Katherine Mason

Assistant Professor of Anthropology
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Katherine Mason
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Mike Cohea/Brown University
A straightforward biological model of disease — there’s a germ and you get it — didn’t fully account for the experience of illness in a society, Katherine Mason observed. That observation led her to a specialty in medical anthropology.

Like many young adults just graduated from college, Katherine Mason wanted to experience life in another country, so she headed off to China to teach English after completing her bachelor’s degree at Yale. But several months before she was to return home, the SARS epidemic hit and she was forced by her teaching program to return early to the United States.

Mason, her curiosity in the epidemic piqued in part by her background as a molecular biology major, found that she had more questions than answers about the experience. To her, it seemed that the rest of the world was making a much bigger deal about the spread of the disease than those in China who were actually experiencing it.

“That contrast I found to be really interesting, especially having studied disease in a really biological way, where there’s a germ and you get it, and it should always be the same thing. But it clearly wasn’t being experienced the same way in these different settings,” Mason said.

Wanting to further explore the relationship between illness and culture, Mason did some research and found that anthropology would be a good platform for such research. She soon found herself enrolled in her first anthropology course in graduate school at Harvard.

The experience in China inspired Mason’s thesis, which she’s now turning into a book, After SARS: The Rebirth of Public Health in a Chinese City of Immigrants. In the book, Mason examines how the SARS epidemic affected the development of the public health system in China, which was in the midst of reform when the disease hit. Mason argues that because of the epidemic, the government turned its attention to keeping diseases in check rather than working to serve vulnerable populations, like migrant workers.

“Public health ended up being much more globally oriented instead of being oriented around local health problems,” Mason said.

More broadly, Mason, who describes herself as a medical anthropologist, studies public health from a social sciences point of view, including how people conceptualize communities and populations and how to help those communities. Much of her research has focused on Southeast China and Chinese populations in the United States.

The latter was the focus of ongoing research Mason began last year while she was a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at Columbia University. The interdisciplinary study, which partnered Mason with epidemiologists and others in the biological and social sciences, examined whether HIV-related stigma may be a barrier to testing among Chinese immigrant populations, which tend to have very low rates of testing. Interviewing high-risk immigrants who live in the three Chinatowns in New York City, Mason is using that data not only to better understand for her own purposes the cultural and socioeconomic factors that may be preventing them from getting tested, but also to help epidemiologists understand those factors so they can better serve specific populations.

“As epidemiologists, they tend to group people in these big groups, like Asian immigrants. One thing I try to get them to think about is how they can think about groups a little more specifically and how that might affect the answers they’re getting, because Indian immigrants might be different from Filipino immigrants, and so on.”

Mason believes there’s a lot to be gained by both social scientists and health care professionals when the two groups work together — in particular, breaking down some of the defensiveness about how each views illness.

“Especially among social scientists who work on illness and disease, there’s often a lot of defensiveness around what's called biological reductionism,” a term social scientists give to the refusal of some biologists to look beyond the direct cause of a disease, like a virus, to the broader person involved. “Social scientists tend to think about disease much more holistically: There’s someone’s community and their family and their experiences and all of this is important in understanding and treating the disease,” Mason said. At the same time, Mason believes social scientists need to take the biological perspective seriously as well.

Mason credits her interdisciplinary training and experiences, including her fellowship research, with giving her the ability to speak the languages of both groups well.

She’ll use these to tap into those experiences in future research. Other topics of interest she’s pursuing include Chinese humanitarian projects in Africa, postpartum depression among low-income women, and Chinese student populations in the United States.

Mason comes to Brown as an assistant professor of anthropology. She’ll teach a course on the anthropology of China in the fall and a graduate seminar on anthropology and bio-ethics in the spring. She also has a faculty affiliation at the Population Studies and Training Center.

Mason said she’s most looking forward to teaching, something she hasn’t done in more than a year, since she took a break from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania for her fellowship last year. She confesses that she enjoys teaching as much as she enjoys research, especially when she’s able to bring her social sciences perspective to the training of pre-med students.

“If you can become a doctor that’s a little bit more aware and attentive to people’s individual circumstances and the families and the communities that they come from and what else might be going on in their lives that’s affecting their experience of disease, then I think that makes you a better doctor. If I can contribute to that in some way then I think that’s really great.”

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