Aaron R. Denham, PhD

Aaron R. Denham Adjunct Faculty
Northern Arizona University


BS, MA University of Idaho
PhD University of Alberta '08

Areas of interest

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 integrity.

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.