My research among Tibetans living in the highlands of Nepal, China, and India occupies the interdisciplinary space between anthropology and demography. I use the quantitative tools of demography to understand what is happening with a population, for example, the timing and magnitude of a fertility decline, or the pattern of out-migration. At the same time I use the qualitative tools of ethnography to understand the driving forces behind those trends, and how they impact the lives of individuals. Working across disciplines poses many challenges, yet offers many rewards such as conducting collaborative research with like-minded colleagues on topics (population regulation, migration, family and kinship, development, ageing, evolution, health) that are central to anthropology and the social sciences.
Research in Nubri and Tsum, Nepal
Since starting Ph.D. fieldwork in 1995 I have continuously visited the Tibetan enclaves in northern Gorkha District, Nepal, to study local history, family management strategies, demographic trends, and a host of other topics. I return regularly to the region for research and to assist with projects sponsored by Nepal SEEDS. I am grateful to a host of organizations for supporting my research in Nubri and Tsum Fulbright-Hays, Wenner-Gren, NSF, World Oral Literature Project, the Rubin Foundation, and Washington University.
Collaborations with Physical Anthropologists
In 2012 I was co-PI with Cynthia Beall (Case Western) and Sienna Craig (Dartmouth) on a project titled “Genes and the Fertility of Tibetan Women at High Altitude in Nepal.” This NSF-funded study of natural selection seeks to discover if women who have the genetic adaptation to high altitude experience more births and a higher survival rate for their children than women who do not have the same adaptation. For this project we collected reproductive histories, blood measurements (through a non-invasive technique, and saliva for DNA analysis from 1,000 women aged 40+ living at 10,000ft. and above in Mustang, Nubri, and Tsum, Nepal.
In 2013 I was co-PI with E.A. Quinn (Washington University) on a project titled “Milk with Altitude: Investigations into Milk Composition and Physiology among Tibetans” that was funded by the Wenner-Gren and Leakey Foundations. The research seeks to identify the role that milk plays in human adaptation to the stresses of living at high altitude. We collected milk samples from over 100 women, in addition to undertaking a lengthy breastfeeding survey, gathering reproductive histories, and interviewing local medical practitioners concerning traditional Tibetan views on mother’s milk.
Economic Development and Intergenerational Relations in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China
This NSF-funded collaborative project with Melvyn Goldstein (Case Western Reserve University) and Puchung Wangdui (Tibet Academy of Social Sciences) challenges the notion that rapid social and economic changes have predominantly negative impacts on the well-being of the elderly in developing settings. We demonstrate how the elderly can act as agents of change through their strategies to keep adult children beholden to the household. We have also provided some of the most in-depth, on site perspectives on social, economic, and demographic changes occurring in Tibet in the wake of China’s massive development efforts.
Land Tenure, Family Management Strategies, and Fertility Outcomes in a Historical Tibetan Population
This research was undertaken with the support of a Mellon Fellowship in Anthropological Demography at the Australian National University. Through contacts in Dharamsala, India, I located a 1958 household register from Kyirong District, Tibet, that was kept for taxation purposes under the old Tibetan administrative system. I tracked down and interviewed about 150 people who were listed in the document and still alive to interview them about their families, polyandrous marital preference, economic practices, relationship with the government, and so forth. I also pioneered a method for analyzing the demographic data in order to generate estimates of fertility and population growth.
The Politics of Family Planning among Tibetan Exiles in South Asia
This project derived from my documentation of demographic changes among Tibetan exiles during the 1990s which highlighted a paradox: how could fertility decline so rapidly in the context of a strong pronatalist movement? As it turned out, individual families’ concerns over raising high-quality children trumped nationalistic calls to produce many offspring for the benefit of the nation.