Elisa Sobo

Professor of Anthropology and Director of Undergraduate Research, College of Arts and Letters, San Diego State University

About Elisa

Sobo is a medical anthropologist whose research focuses on complementary and alternative approaches to health, the challenges such approaches pose to mainstream medicine, and the ways mainstream medicine works with as well as against them. Sobo's research overarching themes include expertise, authoritative knowledge, trust, social belonging, conspiracy theories, stigma, and bias. Sobo's current research focuses on 'sound baths'; her recent publications address land acknowledgments, dissenting views regarding COVID-19, vaccine equity, and pediatric vaccination selectivity.


Beyond the Vaccination Rift

In the News

Guest to discuss the impact of generative AI on higher education on The Faculty Futures Lab at SDSU, Elisa Sobo, October 10, 2023.
Interview on Conspiracy Theories, Social Justice, and Inequality Elisa Sobo, Culture & Inequality Podcast, June 26, 2022.
Guest to discuss vaccine hesitancy on FOX 2 KTVU, Elisa Sobo, July 25, 2021.
"What Does the American Dream Have to do With the COVID-19 Vaccine?," Elisa Sobo, Crisis, Sapiens, February 25, 2021.
Elisa Sobo's research on how childhood immunization delay and refusal is cultivated in networks of parents discussed by Martha Lincoln, "The Missing Link of Biden’s COVID Strategy: Social Scientists," The Hill, November 23, 2020.
"Routine, Back-to-School Vaccinations Double in Value During a Pandemic," Elisa Sobo, Opinion, Times of San Diego, August 12, 2020.
Guest to discuss Beyond the Vaccination Rift on Sapiens: A Podcast for Everything Human, Elisa Sobo, November 5, 2019.
"Worried About Measles? Bashing Alternative Schools Won’t Help," Elisa Sobo, Times of San Diego, September 6, 2019.
Guest to discuss the reluctance of families to vaccinate their children on MPR News, Elisa Sobo, April 26, 2019.
"Medical Anthropologist Explores 'Vaccine Hesitancy'," Elisa Sobo, Interview with Audie Cornish, All Things Considered, NPR News, February 13, 2019.


"The Anthropology of Power, Agency, and Morality" (with Victor de Munck) (Manchester University Press, 2022).

Seeks to inspire new generations of anthropologists to revisit Bailey's seminal texts, to help them navigate their way through the ethnographic thicket of their own research.

"Could ChatGPT Prompt a New Golden Age in Higher Education?" Teaching and Learning Anthropology 6, no. 1 (2023).

Discuses the rise of ChatGPT and students' use of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI or AI) for school assignments. Suggests ways educators can adapt to chatbot-related challenges, and reframe them as opportunities.

"Addressing COVID-19 Vaccination Equity for Hispanic/Latino Communities by Attending to Aguantarismo: A Californian US–Mexico Border Perspective" (with Griselda Cervantes, Diego A. Ceballos, and Corinne McDaniels-Davidson ). Social Science & Medicine 305 (2022).

Delimits and discusses the cultural value of aguantarismo (agentic forbearance), as expressed among a sample of Hispanic/Latino people living/working in southern San Diego during the initial COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. Highlights aguantarismo's structural context, bypassing culture-blaming. Explories how the enduring need to ‘bear up’ corresponds with low vaccine uptake for some and high uptake for others. Demonstrates how ‘hesitant’ people can choose vaccination; non-vaccinators are not always ‘hesitant’. Underscores the multi-directional utility of cultural values like aguantarismo.

"Cultural Conformity and Cannabis Care in the Wake of Intractable Pediatric Epilepsy" Anthropology and Medicine 28, no. 2 (2021): 205-222 .

Discusses how biomedicine controls seizures for many children with epilepsy – but not all. In such cases, parents struggle in the wake of various structural, cultural, and corporeal ruptures. Continues use of ineffective medications can lead, iatrogenically, to frightening and serious symptoms and debilitations whose effects, along with those of uncontrolled seizures, ripple outward in challenging ways.

"Conspiracy Theories in Political-Economic Context: Lessons From Parents With Vaccine and Other Pharmaceutical Concerns" Journal for Cultural Research 25, no. 1 (2021): 51-68 .

Explains that profit-boosting manipulation and subterfuge are axiomatic to late-stage US capitalism, even in healthcare. Demonstrates how acknowledgments of this can overextend into ‘false beliefs’ using data from Southern Californian parents who vaccinate selectively and those treating intractable pediatric epilepsy with cannabis; and I explore appropriate responses.

"More Than a Teachable Moment: Black Lives Matter" (with Helen Lambert and Corliss D. Heath). Anthropology & Medicine 27, no. 3 (2020): 243-248 .

Discusses the aftermath of George Floyd’s senseless execution on 25 May 2020, in commemoration of and in opposition to countless similar instances of police brutality against unarmed Black Americans and waves of solidarity pulsing through US streets and surged internationally in protests, demonstrations, and vigils. Elaborates on how the Black Lives Matter movement is not soley about George Floyd, but involves all individuals whose lives have been lost by racisim.

"Parent Use of Cannabis for Intractable Pediatric Epilepsy: Everyday Empiricism and the Boundaries of Scientific Medicine" Social Science & Medicine 190 (2017): 190-198.

Explores how parents have begun experimenting with cannabis for their children (and navigating its stigma) with little or no help from authorized experts. Finds that most participants thought highly of mainstream medicine, and took an impressively empirical approach toward developing cannabis regimens for their children.

"What is Herd Immunity, and How Does It Relate to Pediatric Vaccination Uptake? US Parent Perspectives" Social Science & Medicine 165 (2016): 187-195.

Interviews and surveys U.S. parents with at least one child kindergarten age or younger. Finds that very few cared about or understood herd immunity, and that those who had heard of it saw it as not just unnecessary but unproven, illogical, unrealistic, and unreliable. Aims to understand how the public make use of scientific information in relation to parent role expectations and American individualism.

"Information Curation among Vaccine Cautious Parents: Web 2.0, Pinterest Thinking, and Pediatric Vaccination Choice" (with Arianna Huhn, Autumn Sannwald, and Lori Thurman). Medical Anthropology 35, no. 6 (2016): 529-546.

Surveys and interviews 53 U.S. parents with at least one child kindergarten age or younger regarding vaccine decision making, Finds that fully vaccinating parents mostly saw vaccination as routine while, in contrast, selective and non-vaccinating parents exhibited the type of self-informed engagement that the health care system recommends. Highlights that their positions on vaccination were not uniform or unilateral; rather, they were keyed to individual children's biologies, child size, environmental hazards, specific diseases, and discrete vaccines. 

"Anthropologists in the VA: A Generative Force" Annals of Anthropological Practice 37, no. 2 (2014).

Argues that anthropologists employed by the VA are responsible for some of the most important and actionable anthropologically informed health research today. Proposes that VA anthropology is in fact a generative force within anthropology as well as a vital practical pursuit.

"High Physical Activity Levels in a Waldorf School Reflect Alternative Developmental Understandings" Education and Health 31, no. 1 (2013).

Outlines the developmental framework underlying Waldorf education's approach and then describes how teachers put it to use in relation to the call for getting students moving.

"Selling Medical Travel to US Patient-Consumers: The Cultural Appeal of Website Marketing Messages" (with Elizabeth Herlihy and Mary Bicker). Anthropology & Medicine 18, no. 1 (2011): 119-136.

Discusses how more U.S.-based patients than ever are traveling abroad for medical or dental services. Highlights how themes linking healthcare consumerism to culturally specific identity ideals and self-creation/representations processes dominated. Emphasizes that themes relating to the demonstration of social position, savvy expression of good consumer judgment, and achievement of libertarian ideals figured highly.