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Sharon Kaufman, PhD

Chair, Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine
Professor Emerita, Medical Anthropology


Sharon Kaufman is a medical anthropologist with research interests in the changing culture and structure of US medicine; end-of-life; aging; subjectivity; the relationship of biotechnologies to ethics, governance and medical practice; the shifting terrain of evidence in clinical science; practices of risk assessment; and the anthropology of forms of life.

The National Institute on Aging and the National Institute on Nursing Research at the NIH funded her research from 1983 – 2013. She is core faculty in the joint Medical Anthropology Program UCSF/UCB and works with medical and nursing students at UCSF.  She lectures frequently at UCSF and UCB and mentors students, post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty from a variety of disciplines.

Her current research explores the ethics and rationality embedded in the structure of the vast US biomedical economy and health care delivery system.  The project investigates the ways in which the clinical trials industry, evidence-based medicine and Medicare reimbursement policy are inextricably linked to the creation of standards of care and ethical practice.  Those standards and ethics, in turn, are shaping societal knowledge and expectations about longevity, normal old age, and the time for death. The result is the unprecedented growth in life-extending procedures for ever-older patients, accompanied by the profound difficulty of saying ‘no’ to them, with consequences for family and medical responsibility, the goals of medicine, and the sustainability of the Medicare program.

Her most recent book, …And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life (Scribner 2005; U. Chicago Press 2006),  describes the role of medical practice and hospital structure in organizing and naming life and death. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in three California hospitals, the research was motivated by the growing cultural conversation of complaint in the US about overly-technological dying and the fact that solutions to the ‘problem’ of death were being articulated almost exclusively in terms of patient decision-making and the doctor-patient relationship, rather than in terms of the structural forces of American hospital culture which emphasize aggressive treatments up to the moment of death. The book won The New Millennium Award (2007) from the Society for Medical Anthropology for most significant contribution to anthropology and to a broad audience.  

Her two previous books are: The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life (1986, cover review, New York Times Book Review and named one of best books in 25 years of University Press publishing) and The Healer’s Tale: Transforming Medicine and Culture (1993, NEJM and JAMA reviews).

Publications