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Biruk Cal, Associate Professor

Areas of interest: socio-cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, science and technology studies, global health, critical data studies, queer studies


Cal Biruk is Associate Professor of Anthropology. Cal is the author of Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (Duke University Press, 2018); the book draws on ethnographic work in Malawi to trace the social lives of quantitative health data collected by population scientists, and shows how data reflect and cohere new social relations, persons, forms of expertise, and economies. Cal is also the author of numerous articles that have appeared in journals such as Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Critical Public Health, Gay and Lesbian Quarterly, Medicine Anthropology Theory, Journal of Modern African Studies, and Critical African Studies. Cal’s research and teaching interests include: medical anthropology, critical global health studies, postcolonial science and technology studies, anthropologies of quantification and data, histories of anthropological theory, and queer studies. Cal is working on a few projects, including one that theorizes global health—as knowledge project, form of governance, and site of resource distribution—from the perspective of small, seemingly minor objects. This book-in-progress curates global health technologies and devices such as flipcharts, HIV tests, packets of condoms, NGO vehicles, and annual reports, and analyzes the racialized relations, affects (such as trust and suspicion), and economies they assemble amid aid geographies and audit culture. Cal is also working on a project that theorizes fitness wearables as queer technologies amid the datafication of health and bodies, and beginning a new project that tracks the thing-concept of “African health”, and the relations, technologies, and ways of knowing it has cohered from the era of tropical medicine to Covid-19 in Malawi. Cal enjoys travel, running, marine life, hiking, and gardening.  


BA, Bryn Mawr College, 2003

PhD, University of Pennsylvania, 2011



Courses 2020-2021


  • ANTHROP 3HI3 - Medical Anthropology
  • ANTHROP 4B03 - Current Problems in Cultural Anthropology I - "Critical Global Health"


Courses 2019-2020


  • ANTHROP 3HI3 - The Anthropology of Health, Illness and Healing


Selected publications :



2018   Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World. Duke University Press. 

2016   Biruk, C and Khosi Xaba, eds. Proudly Malawian: Life Stories of Lesbian and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals in Malawi. MaThoko’s Books. Johannesburg, South Africa. 


Journal Articles and Book Chapters:

2020       Biruk, C. “Fake gays in queer Africa: NGOs, metrics, and modes of (queer) theory.” Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 26(3):477-502. 


2020       Biruk, C. “The invention of ‘harmful cultural practices’ in the era of AIDS in Malawi.”  Journal of Southern African Studies 46(2):339-356. 


2020     Biruk, C. and Gift Trapence. “Community engagement in an economy of harms: reflections from an LGBTI-rights NGO in Malawi,” in Reynolds, Lindsey and Salla Sariola, eds. The Ethics and Politics of Community Health Research. London, UK: Routledge.  


2019     Biruk, C. “The MSM category as bureaucratic technology: Reflections on paperwork and project time in performance-based aid economies.” Medicine Anthropology Theory 6(4):187-214. 


2019      Biruk, C. “Review Essay: The Politics of Global Health.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 


2019     Biruk, C., R. McKay, and N. Tousignant. “Book Forum: Cooking Data, Medicine in the Meantime, and Edges of Exposure” [Author discussion]. Somatosphere 

 2019     Biruk, C. “Soap: Touching objects, feeling critique in critical global health studies.” Medicine Anthropology Theory 6(2):151-164. 

2019    Biruk, C. and R. McKay. “Objects of critique in critical global health studies.” Medicine Anthropology Theory 6(2):142-150. 

2018  Biruk, C. and Gift Trapence. “Community engagement in an economy of harms:  Reflections from an LGBTI-rights NGO in Malawi.” Critical Public Health 28(3):340-351. 

2017  Biruk, C. “Ethical gifts?: An analysis of soap-for-information transactions in Malawian survey research worlds.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 31(3):365-384. 

2017  Biruk, C. and Gift Trapence. “Gay for pay in an economy of harms: Reflections from an LGBTI-rights NGO in Malawi.” Anthropology News. 

2016  Biruk, C. “Studying up in critical NGO studies today: Reflections on critique and the distribution of interpretive labour.” Critical African Studies 8(3):291-305. 

2014  Biruk, C. “Aid for Gays: The Material and the Moral in ‘African Homophobia.’” Journal of Modern African Studies 52(3):447-473. 

2014  Biruk, C. Ebola and emergency anthropology: The view from the “global health slot.” Somatosphere. Available at anthropology-the-view-from-the-global-health-slot.html. 

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

2009  Watkins, Susan, Ann Swidler, and Crystal Biruk. 2009. “Hearsay Ethnography: A Method for learning about responses to health interventions,” in Pescosolido, B. et al, eds. The Handbook of Sociology of Health, Illness and Healing. Springer. 

2008  Biruk, Crystal and Dana Prince. “Subjects, Participants, Collaborators: Reading community in public health literature.”  International Feminist Journal of Politics 10(2):236-246. 

2008  Wittink, Marsha, Britt Dahlberg, Fran Barg, and Crystal Biruk. “How older adults combine medical and experiential notions of depression.” Qualitative Health Research 18: 1174-1183.