M. Ellen Block

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Population Studies

Office: 305-2 Mencoff Hall
Tel: (401) 863-6182
Fax: (401) 863-3351


Ellen Block received her PhD in Anthropology and Social Work from the University of Michigan in 2012.  Her ongoing research examines how the AIDS pandemic has affected orphan care and the structure and makeup of the family in rural Lesotho. From an ethnographic perspective, she explores how everyday strategies of household caregiving practices have led to wider demographic shifts in the wake of the AIDS pandemic. She has noted a shift toward care by maternal grandmothers, despite the idealized importance of patrilineal social organization. Block’s work emphasizes the deeply biocultural nature of HIV/AIDS. While HIV may be contracted through casual sexual relationships, it spreads primarily through family and sexual lines and impacts interpersonal relationships in ways that other deadly infectious diseases do not. Her work showcases Basotho’s experiences of AIDS that emerge in the intimate spaces of family life, while focusing on the intersections of biomedicine and culture. Block is currently working on several journal articles and a book manuscript. 

 Block’s most recent fieldwork investigates a potentially devastating emergent demographic shift.  Grandmothers, who currently carry the majority of the burden of care for AIDS orphans, are part of the last generation of virtually HIV-free southern Africans. As this generation of grandparents passes away, her research investigates the impact this demographic shift will have on everyday practices of orphan care.  What kinds of new challenges will exist for Basotho families as this generation of elderly caregivers dies?  What are the social and economic consequences for orphans in this context?  How will families negotiate for the placement of children within kin-based networks or outside of them? In answering these questions, Block highlights precisely how responses to the passing of this generation of grandmothers impacts cultural ideals and practices of care and relatedness, and illuminates the broader demographic trends that are emerging as a result of this new crisis in care.  


Aging, Development, Ethnography, Gender, Global health, Globalization, HIV/AIDS, Households and household migration, Kinship and social organization, Lesotho, Medical anthropology, Orphan care, southern Africa