Abigail Dumes joined the Department of Women’s Studies as an Assistant Professor in Fall 2019. We talked with Abby about studying controversy as a medical anthropologist, the moments that inspire her as an educator, and her unexpected work as a safe-water advocate.
Interview conducted and edited by Simon Nyi
Tell me about yourself. How did you become an anthropologist?
I was actually an undergrad anthropology major – I double majored in anthropology and English literature. I grew up as a very enthusiastic Jane Goodall fan, and initially thought I would go into primatology, and then my freshman year, I took a cultural anthropology course, and that was it. There was no turning back. I had a Fulbright year in France after undergrad, where I continued some of the work I had done for my senior honors thesis, and then I started a PhD program in sociocultural anthropology.
What drew you so strongly to anthropology?
I have so many answers to that question! Broadly, I’m just fascinated by all things human, and a discipline that focuses on humankind seemed like a good match. I think anthropology is well suited to those who are interested in a little bit of everything. I liked that it had interdisciplinarity built into it – I could continue to draw from my background in literature, along with philosophy and a range of other disciplines.
So it sounds like an interdisciplinary department like Women’s Studies is a good fit for you.
It’s definitely a natural fit. And gender is something I’ve been interested in since undergrad – it’s been a through line since the beginning.
My work now focuses on the intersection of gender, contested illness, and environmental health. I broadly describe “contested illness” as any bodily condition whose biological basis is in dispute, and these conditions tend to be perceived to be more common among women. My focus has been on Lyme disease, and specifically chronic Lyme disease. In the course I teach, “Gender and Contested Illness,” we also look at a range of other contested illnesses, like chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity, and fibromyalgia.
Your research is obviously timely and relevant right now. How do you situate yourself as a scholar in relation to public conversations about these issues?
What initially drew me to Lyme disease was the controversy – I didn’t realize quite how controversial it was until I started researching it. Much of the project over the last decade has involved thinking about what it means to do an anthropology of controversy. I’ve thought a lot about that methodologically, but also representationally – what it means to represent controversy. As I’m wrapping up my first book project, and continuing to ask questions about environmental health and contested illness and gender, I’m looking at a second project on contaminated water in Michigan.
I think my interest in those issues is foundational to the work I do, and I think it’s particularly well suited to a department like Women’s Studies, in which the bridge between research and advocacy and activism is strong. My second project has begun preliminarily with some unexpected advocacy work in Ann Arbor, around the problem of lead in drinking water in public schools – for about the past year and a half, I’ve been working with a small group of local pediatricians and environmental health professionals to address high levels of lead in schools across the district.
Lead in drinking water has obviously been a major topic since the water crisis in Flint – tell me more about what that looks like in Ann Arbor.
Schools are a particularly risky place for lead exposure, both in older and newer buildings. Because of regulatory loopholes, even newer buildings have plumbing that can leach lead. So in school settings, where you have irregular water use, corrosion control doesn't prevent lead from leaching from plumbing in the way that it might in a site with regular water use. Ann Arbor Public Schools were vulnerable to that.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, Detroit Public Schools announced that they had transitioned to all sources being filtered water, and Ann Arbor is following that [path]. Soon, all drinking and cooking sources in Ann Arbor Public Schools will be filtered.
Since we’re talking about a real-world example of how Women’s Studies bridges scholarship and activism: broadly speaking, what do you hope your students will carry with them as they move through the rest of their education and into the world?
So much! The impact and persistence of structural inequalities in health, science, and medicine is an important takeaway from the courses I teach. And being able to understand the world from someone else's perspective is foundational to anthropology, but also to the social sciences and humanities.
The most meaningful moments for me are when students reach out a semester later, or couple of years later, and take note of how the things we’ve learned together have framed the way they now see the world or tell me about what they’re doing to make the world a better and kinder place. In my short time teaching at Michigan, those have been the most meaningful moments – they’re what inspire me and give me hope for the future.
What’s one thing you’re especially excited about right now here at U of M?
I've just jumped on a collaborative and interdisciplinary project that's funded by the Humanities Collaboratory called “Expanding the Reach of the Global Feminisms Oral History Archive,” which is part of the Global Feminisms Project based here at U of M. It’s a two-year grant. I’ve been working on that since May, and I’m looking forward to the next couple years.
I’m also excited about the way it intersects with my future research. As part of my [next research] project, I’m interviewing five US-based activists and scholars who are working on gender, environment, and health. That'll be next summer.
What’s one thing you’re especially excited about right now that’s completely outside of your work here?
I’m excited about just getting to root down in Ann Arbor. We moved here five years ago and didn’t know how long we’d stay. And now that we know we’re staying, I’m just really looking forward to continuing to root down and make this our home.