As founding director of Organs Watch, she is a consultant on human trafficking for organs for the E.U., Interpol, U.N. Office on Human Trafficking and the Vatican. She has testified (pro bono) in several prosecutions of human traffickers. She was a witness to the organ trade that brought Israeli kidney patients from Israel, Europe and New York City to Durban, South Africa and ‘kidney sellers’ from impoverished communities in Recife. In her early investigations of an international ring of brokers and their living organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel led to a number of arrests by the FBI.[2]


Scheper-Hughes' first book, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland (1979), was a study of madness among bachelor farmers, and won the Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1980. The book established Scheper-Hughes’ ability to provoke controversy through her writing. Especially in Ireland, many readers took umbrage at her portrayal of the disintegration of rural Irish family life due to the collapse of the agrarian economy. In the 20th anniversary edition of the book, Scheper-Hughes provided an update on the transitions the community was undergoing at the time of her original research. She also discussed the challenges and ethics of ethnography, issues that are pushed to the fore as anthropologists increasingly work in communities that can read and critique their work.

In her subsequent book Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday life in Brazil (1993), she discusses the violence between mothers refusing to care for their sickly children. Once again, her work had many critics, both inside and outside Brazil, given its depiction of women forced by horrific circumstances to ration their love and favor towards infants and toddlers who seemed to have the best chance of survival, and (even more controversial) her description of mothers "collaborating" and "hastening" the deaths of infants thought to be lacking a will (desejo), a knack (jeito), or a taste (gosto) for life. Death without Weeping has become something of a classic within the field of medical anthropology.[citation needed]

In addition to her full-length monographs, Scheper-Hughes has published on AIDS/HIV in Brazil and Cuba, human rights, death squads, apartheid and shanty town violence in South Africa, and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, coining or popularizing such terms as the "mindful body" (1987, with Margaret Lock), "political economy of the emotions" (1993a), "life boat ethics" (1993b), "neo-cannibalism" (2001), "sexual citizenship" (1994b), the "genocidal continuum", "militant anthropology" and anthropology "with its feet on the ground" (1995). One of the central themes unifying Scheper-Hughes’ scholarship is how violence comes to mark the bodies of the vulnerable, poor, and disenfranchised with a terrifying intimacy. Her work in Latin America, South Africa, Ireland, and Eastern Europe traces the insidious invisibility of everyday violence, which often makes the vulnerable and exploited into their own wardens and executioners.[citation needed]

Besides her own original research she has helped disseminate the work of scholars such as radical Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and the Brazilian physician and radical ecologist Josué de Castro, to a wider North American audience.[citation needed]

Special Interests

Critical Medical Anthropology, the anthropology of violence, madness and culture, inequality and marginality, childhood and the family, Ireland, Brazil, Cuba, South Africa.[3]

International activism

Scheper-Hughes served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil in the 1960s. She has worked as an activist and with social movements in Brazil (in defense of rural workers, against death squads, and for the rights of street children) in the United States (as a civil rights worker and as a Catholic Worker[4] for the homeless mentally ill, against nuclear weapons research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory[citation needed]) and internationally in defense of the rights of those who sell their kidneys.

Organ trade

In 1999, Scheper-Hughes joined with three other professors to launch Organs Watch, an organization dedicated to research on the global traffic in human organs, tracking the movements of people and organs around the globe, as well as the global inequities that facilitate this trade.[5][6]

In October 2008, she appeared on the BBC program HARDtalk[7] expressing her strong opposition to the open free buying and selling of organs, even if there were Government oversight through regulation. Her reason for this position is that she feels it will eventually corrupt the entire field because of the inevitability of brokers engaging in satisfying the demands of wealthy buyers for higher quality donors. She is opposed to the Iranian government's regulated organ donor program, involving cash rewards, and predicts it will fail. Her preference is for free voluntary donations from family or friends. She has characterized the efforts of patients waiting for an organ transplant to save their lives through purchasing a replacement organ from a volunteer as just "a new form of commodity fetishism."[8] She deplores the fact that to the dying patients waiting for a transplant, "in the late or postmodern consumer-oriented context, the ancient prescription for virtue in suffering and grace in dying can only appear patently absurd."[9] She recommends instead that the now lethally long waiting lists for organ transplants be trimmed by questioning "the rights of infants and those over 70 to be on the waiting list."[10]

However, in 2010, Nancy Scheper-Hughes already supported legal compensation for organ donations. She also says that compensations are already paid in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” sense. Behind this lies the desperation due to shortage of organ donations.[11]

In the 2000s, Scheper-Hughes investigated an international ring of organ sellers based in New York, New Jersey and Israel. She interviewed several hundred third-world organ donors, and reported that they all felt that they had been taken advantage of, and were often left sick, unable to work, and unable to get medical care. Some of them were tricked into donating organs, and threatened at gunpoint when they tried to resist. Some transplants took place at major New York City hospitals, and Scheper-Hughes said that the hospital personnel knew illegal transplants were taking place. She informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which led to arrests several years later.[12][13]

Awards and recognition

Scheper-Hughes' first book, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland (1979), a study of madness among bachelor farmers, won the Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology in 1980.

Scheper-Hughes was awarded the first Berkeley William Sloane Coffin Jr. Award [14] in April 2007. The award recognizes moral leadership among members of the community at University of California, Berkeley. The award is named for William Sloane Coffin, a chaplain at Yale University and an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and peace movement.

Selected publications




  1. ^ UC Berkeley, Anthropology Department: Nancy Scheper-Hughes
  2. ^ The Brian Lehrer Show, Illegal Organ Trafficking, Friday, July 24, 2009
  3. ^ "Nancy Scheper-Hughes". Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  4. ^ Scheper-Hughes, 2017. “Anthropologist as Court Jester: Civil Disobedience and the People’s Café” Boom California. February 7.
  5. ^ Organs Watch (archived)
  6. ^ Department of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley, 3 November 1999, press release
  7. ^ BBC, HARDtalk, 28 October 2008, Nancy Scheper-Hughes
  8. ^ Nancy Scheper-Hughes, "Rotten Trade, Millennial Capitalism, Human Values and Global Justice in Organs Trafficking," Journal of Human Rights, vol. 2, p. 198 (2003)
  9. ^ Scheper-Hughes (2003:200)
  10. ^ Scheper-Hughes (2003:221)
  11. ^ Transplantation in the USA: The Shortage of Available Organs and Public Health Policy Archived 2014-07-14 at the Wayback Machine, Jonathan A. Winston, M.D., Program Chair, April 19, 2010, Kidney & Urology Foundation of America.
  12. ^ Michael Daly: Anthropologist's 'Dick Tracy moment' plays role in arrest of suspected kidney trafficker, Michael Daley, New York Daily News, July 24, 2009 Archived 2009-07-25 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ The Brian Lehrer Show, Illegal Organ Trafficking, Friday, July 24, 2009
  14. ^ Media Release 2007