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Unpacking Community and Identity with Anthropologist Robin G. Nelson

headshot of AAAS Fellow Robin Nelson
AAAS Member Robin G. Nelson, Ph.D.

In a typical zombie movie, humans tend to run away from the undead – away from the danger. AAAS Member and anthropologist Robin G. Nelson, Ph.D., became fascinated with zombie films during the pandemic and how our society, instead of turning away from our present danger, put ourselves in the midst of it, despite the health risks involved. This shift in our perception of danger made an impact on Nelson’s perspective of community and of identity.

“I didn’t expect people to step into the danger of COVID, to be so tied to their identities, that they are willing to risk their own health rather than accept the vulnerability that COVID presented.”

Just like every industry and field, COVID changed the ways in which we think and operate – especially in science. “[COVID] has me rethinking what we consider to be community and who we consider ourselves to be invested in … the idea of a shared identity, a shared existence, is much more fragile than I understood it to be before the pandemic. I thought our sense of community was more resilient than that.”

Nelson’s work has been built on this very notion of community – how we invest in our relationships and treat others in our space. Her research specifically focuses on how parents and family members invest in children and how the relationship between caretaker and child eventually impacts childhood development.   

As an anthropologist focused on evolution, Nelson and peers in her field have been interested in questions of caretaker relationships for decades. Past studies in this discipline analyzed foraging communities and non-human primates as well.

“The relationship between primary caretaker, often mother, and child are so central to our species, so we need to think of the adaptive nature of these relationships in contemporary settings.”

These questions led Nelson to concentrate her research on the Caribbean due to its dynamic financial relationships with global powerhouses such as the United States and Canada, where caretaking labor is often outsourced. She conducted two studies in Jamaica which revealed an undeniable link between the global market and the culture of caretaking in Jamaica. Jamaicans often travel overseas for work, and caretaking, in a culture so reliant on the central family, often biological parents, now becomes reliant on public services such as orphanages, further impacting childhood development and complicating how communities are formed.  

Nelson presented this research at the AAAS 2022 Annual Meeting in February, where she discussed the “care conundrum” – unpacking the intersections of socio-economic class, access to kin care support, and moralizing conceptualizations of "normal" human familial behavior.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, Nelson was interested in researching Caribbean women of caretaking age moving to Canada, where universal healthcare is a staple, and if access to healthcare impacts peoples’ biologies and relationships. But this gets complicated as people are not moving freely, and reunification and studying its impacts are now different – another barrier presented by a pandemic that continues to alter our sense of identity.

Though Nelson’s project has been pushed back, there are parts of research that just need more time, and the science community must be patient with data gathering.

“There is a discussion in science right now on a need for slow science, and anthropology was always a slow science,” says Nelson. “But there are things that just take time.” For her work, this means that how she studies migration, unification, employment and caretaking will change in ways that she cannot foresee just yet. “We’re going to see really interesting aspects of caretaking emerge not just after two to three years, but also after a worldwide traumatic event like a pandemic. Reunification between caretakers and children will be different from what we see right now.”

While the future outcomes of Nelson and her peers’ scientific research are to be discovered, what we can do now is advance equity in science and use this moment in time as an opportunity to better the scientific community and better our society, she says.

“Some scientists understand that having a mind towards equity and justice in their lab and research spaces improve their outcomes; however, there has to be a way of valuing equity and justice even if it doesn’t reward us in our careers. Valuing equity and justice should be enough, if it meant our survival, which is what is happening with COVID,” explains Nelson.

People with power and influence are often insulated to the risks that marginalized communities must put themselves in order to survive. But as we live through a zombie film, aren’t we all in danger? At risk?

Nelson believes that we can get to a point of a more equitable community and our fragmented, shared existence can once again become whole.

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