Rebecca J. Lester

Associate Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in Saint Louis

My work sits at the intersection of anthropology, psychiatry, religion, and gender studies. I am 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, I consider how bodily practices deemed "deviant," "extreme," or "pathological"-and local responses to such practices-make visible competing cultural logics of acceptable moral personhood. I have 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"I aim 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.

My 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.