Dr. Alison Heller is an Assistant Professor who specializes in medical anthropology, anthropology of humanitarianism and development, reproductive health and obstetric violence, and health inequities in sub-Saharan Africa. Using a political economy approach, Ali’s research focuses on the clinical encounter between the disempowered and the biomedical establishment. She explores the interplay between gender, circumscribed agency, poverty, structural violence, and the biomedical apparatus in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, her research examines how humanitarian organizations represent the bodies of women in the Global South. She critiques the ways in which distant, gendered suffering is passively viewed and consumed, and ultimately commodified and medicalized by the Global North. Using the birthing injury obstetric fistula in the West African country of Niger as a lens, her research addresses the embodied experience of injury, infertility, and disability. Dr. Heller’s research explores how social stigma affects women internally and externally, altering their perceptions of self and their relationships with their spouses and co-wives, families, and communities. Her work unravels popular understandings of stigma and offers new ways to think about the concept.
Ali’s work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Hays, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, PEO International, the Olin Fellowship for Women, the Worldwide Fistula Fund, and the School for Advanced Research. Her 2015 dissertation, “Interrogating the Superlative Sufferer: Experiencing Obstetric Fistula and Treatment Seeking in Niger” received the Society for Medical Anthropology Dissertation Award. 


Areas of Interest

  • Medical anthropology, global and reproductive health, obstetric violence, health inequities, sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa, Niger, social stigma, infertility, disability, humanitarianism and development studies, obstetric fistula, qualitative research


  • Degree Type
    Degree Details
    Cultural Anthropology- Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri (2015)
  • Degree Type
    Degree Details
    Cultural Anthropology - Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri (2011)
Alison Heller
0107 Woods Hall
Department of Anthropology
aheller [at] umd.edu