Rebecca J. Lester's work sits at the intersection of anthropology, psychiatry, religion, and gender studies. She is interested in how individuals experience existential distress, and how this distress manifests as psychiatric symptoms, religious angst, somatic pain, and other culturally informed bodily conditions.
Specifically, Lester considers how bodily practices deemed "deviant," "extreme," or "pathological"-and local responses to such practices-make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. She has been most intrigued by the ways in which subjective experiences of suffering are systematically targeted for change through the cultivation of different forms of body discipline (e.g., in a convent or an eating disorders treatment center) and how institutions shape, but do not entirely dictate, these processes. Through the ethnographic study of extreme bodily experiences and their institutional "scaffolding" she aims to understand cultural processes of meaning making as collaborative, agentic, and morally imbued, and how such meaning assumes motivational force for individuals; that is, how people use their bodies to navigate competing cultural and moral frames in order to make sense of the world and their place in it.
Her work to date has taken the form of five major intellectual projects, each of which grapples with different aspects of these core themes and has produced distinct (though inter-referential) sets of publications.