Aaron Denham, PhD
BS, MA University of Idaho
PhD University of Alberta 2008
Medical, sociocultural, and psychological anthropology
- child mortality and infanticide
- reproduction and childhood
- development and health
- mental health
- historical trauma
- the anthropology of place
- subjective experience and meaning
- anthropological and psychoanalytic theory
- West Africa and Native North America
As a medical and socio-cultural anthropologist, Dr. Denham
is interested in the social and cultural dimensions of illness, wellness, and
healing. Specifically, he is interested
in how people experience, understand, and derive meaning from misfortune,
distress, and illness within their larger lifeworld. His research is integrative, situating
interpretive and meaning-centered perspectives within the social,
political-economic, and ecological contexts.
He frequently incorporates interdisciplinary perspectives
within the areas of international health, development, and demography. He also offers experience in the anthropology
of childhood and psychological anthropology.
Dr. Denham’s most recent research addresses the socio-cultural
context and multi-vocal discourse surrounding the perception of “infanticide”
among the Nankani people of Northern Ghana.
Although the primary causes of infant and child mortality in Northern
Ghana are related to parasitic and environmental factors, local discourse
suggests that a number of these deaths are facilitated through intentional
poisoning by family members. Community
members and health researchers posit that deformed or ailing children, births
concurrent with tragic events, or children displaying unusual abilities are
“spirit children” sent to destroy the family.
Denham’s ethnographic research uncovered significant
variation in the ways families perceive and respond to spirit children. He also illustrates what the spirit child
myth and discourse reveals about the Nankani socio-cultural world, how it is
closely associated with local reproductive and health issues and, ultimately,
how the spirit child exemplifies concerns regarding familial boundaries and
Denham’s previous research and publication topics include an
examination of the models and metaphors of mental health and healing in an
Inuit community, ethnographic research with the Coeur d'Alene and Nez Perce
people, and research into intergenerational transmission of identity and
historical trauma. He continues to write
and present on topics related to historical trauma. He also has experience as a child and family
mental health counselor.
Dr. Denham teaches both undergraduate and graduate
students. He is interested in involving
students in his research as well as working with students that have a range of
regional and topical interests.
Current research and applied projects
Ongoing research in Northern Ghana
Dr. Denham’s on-going research in northern Ghana addresses
the influence of social change, development, biomedical paradigms, and
community education programs on the understanding of illness, reproductive
risk, and the spirit child phenomenon.
He is currently studying Nankani understandings of bush
spirits and what they reveal about changing social relationships and concerns
regarding development and modernity. He
is also studying the narrative and meaning-making dimensions of Nankani
divination in relation to misfortune.
Additionally, Dr. Denham is interested in the ways in which
the spirit child discourse parallels themes that arise within the Oedipus myth.
This research involves a close examination of intergenerational relationships,
moral imagination, an evaluation of the relevance of psychoanalytic theories in
the West African context, and a reexamination of Meyer Fortes’ work concerning
Oedipus among the neighboring Tallensi.
Engineers Without Borders
Dr. Denham is a co-advisor for the NAU chapter of Engineers
Without Borders (EWB), a non-profit humanitarian organization established to
collaborate with communities in the development of sustainable projects aimed
at improving health and well-being.
Recent EWB projects increased community members’ access to
clean water, installed solar lighting in a school, and improved the local
health clinic in Yua, Ghana. Future
projects will continue to address the water needs, health issues, and
agricultural concerns of people living in the Yua/Sirigu area.
His work with EWB has also resulted in the co-creation of an
intensive summer course titled Essential Skills for Sustainable Development
offered through the College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences.
Contact Dr. Denham for more information on
getting involved in EWB projects, particularly if you are interested in topics
related to sustainable development, the role of society and culture in health,
and health programs and assessment.