Peter Redfield

Robert F. Erburu Chair in Ethics, Globalization and Development and Professor of Anthropology
Peter Redfield


Peter Redfield is Professor of Anthropology and Erburu Chair in Ethics, Globalization and Development at the University of Southern California.  Trained as a cultural anthropologist sympathetic to history, he concentrates on circulations of science, technology and medicine in colonial and postcolonial contexts. The author of Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (University of California Press 2013) and Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana (University of California Press 2000), he is also coeditor of Forces of Compassion:  Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics (SAR Press 2011), and an issue of the journal Limn (2018) on the theme of “Little Development Devices and Humanitarian Goods.”  He has held fellowships at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, in addition to serving as President of the Society for Cultural Anthropology.   


  • Ph.D. Anthropology, U.C. Berkeley, 5/1995
  • M.A. Anthropology, U.C. Berkeley, 5/1989
  • A.B. Anthropology, Harvard University, 6/1987
  • Tenure Track Appointments

    • Professor of Anthropology (Secondary Appointment Social Medicine), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013 – 2020
    • Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004 – 2013
    • Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999 – 2004

    Visiting and Temporary Appointments

    • Postdoctoral Fellow, History of Science, Medicine and Technology, Johns Hopkins University , 1998-1999
    • Visiting Scholar, Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, 1997-1999
    • Visiting Assistant Professor, Cultural Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine Department of History, UCLA, 1995-1996
    • Visiting Assistant Professor, Social Science, Deep Springs College, 1993-1995
  • Research Keywords

    Medical anthropology, Science, Technology and Society, Humanitarianism and Human Rights, Colonial History, Ethics, Nongovernmental Organizations and Transnational Experts, Europe, French Guiana, Uganda, South Africa

    Detailed Statement of Research Interests

     My first research project focused on the European space program in French Guiana, comparing it to earlier French efforts to develop the region, especially the notorious penal colony known as Devil’s Island. Between 1990 and 1994 I worked in both French Guiana and France, combining ethnographic fieldwork with archival research; the results appeared as a book for the University of California Press in 2000. At its core the book addresses the greater ecology of modern technology, examining the reconfiguration of French Guiana’s social and natural landscape into a proper habitat for the assembly and launch of satellites into high orbit. My larger goal in writing it was to interrogate the success of a distinctly planetary system with a more local history, one rife with repeated colonial failure and unintended consequences.

    My second major research project extended this concern for global projects, but shifted focus to non-state actors and a moving frontier of health crises, examining the nongovernmental organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Founded four decades ago as a French effort to establish a more engaged and oppositional form of medical humanitarianism, MSF has grown into a transnational institution, known both for excellent logistics and for outspoken independence. MSF missions now stretch well beyond emergency responses to humanitarian disaster to target specific diseases and structural inequities in global health, always struggling between twin goals of efficacy and advocacy. I conducted fieldwork both at MSF’s operational headquarters in Europe (especially sections in France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland), and multiple project sites in Uganda.  The book appeared on the University of California Press in 2013. During this period I also collaborated with Erica Bornstein on an edited volume through the SAR Advanced Seminar series, and engaged in other collective work addressing humanitarianism.

    My present work follows examples of science, technology and medicine beyond reliable infrastructure.  I am particularly interested in emerging forms of humanitarian design, and a varied array of efforts to produce innovative fixes and solutions in a box (examples range from nonprofit pharmaceutical production to minimalist life technologies related to food, shelter, water and sanitation). My goal is to consider the complicated ethics and politics of interventions that seek to do good by saving lives, particularly as they relate to past utopian projects of social welfare and justice.  I am engaged in several collaborative projects around this central interest; for more details on publications please see the linked cv and website.