Susan Greenhalgh

Susan Greenhalgh

John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Research Professor of Chinese Society
Susan  Greenhalgh


Research and Teaching Interests: Social Studies of Science, Technology, and Medicine; Anthropology of the State, Governance, and Public Policy; Critical Weight Studies; The Politics of Reproduction/ Population/ Life Itself; Gender Studies; Modernity and Globalization; Socialism and Post-Socialism; People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Selected interests in U.S. health and society.


Susan Greenhalgh is Professor of Anthropology and John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society at Harvard University. Before joining Harvard in 2011, she was Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and before that, Senior Research Associate of the Population Council in New York City.

Greenhalgh’s work seeks to understand the emergence of new forms of scientific governance in the context of rapid shifts in global and local political economies. Inspired by Foucault’s bold proposition on biopower – that the body is the central domain of politics and power in the modern era -- her work illuminates hidden fields of vital politics and suggests that an in-depth understanding of modern science is essential to unraveling their workings and often unjust effects. Her research has focused on three fields of scientific governance: the management of populations, clinical biomedicine, and global health.

From the mid-1990s until around 2010 Greenhalgh’s central concern was to understand Chinese projects of social modernity – state efforts to transform China’s “backward masses” into the modern workers and citizens needed to make China a prosperous, globally prominent nation – and their effects on China’s society, culture, and politics. Her interest in the politics of population emerged in the mid-1980s, when, as a newly minted research associate of the Population Council, she became deeply engaged with the Cold War-esque (“evil empire”) critique of coercion in China’s population control policy.

Three books written between 2000 and 2010 ask different questions about the governance and cultivation of China’s society. Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China (2008) uncovers the origins of the notorious one-child policy in early reform-era population science and politics. Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics (2005, with political scientist Edwin A. Winckler) traces the “governmentalization” of China’s population – how since around 1980 population has been brought under rationalized control – and the attending rise of a vast new field of bio (or vital) politics involving power over the production and cultivation of life itself. Stressing the productivity of the population project, this study shows how the governmentalization of population not only restratified Chinese society, inducing social suffering on a staggering scale; it also created new kinds of Chinese persons (“the good mother,” “the quality single child”), strengthened the party-state, and reestablished China’s global position in complex and contradictory ways. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China (2010) traces the connections between the state’s massive project to govern its population and cultivate its society, and the nation’s rise to global power, showing how social governance has become a major site for adoption of new, more indirect techniques of governance that work by promoting more entrepreneurial, self-directed private selves.

Just One Child was awarded the 2010 Joseph Levenson Prize of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) and the 2010 Rachel Carson Prize of the Society for the Social Study of Science (4S). It received Honorable Mention in the 2010 Senior Book Prize of the American Ethnological Society (AES), and the 2009 Gregory Bateson Book Prize of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA). This body of work has been recognized by two career achievement awards, the 2002 Clifford C. Clogg award from the Population Association of America (PAA), and the 2011 Olivia Schlieffelin Nordberg Award, as well as major research grants and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Greenhalgh’s current work – on the U.S. and global obesity epidemic – was born in a classroom on the leafy campus of University of California, Irvine, located in the very epicenter of the national cult of the thin, fit body. In Fat-talk Nation: The Human Costs of America’s War on Fat (2015), she draws on the narratives of young Californians to uncover the hidden workings and effects of what began as a public health campaign but soon mushroomed into a society-wide war on fat. The book illuminates how the fight against fat seeks to create a new kind of thin, fit biocitizen, and how it conscripts other subjects – the good doctor, the good parent, the good teacher, the good coach – into the campaign. Fat-talk Nation shows how the war on fat has produced a generation of young people who are obsessed with their bodies and whose most fundamental sense of self comes from their size. It argues that attempts to rescue America from obesity-induced national decline are damaging the bodily and emotional health of young people and disrupting families and intimate relationships. The book’s core concepts (biocitizen, biomyth, biopedagogy, bioabuse, biocop) offer powerful tools for understanding how obesity has come to remake who we are as a nation, and how we might reverse course for the next generation.

Obesity, of course, is not just an American problem; according to the WHO, it is now the greatest global public health threat of the 21st century. Since 2013 Greenhalgh has turned her attention to global health, asking how the notion that China faces an urgent epidemic of obesity arose and how the epidemic is being managed. Inspired by a brilliant history of the corporate invention of chronic disease in the late 20th century U.S., in China she is tracing the historical making of a science and policy of obesity, asking what kinds of public-private partnerships have been operating and, more generally, what it means to say that the chronic diseases of modern life are first and foremost markets. This project has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (STS Program, 2011-15), the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (2012-13), and Harvard’s Asia Center (2014-16). She is now writing a book on the role of Big Soda and corporate-funded nonprofits in shaping the science and policy of obesity in China.

In April 2016 she organized a workshop at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies on the anthropology of science and technology in contemporary China. The resulting book, Can Science and Technology Save China? Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Realities (co-edited with Li Zhang), is currently under review.

During 2016-17 Greenhalgh was a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. At Harvard, she was named Walter Channing Cabot Fellow for the year for the publication of her book, Fat-talk Nation.

Curriculum Vitae

See Also:
Fairbank Center

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