Postdoc Profiles

Ellen Block, Postdoctoral Research Associate, 2012

Ellen assists a grandmother with the maize harvest, Mokhotlong, Lesotho.Ellen assists a grandmother with the maize harvest, Mokhotlong, Lesotho."My academic aspirations are fueled by my love of ethnographic fieldwork. It is fascinating, engaging, challenging and affords a view into the inner lives of people that helps increase our understanding of cultural diversity as well as global inequality."

 - Ellen Block    

Education Background

Ellen Block received her PhD in Anthropology and Social Work from the University of Michigan in 2012. As a W. K. Kellogg Family Fellow in Children and Families, she conducted fieldwork in Lesotho for her dissertation entitled “Infected Kin: AIDS, Orphan Care, and the Basotho Family,” which won awards from the University of Michigan and the International Association of Qualitative Inquiry.  Her research examines the impact of HIV/AIDS on orphan care and the family in Lesotho, southern Africa.

Research Interests

Ellen is currently working on her book, “AIDS is a Kinship Disease: Orphan Care and the Changing Family in Lesotho.” This book accounts for how AIDS’ impact on kinship goes beyond the individual who is sick, while recognizing that AIDS has become a proxy for the social anxieties that exist in the contemporary world.  These anxieties stem from evasive and indirect factors such as economic and structural inequalities, modernization and changing gender roles. The ethnographic case study at the center of this book is the conundrum of how, when, and why extended family members care for AIDS orphans in rural Lesotho.  The book argues that AIDS is at the center of a crisis in African kinship and that orphan care provides a lens through which to examine the complex webs of belief, social relations, biomedical practices, and structural realities which characterize that crisis.

Ellen recently returned from Lesotho last spring, where she explored a demographic shift that is on the near horizon. Grandmothers are considered ideal caregivers for orphans in Africa both because of the cultural expectation that they will provide care and affection, and because they have not been decimated by AIDS to the same extent as the so-called “missing generation” of sexually active adults. However, these grandmothers, who currently carry the majority of the burden of care for AIDS orphans, are themselves aging and dying. During her most recent visit, Ellen interviewed grandmothers caring for orphaned grandchildren, and with caregivers who were caring for children because their grandmother had died.  She seeks to understand the range of experiences orphans and caregivers have in dealing with this generational shift in the context of high dependence on care by grandmothers, and to understand how this is changing social structures, concepts of relatedness, and caregiving practices, as well as other social and economic factors such as educational access, gender roles, and labor force participation. 

What’s Next?

In addition to working on her book manuscript, Ellen is working on several journal articles and hopes to return to Lesotho soon to continue her investigation of the mortality of grandmothers.   

To learn about what other PSTC postdocs are doing, click here.