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Robert J. Foster


PhD, Anthropology, Dissertation: Social Reproduction and Value in a New Ireland Society, Tanga Islands, Papua New Guinea, University of Chicago (1981-1988), 1988

Diploma, Social Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford, England (1980-1981), 1981

MA, Anthropology, MA Paper: Hierarchy and Value: The Organization of Mehinaku Ideology, Columbia University (1979-1980), 1982

BA (Hons.), Anthropology, Honors Thesis: Exchange, Ritual, and Identity among the Maring of Papua New Guinea, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (1975-1979), 1979

Research Interests

Before coming to Rochester, Professor Foster taught in The College of the University of Chicago as a William Rainey Harper Postdoctoral Instructor.  At the University of Rochester, he has served as Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor and in 2008 he was awarded the Goergen Award for Distinguished Achievement and Artistry in Undergraduate Teaching.  Professor Foster has an appointment in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies in which he is a core faculty member.  He has been a visiting professor at the Australian National University, Cambridge University and L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Funil and Foster

Somanil Funil and Robert Foster, Tanga Islands, Papua New Guinea, 1992

Prof. Foster has done research in Papua New Guinea since 1984.  His research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Australian-American Educational Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Spencer Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Research Interests: Political economy; material culture; globalization; corporations; commercial media; mobile phones; Papua New Guinea, Melanesia

Current Projects:

1.  A Cultural Biography of the P.G. Black Collection of Pacific Islands Artifacts

The Buffalo Museum of Science holds the oldest collection in North America of Pacific Islands artifacts put together by a single person. This project puts the P.G. Black Collection in the economic, political, and cultural contexts of its creation and display. The collection provides important clues about initial encounters between Pacific Islanders and European traders, missionaries, and colonial officials during the late nineteenth century. In the 1940's, display of objects from the collection at museum exhibits promoted acceptance of the idea of Primitive Art in the U.S.

2. The Moral and Cultural Economy of Mobile Phones in the Pacific (with Heather Horst)

Funded by the Australian Research Council (DP140103773), 2014-2016

The mobile phone represents one of the first truly global digital technologies (Goggin 2010). Spreading far beyond the industrialized centres of Europe, Asia and North America, almost 5 billion of the world’s 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions are found in the developing world. The rapid uptake of mobile phones in these regions has provided people with greater capacity for interpersonal communication and access to Web-based media platforms as well as new services such as banking and money transfers.

Our project seeks to understand this profound change by foregrounding the role of information and communication technologies in shaping the moral and cultural dimensions of socioeconomic life. We organize the research comparatively through case studies of two countries in the Pacific – Papua New Guinea, where a single service provider (Digicel Group Ltd.) now dominates the market, and Fiji, where the same provider struggles against a larger rival (Vodafone). Building upon the investigators’ extensive experience analysing the social, economic and cultural effects of mass media and new forms of communication in developing countries, the project will investigate how engagements with mobile phones and related digital media generate and regenerate cultural and personal identities; remake social practices including civic participation and economic exchange; and reconfigure relationships among consumers, companies and states. We focus on mobile money in particular as an emergent phenomenon that redefines relations among consumers, companies and states and that facilitates financial and social well-being in the developing world.

The project has three objectives:

(1) Describe, compare and explain how consumers appropriate mobile platforms and understand the moral dimensions of using these platforms in their everyday lives;

(2) Develop a nuanced historical and ethnographic account of the ways in which companies offering mobile services fashion themselves as moral actors through the cultivation and maintenance of mobile markets;

(3) Compare and analyse how different state actors create mobile markets through policies, regulatory frameworks and other forms of governance.

3. Series Editor, Tracking Globalization, Indiana University Press

Fellowships, Honors & Awards

Courses Offered (subject to change)

List of Current Courses

List of Past Courses

Selected Publications


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