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Dr. Elisa (EJ) Sobo

Elisa Sobo

Professor and Director of CAL Undergraduate Research
Office: AL-411 | Phone: (619) 594-6591 | Email: [email protected]
Curriculum Vitae

Dr. EJ Sobo is a sociocultural anthropologist specializing in health, illness, and medicine. A professor in the department of anthropology, Sobo is also Director for Undergraduate Research in the College of Arts and Letters and a Faculty Fellow in the Information Technology division, with a specialization in generative AI.

Dr. Sobo’s areas of expertise include medical/health cultures, health-related stigma and identity, risk perception, the citizen science of biomedical alternatives, and qualitative methods (including ethnographic and rapid assessment). Her current work concerns yogic sound baths. Recent past projects have focused on healthy schools, vaccination, parent activism related to treatment options for intractably ill children; conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 and health more generally, and—growing out of her work for the AAA—land acknowledgments.

A longstanding member of the editorial boards of journals such as Anthropology and Medicine, American Anthropologist, and Medical Anthropology, Dr. Sobo is a prolific author herself (a link to her CV is above). Her work has been reported on in media such as the New York Times, LA Times, and New Yorker, and she has been featured on NPR (see ‘Media,’ below).

Outside of SDSU, Dr. Sobo has served as President of the Society for Medical Anthropology and as Section Convener for the American Anthropological Association (AAA). She also has co-chaired the Committee on Public Policy (CoPP) for the AAA, and she has served on the board of the AAA's Anthropology of Childhood and Youth Interest Group (ACYIG) as well as on the Medical Committee of the Royal Anthropological Association in the UK. 

Dr. Sobo earned her Ph.D. at UCSD (1990) and received post-doctoral training in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University (1991-1993). She has been a faculty member at the University of Durham in the UK, New Mexico State University, and the University of Arizona. She has worked in clinical trials as well as in hospital settings (i.e., for Children’s Hospital San Diego and with the Veterans Health Administration). She also has done extensive consulting. 

Dr. Sobo is keen to involve students in her research as a compliment to classroom teaching; her core courses include Medical Anthropology (508) and Anthropology of Childhood (537). Dr. Sobo also teaches The Dynamics of Biocultural Diversity (402), both online and for the Honors College.

Dr. Sobo and Tiyana Dorsey

Dr. Sobo with Tiyana Dorsey (May 2018). Dorsey was one of several undergraduates who worked on Sobo's Pediatric Cannabis (PedCan) Project thanks to funding from SDSU's Undergraduate Research Program.

Dr. Sobo and Samuel Spevack

Dr. Sobo and the Department of Anthropology’s (and CAL’s!) 2013 Outstanding Graduating Senior, Samuel Spevack,  who has just completed a Ph.D. in cognitive science.

Dr. Sobo and Harrison White

Dr. Sobo with the Department of Anthropology’s 2011 Outstanding Graduating Senior, Harrison White, who is now in law school.

Recent Interviews

Selected Commentaries/Op-Eds

Sound Healing

Over the past several years, more and more yoga retail spaces have begun offering sound baths events. In Fall 2022, Dr. Sobo initiated the ‘Therapeutic Bathing Study’ with the aim of characterizing the health-related needs yoga sound baths serve and how people understand them to work. The project will also investigate how they fit into the broader, and cross-culturally common, domain of salutogenic (health-promoting) bathing. Data were collected from providers and receivers here in San Diego from Spring until Fall 2023. Findings are being interpreted in the context of contemporary healthcare consumerism and against the backdrop provided by the wellness industry and by contemporary constructions of health-related scientific/clinical expertise. 

Scholarly publications:

  • Sobo, EJ (2023). Healing Vibrations. AnthropologyNews (September/October). 64(5):28-32, 49.

Lateral Initiatives: Generative AI, Land Acknowledgments

As part of her work in higher education, and as a function of her various leadership roles, Dr. Sobo has been drawn into several interventions relating to issues of concern within the academy, including the rise of easily available Artificial Intelligence apps and the discussion relating to Land Acknowledgements.

Scholarly publications:

Pandemic Response Work

Dr. Sobo participated in several concerted efforts to address the various crises and fissures revealed, exacerbated, and fomented by the COVID-19 pandemic. These included the disastrous mainstreaming of alt-right conspiracy theories and the challenge of ensuring an equitable and effective COVID-19 vaccination rollout. To help meet that challenge, Sobo collaborated in a nationwide action research coalition, CommuniVax, which focused on community-based capacity building in support of vaccination in historically underserved Black and Brown communities—communities that endured the negative health and economic impacts of the pandemic at tragic and disproportionate rates.

Scholarly publications:

Pediatric Cannabis (PedCan) Project

The Pediatric Cannabis Project, which began well prior to legalization via Proposition 64, explores the experiences of parents using or interested in using cannabis (marijuana) to treat children with drug-refractory (pharmaceutically unresponsive) epilepsy. Given the plant’s overall illegality at the time of data collection, such parents were largely on their own when it came to learning about, procuring, dispensing, and monitoring treatments. This study asked: How do they do it? It also examined how parents’ lay or ‘citizen science’ efforts relate to formal healthcare practices and to authorized cannabis-and-epilepsy research (e.g., as conducted by pharmaceutical corporations). In addition to addressing key theoretical concerns this project aimed to generate practical suggestions for healthcare and social services workers that accurately reflect parents’ experiences and desires. Given the sea change in how our society views cannabis now, the next phase of the project focuses on iatrogenic or biomedically-induced ‘side effects’ as well as the healing vs. curative nature of cannabis medicine.

Scholarly publications:

Pediatric Vaccination Selectivity

In anthropology, participants often take the lead in setting the research agenda. Dr. Sobo’s vaccination work grew out of the keen interest in vaccination expressed in 2012 by parents participating in the Healthy Child Development Project (see below). In 2014 a community study was begun. Major findings include lessons on the negative connotations of the phrase ‘herd immunity’ given our individualistic culture, and the fact that parents who selectively delay or forgo particular vaccinations for their children often know more about vaccination than those who simply accept vaccination, often blindly, as part of the clinical routine. Although Dr. Sobo was glad to wrap this work up several years ago, the recent resurgence of measles has led to her re-involvement on various levels.

Scholarly publications:

Salutogenic (Health Promoting) Schools

Dr. Sobo’s ethnographic study regarding how ethnomedical understandings about healthy child development affect educational strategies and standards, particularly in Waldorf (Steiner) school settings is in its final phase. The work, which bridges medical anthropology and the anthropology of education, explores how particular school systems produce particular health risks and outcomes as the ‘developmental pediatric philosophies’ that ground them are put into practice in the classroom, on the playground, and at home. As well, the research explores the relationship of particular versions of developmental pediatrics to the production of particular kinds of citizens.

Scholarly publications:

Some Earlier Projects

Please see Dr. Sobo’s CV, accessible at the top of this page, for a list of related publications.

  • Healthcare’s New Priorities
  • Selling Medical Travel
  • Implementation Science and Evidence-Based Care in the Veterans Administration (VA) Healthcare System
  • Mantram Repetition and Childbirth Outcomes
  • Optimizing healthcare for Children with Special Health Care Needs
  • Qualitative Methods in Health Services Research
  • Cultural Competence in Health Care
  • Children’s Nutrition
  • Living with HIV/AIDS
  • HIV/AIDS prevention and risk perception/denial
  • Jamaican Health and Healing