Debbie Weinstein

Assistant Professor of American Studies
Debbie Weinstein
Assistant Professor of American Studies
Photo: Mike Cohea/Brown University
American studies is naturally multidisciplinary. Debbie Weinstein draws on American experience and thinking in the sciences, about the use of war, on family therapy, in public health, even about the role of video games.

It was a science course Debbie Weinstein took as an undergraduate at Brown that first got her interested in history.

“All of a sudden it became clear to me that my science textbooks weren’t just a received set of facts to memorize but that science was a dynamic, intellectual process,” Weinstein recalls.

Unwilling to give up one discipline for the other, Weinstein created an independent concentration that allowed her to combine and explore both disciplines while analyzing them through the lens of feminist science studies.

Weinstein has devoted much of her career to those early interests. Her studies at Brown, as well as post-undergraduate work at a mental health facility and in the education department at the Boston Museum of Science, continue to inform the research she does today.

“I’m always returning to what I think of as science studies questions, those questions that are grounded in thinking about the production of scientific and medical knowledge in relation to American history and culture.”

Weinstein says that her work has “grown out of an interest in thinking about the intersection of theories of human nature, health, and disease with categories of difference in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.”

Weinstein’s first book, The Pathological Family: Postwar America and the Rise of Family Therapy (Cornell University Press, 2013), examined the changing ideas of family and therapeutic culture in mid-20th century America.

She is now at work on a book that looks at how Americans’ understandings of war have shifted over the last century. It’s a project that was inspired by published correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud in the 1930s in which they discuss the instinctual causes for why people fight wars.

Weinstein is tracking the question of “why war” in American intellectual and cultural history from mid-20th century research on the physiology of the fight-or-flight response to mid-century debates over what made fascism possible, to more current questions of the effects video games and other media are having on children’s perception of war.

“In the early part of the century different currents in American thought saw war initially as potentially beneficial. As the Great War progressed, ideals about what war might be in the modern era became more and more pessimistic,” Weinstein says.

Weinstein, who earned her Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard, has worked for several years at Brown’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women as associate director, where she oversaw the gender and sexuality studies concentration. She joins the Brown faculty full-time this fall as assistant professor of American studies and says that the department is a good fit for her multiple areas of interest.

“As individual scholars, as a department and, overall, as a field, American studies thinks about issues in a way that moves beyond disciplinary boundaries, and that’s how I think and work too.”

This year, Weinstein will teach a course called“ War and the Mind in Modern America,” which will overlap with much of her current research, as well as a course called “Health and Healing in American History.” She will also lead an honors seminar for American studies and Ethnic studies concentrators who plan to write a senior thesis. It’s a class she’s particularly excited about because it combines her love for teaching and research.

“Brown students are amazing, so working with them to help them find a research question, and then giving them feedback and an iterative process to develop their ideas, push questions further, and work on their writing — that’s the kind of teaching I really enjoy.”