Melissa Burch, assistant professor of anthropology, joins the Anthropology department at the University of Michigan. As a socio-cultural anthropologist, her work aims to shed light on dynamics of persistent racial and economic inequality. Burch focuses on incarceration, prisoner reentry, background checks, and discriminatory hiring in the United States. She hopes to produce insight that may be of use to those working to challenge these dynamics. “I am thrilled to pursue this line of research within one of the most vibrant and intellectually rigorous anthropology departments in the United States and also excited about the potential at UM for cross-disciplinary collaborations,” said Burch.
Burch kicks off the semester with her course “Anthropology of Crime, Criminalization, and Punishment” (ANTHRCUL 356). “This course explores how crime and criminality are socially constructed through the politics of race, class, gender and sexuality, as well as the material practices and processes of criminalization--how particular groups of people get labeled, treated and tracked as criminal--and the use of imprisonment and various forms of post-release surveillance and control,” said Burch. “We’ll draw from a range of interdisciplinary texts, while at the same time exploring the contributions of anthropology.”
Graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, Burch is thrilled to continue her scholarship at the University of Michigan and looks forward to working with UM students. “My engagement with UM students will undoubtedly help me with my goal to effectively communicate my research and analysis to a broad audience,” said Burch. “In turn, I hope to help students build their capacity to critically analyze the debates around race, punishment and inequality that have come to define our times.”
Burch stated that her interest in Anthropology began when she was a teenager before she knew the field existed. She recalls trying to understand a neighbor’s opposition to the construction of minimum security prison for women nearby. She did not agree with their position but found herself wanting to understand their attitudes towards the project. Later in life, Burch’s time spent in Chiapas and Oaxaca Mexico and the Zapatista uprising sparked her internalization of the concept of cultural relativism and her awareness of different worldviews.
Burch cites her mentors as the source of her inspiration to become a scholar. “I had the privilege of being taught by amazing anthropologists--Dan Chodorkoff at the Institute for Social Ecology in Plainfield, Vermont, Gustavo Esteva at the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico, Martha Ward and Jeffrey Ehrenreich at the University of New Orleans and Charles Hale, Edmund T. Gordon, Shannon Speed and Joao Costa Vargas at the University of Texas at Austin,” said Burch. “These scholars have had a major impact on my development, both as an anthropologist and as a human being.”
Currently, Burch’s article, “To Bear the Mark: Living the Criminal Record in the United States” is under review by the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute as part of a special issue engaging with “captivity,” in collaboration with a diverse group of thinkers, including two additional Anthropology faculty, Jatin Dua and Andrew Shryock.