Peter Benson

Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology and of Film and Media Studies
PhD, Harvard University
research interests:
  • Critical Global Health
  • Cultural Studies
  • Queer Studies
  • Capitalism
  • Creative Writing
  • United States
  • Guatemala
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    • Washington University
    • CB 1114
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    Peter Benson's research looks at cultural politics and contemporary capitalism in the United States, and the racial assemblages and corporate forms that are related to the production of harm. His primary focus has been the history and ethnography of tobacco agriculture and racialized labor in the American South. He is currently writing an artistic autobiography, a medley of campus novel, pop culture compendium, and survival guide for the end of the world and life during wartime.

    Current Book Project

    My new book, Stuck Moving: Pearl Jam Letters and Lyrics, is part of the “Atelier” series at University of California Press. Blending anthropology, creative writing, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and comedy, this book is a deprecating and challenging autobiography about a professor who struggles to reassemble his broken and fragmented life and make meaning of his profession against the backdrop of a society in shambles and the end of the world. He grapples with drug addiction, mental illness, breakdown, fraught intimacies and domesticities, and meanings of failure and success. Steeped in the popular culture of the long-90s, this memoir scrutinizes fictions of normative masculinity through an embrace of ugly feelings and negative affect—irreverence, cynicism, slackerism, disillusionment, irony, and anger. Dramatic and mundane personal failures and dysfunctions are written into cultural studies of perilous times, conservative politics, societal hypocrisies, endless warfare, spurious entertainment, commercialized higher education, and for-profit humanitarianism. The book asks how downbeat realism and depressive modes are interesting and provocative alternatives for critically engaging a dominant anthropocene solution paradigm marked by the optimisms and enthusiasms of corporatized development and progress. Modestly confronting hopelessness not as epic narrative, but in the mediocrity, disarray, and fraying of the little life, this book is a singular, path-breaking experiment in grunge anthropology and literature.

    Broad Research Program

    Across various projects and publications, my research looks at cultural politics and contemporary capitalism in the United States, and the racial assemblages and corporate forms that are related to the production of harm.  While my primary focus has been the history and ethnography of tobacco agriculture and racialized labor in the American South, I have also explored a range of issues related to the politics of harm, including gun violence, slavery reparations, and football concussions.  I am also concerned with the rise of “corporate social responsibility” campaigns in harmful or hazardous industries such as tobacco and football and the ways that businesses address and influence problem-spaces and debates about ethics and policy.  My scholarship draws on medical anthropology and critical studies in global health and public health and engages conversations in social theory and cultural studies.  My goal has been to produce ethnography and reporting that is richly informed by historical and archival research, critically attendant to political economy and biopolitics, and deeply appreciative of human experience as inspired by my fascination with existentialism and phenomenology.

    Previous Two Books

    My latest book, entitled Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry (Princeton University Press, 2012), combines historical and ethnographic lenses to examine citizenship, racialized farm labor, agricultural industrialization, and economic decline in North Carolina, set against the backdrop of national debates about tobacco-related public health regulation and Latinx immigration.  The book was awarded the 2013 Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial Prize for the Critical Study of North America from the Society for the Anthropology of North America, as well as the 2012 James Mooney Award from the Southern Anthropological Society, and was a finalist for both the 2012 Book Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Work and the 2013 Julian Steward Award from the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association.  

    In addition, I completed a major collaborative research project on structural adjustment, export agriculture, and political violence in highland Guatemala, which culminated in a co-authored book, Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala (Stanford University Press, 2007).  Tracking the commodity chain of the global broccoli trade, this book connects affluent American consumers concerned about their health and diet with Maya farmers desiring and struggling for something better.  Broccoli is a starting point for a broader analysis of the social production of power and desire at multiple levels, such as shifting frameworks of international trade, discourses about health and nutrition, and the vastly uneven worlds that consumers and producers inhabit.

    Prior to coming to Washington University in St. Louis, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University.  My research has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institutes of Health.

    Selected Publications

    Matthew Kohrman and Peter Benson (2019) Tobacco Reconsidered: Ongoing Omissions, Original Outlooks in the Slipstreams of Experience, Global Health, and Critical Industry Studies. Annual Review of Anthropology, in press. 

    Peter Benson (2019) Natural Beauty. In: "Critical Keywords for a Global Rural North America (Special Issue)." Alex Blanchette and Marcel LaFlamme, eds. Journal for the Anthropology of North America 22(2): 90-22.

    Peter Benson (2018) Tobacco Capitalism, An Afterword: Open Letters and Open Wounds in Anthropology. Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21(1): 21-34.  

    Peter Benson (2017) Big Football: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Culture and Color of Injury in America’s Most Popular Sport. Journal of Sport & Social Issues 41(4): 307-334.

    Peter Benson (2017) Apology. Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies 4(1): 60-66.

    Peter Benson (2016) The Crime of Innocence and the Depths of Sorriness: Notes on Apologies and Reparations in the United States. Cultural Dynamics 28(2): 121-141.

    Peter Benson (2015) Conclusion: A Bad Conscience of Justice! In: Privatization and the New Medical Pluralism: Shifting Healthcare Landscapes in Maya Guatemala, pp. 143-156. Anita Chary and Peter Rohloff, eds. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    Peter Benson (2015) Teaching the Experience and Ethics of Consumption and Food Supply. In: Teaching Food and Culture, pp. 99-111. Candice Lowe Swift and Richard R. Wilk, eds. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

    Peter Benson (2015) Assessing Corporate Social Responsibility in the Tobacco Industry. In: Corporate Social Responsibility?: Human Rights in the New Global Economy, pp. 53-71. Charlotte Walker-Said and John D. Kelly, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Peter Benson (2014) Philip Morris, the FDA, and the Paradoxes of Corporate Social Responsibility. In: Cash on the Table: Markets, Values, and Moral Economies, pp. 211-226. Edward F. Fischer, ed. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

    Peter Benson (2014) Year in Review, Public Anthropology, 2013: Webs of Meaning, Critical Interventions. American Anthropologist 116(2):379-389.

    Peter Benson (2014) Corporate Paternalism and the Problem of Harmful Products. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37(2):218-230.

    Peter Benson (2012) Biopolitical Injustice and Contemporary Capitalism. American Ethnologist 39(3):488-490.

    Peter Benson (2012) Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of Global Industry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Matthew Kohrman and Peter Benson (2011) Tobacco. Annual Review of Anthropology 40:329-344.

    Peter Benson, Kedron Thomas, and Edward F. Fischer (2011) Guatemala's New Violence as Structural Violence: Notes from the Highlands. In: Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala. Kevin O'Neill and Kedron Thomas, eds. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Peter Benson (2010) Tobacco Talk: Reflections on Corporate Power and the Legal Framing of Consumption. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 24(4):500-521.

    Peter Benson and Kedron Thomas (2010) After Cultural Competency: Research Practice and Moral Experience in the Study of Brand Pirates and Tobacco Farmers. Qualitative Research 10(6): 679-697.

    Peter Benson (2010) Giants in the Fields: Agribusiness and Farm Labor Politics in the United States. Anthropology of Work Review 31(2):54-70.

    Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch (2010) Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation. Current Anthropology 51(4):459-486.

    Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch (2010) Corporate Oxymorons. Dialectical Anthropology 34(1):45-48.

    Peter Benson (2010) Safe Cigarettes. Dialectical Anthropology 34(1):49-56.

    Peter Benson (2008) El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps. Cultural Anthropology 23(4):589-629.

    Peter Benson (2008) Good Clean Tobacco: Philip Morris, Biocapitalism, and the Social Course of Stigma in North Carolina. American Ethnologist 35(3):357-379.

    Peter Benson, Edward F. Fischer, and Kedron Thomas (2008) Resocializing Suffering: Neoliberalism, Accusation, and the Sociopolitical Context of Guatemala's New Violence. Latin American Perspectives 35(5):38-58.

    Peter Benson and Kevin L. O'Neill (2007) Facing Risk: Levinas, Ethnography, and Ethics. Anthropology of Consciousness 18(2):29-55.

    Arthur Kleinman and Peter Benson (2006) Anthropology in the Clinic: The Cultural Competency Problem and How to Fix It. PLoS Medicine 3(10):e294.

    Edward F. Fischer and Peter Benson (2006) Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Peter Benson (2005) Rooting Culture: Nostalgia, Urban Revitalization, and the Ambivalence of Community at the Ballpark. City and Society 17(1):93-125.

    Arthur Kleinman and Peter Benson (2004) La Vida Moral de los que Sufren Enfermedad y el Fracaso Existencial de La Medicina. Monografías Humanitas 2:17-26.

    Peter Benson (2004) Nothing to See Hear. Anthropological Quarterly 77(3):435-467.

    Broccoli & Desire

    Broccoli & Desire

    By Edward F. Fischer and Peter Benson

    This book takes a surprising look at the hidden world of broccoli, connecting American consumers concerned about their health and diet with Maya farmers concerned about holding onto their land and making a living.

    Compelling life stories and rich descriptions from ethnographic fieldwork among supermarket shoppers in Nashville, Tennessee and Maya farmers in highland Guatemala bring the commodity chain of this seemingly mundane product to life. For affluent Americans, broccoli fits into everyday concerns about eating right, being healthy, staying in shape, and valuing natural foods. For Maya farmers, this new export crop provides an opportunity to make a little extra money in difficult, often risky circumstances. Unbeknownst to each other, the American consumer and the Maya farmer are bound together in webs of desire and material production.

    Tobacco Capitalism Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

    Tobacco Capitalism Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

    Tobacco Capitalism tells the story of the people who live and work on U.S. tobacco farms at a time when the global tobacco industry is undergoing profound changes. Against the backdrop of the antitobacco movement, the globalization and industrialization of agriculture, and intense debates over immigration, Peter Benson draws on years of field research to examine the moral and financial struggles of growers, the difficult conditions that affect Mexican migrant workers, and the complex politics of citizenship and economic decline in communities dependent on this most harmful commodity.

    Benson tracks the development of tobacco farming since the plantation slavery period and the formation of a powerful tobacco industry presence in North Carolina. In recent decades, tobacco companies that sent farms into crisis by aggressively switching to cheaper foreign leaf have coached growers to blame the state, public health, and aggrieved racial minorities for financial hardship and feelings of vilification. Economic globalization has exacerbated social and racial tensions in North Carolina, but the corporations that benefit have rarely been considered a key cause of harm and instability, and have now adopted social-responsibility platforms to elide liability for smoking disease. Parsing the nuances of history, power, and politics in rural America, Benson explores the cultural and ethical ambiguities of tobacco farming and offers concrete recommendations for the tobacco-control movement in the United States and worldwide.