Interview with Rebecca Bedwell, 1st Place 2018 Peter K. New Award Winner
By Sara Wilson, PhD student in Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Oklahoma
Rebecca Bedwell is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology, with a concentration in medical anthropology. She received her BA in Anthropology and Spanish from Indiana University, Bloomington in 2014, and her MA in Anthropology from the University of Arizona in 2017. Rebecca’s research interests include medical anthropology, feminist anthropology, minority health, undocumented immigration, conceptions of risk, structural inequality, health disparities, public policy, and gender.
Sara Wilson: Anthropology was your undergraduate major, and I’m wondering what led you to that—did you have a lot of exposure to the field before entering college?
Rebecca Bedwell: No, I didn’t really know what anthropology was, except for archaeology—I knew what that was because my little sister was interested in it. So when I went to college, I went to Indiana University. I was undecided, but was thinking about doing international studies, English, or psychology. anthropology wasn’t really on my radar. I did take an introductory class my freshman year, and it really caught my interest, so I decided to major in it after that. I also explored those other majors and decided anthropology was my favorite.
Sara: And did you kind of have a focus in your undergrad—did they ask you to specialize, or did you do a thesis or capstone of some kind?
Rebecca: IU is a four-field department, so people majoring in anthropology have to take classes in all four of the subfields, but you do pick one and that’s your major. I focused in sociocultural anthropology.
Sara: one of the things that struck me in looking at your CV is that you have already accomplished so much in your career, and you’re just finishing up your MA. I mean, I was looking at your work as someone who’s in graduate school, just like wow, she’s done a lot! And by the way, congratulations on finishing the Master’s.
Rebecca: Thank you!
Sara: But it seems like in anthropology a lot of people stop at the Master’s degree—many don’t seem to need doctorate-level work for the stuff they want to do. I was wondering what you’re thinking about a PhD, and also maybe what the politics are related to those two degrees in the broad discipline of anthropology?
Rebecca: The University of Arizona, which is where I am now, has kind of a unique program in that people who don’t have a Master’s can apply to the PhD program and get their masters along the way. That’s what I’m doing—I’m moving on to the PhD as we speak.
Sara: that’s great! Do you have any skepticism about anthropologists who don’t go on to doctoral work?
Rebecca: No, I think there are certain skills that you learn while you’re getting your PhD, and if you feel like you’ve gotten the skillset that you need through doing your master’s, then there’s no need to go on. I think it’s great that people do a Master’s and then go out and do applied work. I think that people within academia—some people might look down on the idea of just having a Master’s, but I think that might just be because if you’re going to stay in academia you need a PhD. That doesn’t mean that just having a Master’s is worse somehow, though. It’s all about the skills that you get.
Sara: So people choose from these four fields in anthropology—you chose sociocultural—and within that, how did you come to feminist anthropology? Was it a professor; your research content; was it a place you’ve been to—how did you arrive in feminist anthropology?
Rebecca: I was exposed to it through different courses I took in undergrad, and when I came to graduate school, I got to take classes that were specifically on gender theory. It’s always really interested me, but I didn’t have the language to talk about it until I learned more in my classes.
Sara: I always wonder what’s the relationship between theory and fieldwork for anthropologists. Was it an interest you acquired in class and then decided, “I’m going to study women’s bodies” or something?—because in your work, you eventually get to the impact of federal breastfeeding policies on women’s breastfeeding practices, obviously. And so was it an idea that you had and then went and found it on-the-ground, or what?
Rebecca: For the breastfeeding project, I don’t remember exactly which it was, whether I read something that piqued my interest, or came across it through some other venue. But in reading anthropology books, articles, there is this—you draw on theory and you also go out into the world and you talk to people. You kind of apply or come up with theory to explain what’s going on in the real world. So in things that I read, just the theory behind why breastfeeding is such a contentious issue really piqued my interest. there’s a lot of morality that goes on in infant feeding decisions and lots of social mores. People have some strong opinions about it, and it says a lot about how people see women, how women are expected to be. So that’s how and why I got interested in that.
Sara: Is this true of both Bolivia and the US (both of which you’ve studied)—that breastfeeding is a tough set of decisions for women to make?
Rebecca: I think it was different for the Bolivian women in the region where that study—where that data is from. I didn’t actually go there: one of my undergraduate mentors has been doing longitudinal research in the Bolivian highlands, and she has lots and lots of data. She let me work with—organize, analyze, and eventually publish on—some of the data that she had. So I’m not as familiar with that cultural context.
Sara: One of my questions for you centers on what seems to me a popular discourse about—your word was morality—about what’s the right thing to do for your child. Some people even talk about it in universal ways, as the right thing to do for all women, in determining whether to breastfeed or not. You must come across of course lots of scholarly discourse about this topic, but it’s also very mainstream, and I found that really interesting. Do you read the more mainstream articles on this topic, and do you use that as research—articles from “whattoexpect.com” for example, about “what’s right for mom”?
Rebecca: Yeah, I do, and the same kinds of things that women were talking about in my interviews with them are reflected in these articles. On what it means to be a good mother, and what the limitations are—structural limitations going on behind the scenes that people aren’t talking about, and the ways these limitations are framed. Infant feeding practices is a decision, and you have to choose one or the other, but oftentimes structural factors, like workplace conditions or just the continuing stigma attached to breastfeeding in public, for example, kind of shape women’s ability to make free decisions. They’re not necessarily free decisions.
Sara: It seems like that’s what’s missing from a lot of the mainstream discourse about it, and obviously it’s probably missing because your analysis is a lot more complex: that it’s not just a decision that everyone can make.
Rebecca: So I did my Master’s on diabetes illness narratives among Mexican immigrants living in Tucson, and individual responsibility also came up a lot in my interviews with people for this project. The larger structural factors shaping people’s lives are not in the foreground. Making decisions about “lifestyle choices” is seen as an important contributing factor to diabetes onset, when there are lots of other things going on that are shaping possibilities for health practices. So that’s kind of a parallel between those two projects that I think speaks to how health decisions are viewed as being an individual’s responsibility. It’s got moral connotations, and then people who develop diabetes, or people who give their babies formula are kind of—there’s this stigma attached to it because it’s seen as a personal failure.
Sara: Have you studied how…I mean, even if you explain away the idea that it’s a personal failure, women are still going to experience that decision as a personal failure. So do you theorize about how women can kind of deal with that sense of failure, or is that maybe more of a question for a psychologist?
Rebecca: Well, I think just knowing that other women are made to feel this way, and the fact that it isn’t a personal failing, and that that discourse exists, can kind of take the teeth out of it a little bit. So just knowing more about it—
Sara: Making it a discourse rather than—
Rebecca: than fact or truth. I think it provides helpful perspective on it.
Sara: What is an illness narrative? You’ve probably already given me an example of one, but I don’t think I have heard the term before just because I’m in a different field.
Rebecca: Okay, yeah, it’s a—a popular one in medical anthropology. Medical anthropologists distinguish disease from illness: disease is the technical understanding of sickness, and illness is how an individual experiences sickness within a particular context. Experiences of sickness kind of are brought into being through social action, rather than just existing within one person. So it’s an interactional kind of experience. Illnesses frequently shape how people view themselves, so illness narratives are stories that people tell about themselves through the experience of illness, and they’re often trying to kind of renegotiate or reconfigure their identity after the development of an illness. It’s about who they see themselves as in light of having this illness.
Sara: Fascinating. Ok so you didn’t do work in Bolivia, but you did do fieldwork in Southern Indiana. Is that where you’re from?
Rebecca: I’m from central Indiana, yeah.
Sara: Ok. Why did you choose to study your home state?
Rebecca: I like the idea of doing anthropology where you live. I have continued to do that—I’m in Tucson now, and I did my Master’s research here. There’s this expectation in anthropology that you’re going to go off somewhere that you’re not from to do research with people that are from a group you don’t belong to. But there is growing support for doing research in the US, for American anthropologists, as well as belonging to the group that you’re researching rather than valuing difference just for difference’s sake between the researcher and the people they’re researching. There’s a lot going on : culture is everywhere; there’s a lot to research.
In my research on breastfeeding practices, I encountered many people who belonged to a strong support network in Southern Indiana. And so I was able to look at really super-duper pro-breastfeeding people, as well as people who were not necessarily that into breastfeeding. There was lots of interesting comparison of the two existing within the same area. It kind of captured the different discourses that are going on around breastfeeding in the US right now.
Sara: cool, a little microcosm.
Sara: How were the SfAA meetings this year? You’ve won third place in one of their poster competitions before, but this year you were present as an award winner: how were they?
Rebecca: I really enjoy them. This is the second one I’ve been to. They’re big, but they’re not as big as the AAAs, so they feel more manageable. And there are always lots of panels, presentations, and posters that are related to my research interests, so I get a lot out of going.
Sara: What was the Peter K. New Award dinner like?
Rebecca: It was really nice! It was great—I got to meet former winners and some of the judges, and one of the other winners from this year was there, as well. It was great to meet all those people and form new connections. One of the judges is actually a university of Arizona alumnus, and so it was also good to meet him. It was a really positive experience—it reinvigorated me kind of for doing research and being a grad student.
Sara: right, I mean—I was talking with another of the Peter K. New winners from this year, and it just seems like anytime you get even the smallest bit of recognition for your work, it can kind of keep you going.
Rebecca: yeah, it’s like—oh, ok, I’m doing ok! *laughter*
Sara: yeah, “people think that I wrote something worth reading”—that’s sometimes all you need to continue working *laughter*
Well, have you thought about what you’ll do in the future whenever you—I guess its probably kind of early to say since you’re starting the PhD now, but—do you have any ideas on what you’ll do later?—academia? fieldwork primarily? Both?
Rebecca: So I think options outside of academia for someone with a social sciences PhD include working for a government agency or a nonprofit or going into private industry. I haven’t decided what I want to do yet. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about all the options, and honestly, they all are appealing to me in certain ways. I really like research and I’m beginning to enjoy teaching. So I think I would be happy staying in academia.
Sara: yeah? cool, what are you teaching?
Rebecca: I’m not teaching right now, but I’ve been a teaching assistant. And then something that I really liked was—so there’s this undergraduate internship program that the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology has at the University of Arizona, and I was a research assistant there for a year and a half. I got to work on projects with a few undergraduate interns. I got to supervise them, and guide them through the research process, and help teach them different skills, and I really enjoyed that. It was a really rewarding experience.
Sara: Well thanks for your willingness to talk! I imagine a few of our readers are students and will be happy to hear of another grad student making it and dealing with imposter syndrome, so I really appreciate you talking with me.
Rebecca: oh of course, I was happy to.