Philip Kao Visiting Assistant Professor

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3302 WWPH
University of Pittsburgh

AB (Chicago), MSc (LSE), PhD (St And)

Philip Kao received his PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews.  His doctoral research was concerned with aging, personhood and the practice of caregiving in an American long-term care facility. He teaches courses in medical anthropology, aging, wisdom, gender, and the anthropology of development. As co-editor of Anthropology & Aging, an open access and internationally peer-reviewed online journal, Philip works towards fostering interdisciplinary dialogues and showcasing comparative research on topics relating to the social and political contexts of aging. 

Research Topics

Medical Anthropology

In addition to his continuing research on the phenomenological and spatio-temporal aspects of aging, Philip has been working on issues of wisdom, exploring the cultural, or rather the historical and metacognitive processes involved in wisdom identification, construction and attainment. Continuing on from his postdoctoral appointment, Philip is in the process of writing a prospectus for an edited volume with Dr. Joseph Alter on wisdom, philosophical anthropology and the ineffable.

His regional and ethnographic specialization continues to be in North America, where he is also working on issues of labor; oil and gas industry ethnography; and the culture and discourse of inequality in and around Williston (Boomtown), North Dakota. Philip is working with Dr. Megan Foreman on a project in Public Anthropology entitled Boomtown and the Culture of American Inequality.

Kao, Philip Y. 2015. “Battling for the Souls of the Disaffected”. Review of Native Evangelism in Central MexicoCurrent Anthropology 56 (5): 773–74.

Kao, Philip with Martinez, I. 2015. ‘Health Disparities in Aging’ in Medicine Anthropology Theory, conference report, 15 July.

Kao, Philip. 2013. ‘When Frost Happens: A Case study of an Organization Committed to Care’ in Anthropology in Action. Volume 20, Number 2, pp. 28-36 and pp. 1-5.

Kao, Philip. 2012. ‘Ta' Pinu: Ritualised Empathy on the Doorstep of Heaven’ in Anthropological Journal of European Cultures. Volume 21, Number 1, pp. 126-145.

Gender in East Asia

This seminar on gender in East Asia is comparative. Themes covered will vary according to the availability of English language materials, student interests, and key issues in each country or region. Topics to be covered (and examined from the perspective of gender and sexuality) include: Migration; work; kinship; love and intimacy; class and violence; and the expression and reappropriation of cultural schema. Materials will be drawn from the social sciences and humanities (including literary works and film), with most readings coming from ethnographic case studies.  The objective of the course is to develop a theoretically and historically situated grasp of gender as a fluid and analytical category. Additionally, students will explore the usefulness and articulation of gender in various spheres of contemporary East Asian social life.

Patients and Healers

This course provides an introduction to medical anthropology, including the study of ethnomedicine, ethnopsychiatry, disease and ecology, the nature of healing, and the political economy of health care systems. Our focus will be on the relationship between health and culture in various social contexts. We will investigate questions of power and inequality on the one hand, and personhood, emotion and the experience and construction of illness on the other. By exploring various case studies, we will be dive deeper, looking at the ways in which medical systems are integrated into larger frameworks of cultural meaning. Following on from a consideration of so-called traditional medicine in the non-Western world, we will analyze the 'objectivity' of Western biomedical science and its various discourses.  Additionally, we will consider specific topics such as the ontology of pain, traditional/alternative healing practices, and the medicalization of aging.

Anthropology of Wisdom (and Aging)

Wisdom is an attribute and a category that has come to encompass various domains of human life and expression. It cannot be defined in any absolute way; it is perhaps best understood arising out of specific contexts and histories. People around the world have conceptualized wisdom in varying ways and degrees. Although there are many pathways to and forms of wisdom, this course does not assume that wisdom is necessarily the by-product of old age. Despite this position, wisdom is still often viewed as the product of experience, the outcome of a seasoned and full life. The elderly are typically those we think of as embodying wisdom. For instance, people around the world often look to their elders for wise counsel on a wide range of matters.

How do people age and think about aging? How is wisdom related to the aging process? Can wisdom be taught, learned or shared? These are just some of the questions that motivate this seminar. Drawing from a range of disciplines and cross-cultural and historical examples, this class seeks to engage wisdom not only as a cultural or experiential by-product, but also as a human endeavor worthy of future research and policy implications. By evaluating various philosophical and scientific approaches to understanding wisdom—along with analyzing key ethnographic case studies that focus on wisdom arising from life situations and the life course, students will be able to appreciate how action, emotion, uncertainty and culture come to bear on ‘big topics’ such as wisdom. 

Anthropology, Development, and Human Rights

The discipline of socio-cultural anthropology—with its history and unique set of attributes—has enabled anthropologists of all stripes to involve themselves intimately with development projects around the world. Although the relationship between anthropology and development is historical, theoretical and political, anthropology has nonetheless been used and consulted by international aid officials and policy makers to design, implement, and assess ‘local’ development projects. The “anthropological perspective” associated with translating/reconstructing the cultural world and dialoguing with others from ‘the ground up’ has paved the way for many successful case studies, leading to a copacetic appreciation of anthropology in development. Anthropologists who either work as applied anthropologists in the field or are employed by organizations such as the World Bank frequently navigate between a diverse set of cultural models and stakeholder agendas.   On the flip side, however, anthropologists have critiqued development as a set of ‘western’ practices and power-laden discourses.  Anthropological studies in this vein have helped to showcase the relative successes (and more often than not, failures) of various development efforts. The anthropologists of development have also analyzed and made much progress in deconstructing the ideological workings of concepts such as human rights, participation and empowerment.  This course will therefore prepare students for thinking about anthropology not only as an academic discipline but also as a tool and application that lends itself to various program interventions, criticisms and collaborations. The readings for this course will shed light on how international aid programs and social/economic development policies operate, and furthermore how knowledge and social/bureaucratic processes develop in and across various sectors such as food security, water, education, and gender equality.  Conceptual topics that this class will investigate include human rights, ‘indigenous’ knowledge, poverty, forms of freedom, social capital, the markets, institutions, civil society, the role of the state, and tradition/modernity.