One Health Newsletter

One Health Newsletter: Volume 15 Issue 1

Exploring the Relationship Between Anthropology and Public Health: Interview With Dr. Steven Corbett


Jenny Masculine

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public health can be defined as “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts of society1.” This includes actions supporting public health services that provide an environment where people can continue to be healthy, advance their own health and well-being and prevent the worsening of their health. To support these national initiatives, anthropology, which is broadly defined as the study of what makes us human, can explore the complex relationships between society and individuals is anthropology.2 With anthropological theories intertwining with public health’s methods in teaching and research, more public health practitioners are working alongside anthropologists to address emerging health challenges.

The union created between public health and anthropology can be seen in large public health departments and academia. Currently, Dr. Steve Corbett, the Kansas Department of Health Environment’s (KDHE) Senior Chronic Disease Epidemiologist, practices public health and anthropology. In this article, I describe an interview with Dr. Corbett, where he shared his experiences and perspectives about the relationship between anthropology and public health.

What made you want to pursue schooling in anthropology? I saw that you started from your undergrad and pursued a PhD in the discipline. I know that not a lot of people know what they want to do and will switch majors in their undergrad or will pursue a different graduate degree.

I started out as a history major, education actually. My focus was on history, social studies, etc. I learned that teaching didn’t pay very well, so I started taking different classes out of interest. I came across one called, “The Biology of Organisms,” that was very evolutionarily centric. Because I always had an interest in varied sciences, I became interested in evolution. The next class I took the following semester was an anthropology class, which connected this interest in evolution with human evolution. That is where it kind of started.

Is a higher degree necessary to pursue a career in anthropology or did you pursue higher education for personal reasons?

If you’re going to have an interest in anthropology as a career beyond a bachelor’s degree, you must get a masters because the undergraduate training is in all four fields. The reason being is that students get exposed to the four-field focus as an undergrad. There’s a lot to learn and, you have to take a class in each field. When completed, you’re well versed in anthropology, but not prepared to do any anthropology. If you want to have a career, it’s going to require at least a master’s degree.

I noticed that at some universities, you could do a PhD in biological or cultural anthropology and focus on global health and medical anthropology. I’ve been seeing an increase in programs across the United States similar to this, in which you can do two PhDs, or a PhD and an master’s in public health (MPH). Is this because there is an increase in interest in the two disciplines working together?

Yes, I think KU (University of Kansas) has a combination PhD/MPH in the anthropology department. It’s a relatively new thing that has been going on for maybe 15 years.

You mentioned you had a focus on the indigenous population living in Kansas?

Yes, I’ve done my masters degree work on a group because of my advisor. She did her work in African populations- indigenous African. The opportunity to do that type of work at the PhD level was limited. I was working at KU Med (University of Kansas Medical Center) in the Center of Aging. We already had some programs where we were training students at KU med to work in rural areas and areas where the population was medically underserved. We had sites at the two of the four reservations here in Kansas. Initially, I started to manage that program, and eventually, I saw opportunities, primarily in high rate of diabetes in American Indians, and looking at disease from a public health standpoint. Particularly the high rate of diabetes in American Indians. American Indian populations have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. I began looking at the theories behind why that would be. These were important ideas in genetic anthropology; the topic of the thrifty genotype, as well as the new world syndrome, which was built on the thrifty genotype. The New World Syndrome describes indigenous people in North Americas, and those residing in the islands of the Pacific. When exposed to a European style diet, you saw dramatic increases in obesity and diabetes, the idea being that there is some genetic component of this increase. So that’s when I ended up being interested in it. There is an evolutionary and genetic component as to why people can have high rates of diabetes in a population that previously, only at the beginning of the 20th century, were seen as being almost immune to diabetes.

What made you interested in public health? What made you apply for the senior chronic disease epidemiologist position?

After I got my masters degree, I worked mostly in public health with KU Med for about 7 years with the Center of Aging. My boss had her PhD in anthropology and was a nurse. I went to work for her, primarily as a research analyst, where we focused on two things—to educate KU Med students on issues particular to geriatric patients and to identify what kind of things would a health professional need to know when dealing with geriatric patients. Educating KU Med students on issues particular to geriatric patients, what kind of things would a health professional need to know when dealing with geriatric patients. Secondly, we started working with rural and underserved areas. This was when I started working with the tribes in Kansas and became interested in the diabetes problem within the American Indian population. Because I was already trained as an anthropologist and working at KU Med, I had a good background in health, which seemed to fit naturally. I saw over time this was something that was growing in anthropology, medical anthropology. As people started to recognize the value of having that (ethnographic) ability, understanding different cultures have different ways of viewing things and doing things, that might help in addressing public health problems like diabetes.

Do you have any ideas regarding the future of public health departments that you’ve seen on the local level? Could we see an increase in anthropologists or methods you were talking about earlier?

I think you will see a change more in the academic realm and in larger public health agencies like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and state health departments. Local health departments, if they have the resources, might be able to utilize anthropologists, but so many of them, particularly in Kansas, don’t have a lot of funding and don’t have much in the way of staffing to get somebody specialized. Some don’t even have an epidemiologist, never mind one that is trained in anthropology.

What do you think the two disciplines could learn from one another?

There’s no question that anthropology is going to learn from the methodology and terminology of epidemiology. There are important concepts like incidence, prevalence, morbidity, illness, and death. There’s one textbook I taught in physical anthropology that had an entire chapter on biological anthropology, and one of the first things that was introduced was, “What is the terminology of epidemiology and what does it tell?” and "Why is it important to be aware of socio, cultural, and biological circumstances in trying to describe the health of the population statistically?” Similarly, epidemiology is now focusing more on addressing health disparities and the social determinants of health, recognizing that anthropology can bring that approach when dealing with social determinants of health. What are going to be the specific needs and issues of a population; an anthropological perspective can bring insight. Depending on if you’re looking at these biological aspects, such as, if you’re working with a Native American tribe, there are certain disparities. Are these disparities from biology, culture, both? What’s going on? The only way to develop, let’s say, an educational intervention program, is to understand how much of it is cultural, how much is it biological, how much is it historical, etc. That’s what anthropologists have brought to the field. This kind of appreciation of efforts to address the health disparities in populations should take account of the specific cultural and environmental circumstances within the population you are working with. This makes it easier to work with the population.



  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Introduction to Public Health: Public Health 101 Series. Published August 3, 2022. Accessed April 11, 2022.

  2. The American Anthropological Association. What is Anthropology? Published 2019. Accessed April 11, 2022.

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One Health Newsletter

The One Health Newsletter is a collaborative effort by a diverse group of scientists and health professionals committed to promoting One Health. This newsletter was created to lend support to the One Health Initiative and is dedicated to enhancing the integration of animal, human, and environmental health for the benefit of all by demonstrating One Health in practice.

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