Anthropologist explores water’s role in Mexico City lives


As Elizabeth Roberts conducted anthropological research in Mexico City in 2013, she noticed the central role of soda consumption in the area’s public health discussions.

Public health officials’ worries about the rates of obesity and soda consumption among the city’s population led to billboards and advertisements warning parents against giving their children soda.

As a medical anthropologist doing field work in the city’s working-class neighborhoods, Roberts found something else at work. For many residents, water was often less accessible and more expensive than soda. Residents also fundamentally distrusted the municipal water supply.

“I was really interested in thinking about how could we understand the systems that are holding soda consumption in place and making it so that it actually doesn’t make sense to drink water, and how can we do that in a way that isn’t just about blaming people for drinking soda,” Roberts said.

Photo of Elizabeth Roberts with a tinaco
Elizabeth Roberts, associate professor of anthropology, stands next to rooftop water tank, known as a tinaco, in Mexico City. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts)

Roberts, associate professor of anthropology, LSA, has continued to pursue these questions about the role of water in people’s lives as the principal investigator for an interdisciplinary project called Neighborhood Environments as Socio-Techno-bio Systems: Water Quality, Public Trust, and Health in Mexico City (NESTSMX).

In this project, Roberts said her team is studying the ways in which the availability of water and residents’ trust in water shapes people’s health and well-being. Roberts said that over the course of nine months, her team is visiting different households, interviewing residents, testing water, and mapping out how different forms of water organization affect factors like health and stress levels.

While some families get water from a tap all day, others get it only a couple of times per week and must store it in cisterns and rooftop tanks. The water comes from municipal pipes or delivery trucks, or both.

The families she collaborates with participate in a larger project Roberts is part of called Early Life Exposures in Mexico to ENvironmental Toxicants (ELEMENT). Through ELEMENT, Roberts works with health scientists in Mexico City who study how chemical exposure has affected three birth cohorts over time.

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Looking back on her career so far, Roberts said she pursued anthropology because she was fascinated by the vast differences among people from around the world. Over time, she became interested in the longstanding anthropological debate over whether culture or biology dictated human characteristics.

“Ever since I began my Ph.D. research, I’ve been interested in why it’s important for people in the United States to maintain that nature/culture divide. In recent decades, medical anthropologists have found that this divide prevents us from understanding how people’s life conditions and bodily conditions are made together,” Roberts said.

In her Ethnographic Coding Lab, Roberts shares her passion for anthropology by giving undergraduate students the opportunity to receive training in coding and analyzing qualitative field notes. By getting access to her team’s field notes, students have gotten a taste of what ethnographic work is like and have developed their own research projects, she said.

“Involving undergraduates in that process is really uncommon in cultural anthropology,” Roberts said. “One thing that’s been great about it is how having other people read your field notes and reflect on them helps you see all kinds of things in them that you didn’t see before.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

I have amazing colleagues in the Department of Anthropology, as well as the Science Technology Studies Program, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. When I try to think of a memorable moment involving them, what immediately comes to mind is just how easy it is to have great conversations around here, and also how much respect there is between faculty members, which also helps students, both grad and undergrad.

What can’t you live without?

Two big thermoses of strong PG Tips black tea every morning, with lots of cream and a little honey.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

1) The Rackham Amphitheater: It’s like the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz.” All that green enchantment enhances anything any speaker says.

2) The Diag, when I ride my bike over loose bricks and it makes a satisfying clopping sound.

What inspires you?

Competence. Watching someone do something they are really, really good at—unless it’s team sports; then, I fall asleep, completely uninspired.

What are you currently reading?

I am reading several different nonfiction books about addiction all at the same time, since I’m also writing a book about it. The last novel I read was “Circe” by Madeline Miller, and before that, “The Broken Earth Trilogy” by N. K. Jemisin. Loved both.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Probably my mother and father. My mother has always asked lots of questions about everyone and how they are connected—great training for an anthropologist. My father is obstinate, which is also useful. And they raised my siblings and me to be accustomed to having lots of people around, which also seems like it was good training for anthropology.


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