Susan Erikson

SFU Distinguished Professor

Health Sciences

Susan Erikson

SFU Distinguished Professor

Health Sciences

Areas of interest

Medical anthropology; ethnographic research; global political economy of health; datafication; financialization; digital health technologies; planetary health risk financing; desirable health futures


  • BA, English and Education, Boston College, with honors
  • Cert, Organizational Development, Georgetown University
  • MA, Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder
  • PhD, Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder


Dr. Erikson is an SFU Distinguished Professor and a 2023/2024 SFU Mellon Digital Democracies Institute Faculty Fellow who studies highly complex political economies that shape human health. In earlier research, she anticipated the rise of global health data as a business currency; the change of health data use, from accountability to invest-ability; and the failures of smartphone contact tracing apps during pandemics. Her current research analyzes the increasing datafication and financialization of health, focusing on how global investors use data, modeling, and fintech, including AI, to gamble on catastrophe risk. A committed teacher and mentor, Erikson promotes next-generation anthropological “being there” and “following the thing” methodologies as means for analyzing thorny health challenges.

An award-winning medical anthropologist, Dr. Erikson has worked in Africa, Europe, Central Asia, and North America. During an earlier international affairs career, she first worked in West Africa for two years before working in Washington, DC, on foreign policy and trade issues with government departments and international organizations. As an academic, she combines her professional non-academic experience with a critical study of global political economy of health. Her work has been published in Nature, The Lancet, BMJ, Medical Anthropology, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Social Science & Medicine, Global Public Health, Critical Public Health, Anthropologica and others. Media quoting/citing her work include Nature, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Wired, IEEE Spectrum, Al Bawaba and others.

Dr. Erikson joined the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in 2007, where she was awarded the Graduate Teaching and Mentorship Excellence Award in 2012 and the Michael Hayes Award for Excellence in Teaching, Research and Service in 2020. She is the founding director of the Global Health Affairs Program at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and was voted Best Professor there in 2004.

She won the 2013 Society for Medical Anthropology's (SMA) Virchow Prize for her publication, "Global Health Business: The Production and Performativity of Statistics in Germany and Sierra Leone" (in Medical Anthropology) and contributed chapters to edited volumes that won SMA's Basker Prize in 2012 (Reproduction, Globalization, and the State, eds. Carole Browner and Carolyn Sargent) and two SMA Council for the Anthropology of Reproduction book awards in 2006 (Barren States, ed. Carrie Douglass) and 2012 (Reproduction, Globalization, and the State).

Mid-career, Dr. Erikson was a Senior Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research think tank in Duisburg, Germany. In 2016, she was a Mercator Fellow with the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) project “Adaptation and Creativity in Africa: Technologies and Significations in the Production of Order and Disorder” at the Universities of Leipzig and Halle, Germany. In 2020, she became part of a Norwegian Research Council research team for the project, “The Smartphone Pandemic: Mobil Technologies and Data in the COVID-19 Response,” and an advisory board member of the “Pandemic Preparedness Project”, a Wellcome Trust project at the University of Sussex, and is a member of the Law, Organization, Science and Technology Research Network out of Berlin, Germany. Since 2019, she has served as an Associate Editor of Medical Anthropology. In 2023, she was selected as a Mellon Foundation/SFU Digital Democracies Institute/Data Fluences Faculty Fellow, where she studied the role of natural assets valuation processes in climate risk financing.

Dr. Erikson’s research has been funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Mellon Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Volkswagen Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Norwegian Research Council, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Institute for International Education (IIE), Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), and others. Postdoctoral work was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She partnered with FHS colleagues to receive funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) for research collaboration on corporate and privatizing trends in global public health.

Dr. Erikson has a passionate interest in deepening understanding of critical anthropology and its applications to all manner of planetary health. To that end, she is involved with several efforts to expand medical anthropology education and training beyond conventional curricula. She is a co-founder and current coordinator of the Cascadia Seminar, an ongoing bi-annual interactive forum for exploring cutting-edge work in medical anthropology. She has been a PI and/or coordinated medical anthropology workshop trainings, including a Volkswagen Foundation-sponsored workshop held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, working with Sierra Leonean and European graduate students exploring the use of critical medical anthropology theory and method to anticipate planetary futures.

In July 2023, Dr. Erikson and two graduate student advisees organized and hosted an international conference workshop with Sierra Leonean, North American, and European colleagues for a SSHRC-University of Manitoba-Seton Hall University-sponsored project, “Desirable/Undesirable Health Futures,” an on-going project.  


Research Interests

Datafication, financialization, and the global political economy of planetary health are Dr. Erikson's current research foci. To anticipate global health futures, she combines anthropological theory and ethnographic method with Science and Technology Studies (STS) approaches to study the uneven expressions and local logics of knowledge, wealth, piracies, governmentalities, and the multiple meanings of “investment” in health.

Early in her research career, Dr. Erikson's findings showed that health outcomes are inextricable from economic, political and techno-scientific interests. Her dissertation and early postdoctoral work focused on the political economy of prenatal imaging and technology use in Germany and showed how regulatory regimes for prenatal technologies affected women’s experiences of high-risk pregnancies. Her ethnographic study in two German hospitals – one in the socialist former East Germany, the other in the capitalist former West Germany – showed the difference that political and economic contexts make on human experiences of high-tech maternal and infant care.

Dr. Erikson’s research expertise in Germany and Sierra Leone provides a valuable standpoint for analyses of how global relations of power shape human health and wellbeing. In a 2008 Lancet invited commentary, “Getting Political: Fighting Smarter for Global Health,” she argued for greater attention to be paid to the politics of global health. Cultivating health partisans willing to ‘get political’ to reduce suffering originating in the economic and policy architectures is a key starting point. In a publication “Global Ethnography: Problems of Theory and Method” in Reproduction, Globalization and the State, she outlines a methodological approach applicable for people seeking ethnographic evidence-based means to assess what actually works to reduce human suffering. The methodology can also help to identify political practices that, however unintentionally, hurt people.

Over the last decade, Dr. Erikson has conducted research in Sierra Leone and world cities on the production, use and global circulation of health data in new forms of global health finance. She was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in February 2014 leading a research team studying local and global data use when news of Ebola infections in neighboring Guinea first reached the capital city. Findings from that research – that health data is used not only for accountability, but also increasingly for invest-ability – led to a research project on how health data is curated for use in investment instruments. Her analyses cautioned that acontextual, top-down data imperatives restructure health sector capital, labour, and priority-setting, with uneven and sometimes unfair effects on population health across global clinical settings.

Dr. Erikson’s current research is about how health data is used in specialized financial instruments offered to global investors as market-based solutions to wicked global health problems. In her forthcoming book, Investable! The Dangers of Innovative Pandemic Finance (MIT Press, Fall 2024), she makes a compelling argument against allowing private investors to dabble in public health via investment opportunities. The book explains the dangers and unintended consequences of taking the ’public’ out of public health. Her newest research project focuses on financial instruments made up to address looming planetary health risks, including both the datafication of climate risks and the financialization of nature.

A career goal is to contribute ethnographic analyses of bureaucratic, administrative, and financial power in ways that disrupt neocolonial strangleholds and improve local health sovereignty.

Supervisory Topics

(Dr. Erikson is not currently accepting new students.)

Dr. Erikson works with students who use anthropological methodological and analytical tools to increase critical knowledge for reducing human suffering. She teaches that ‘global health’ is a worldwide social field within which local health likelihoods are constituted through political and economic ideologies and relations of power, not simplistically silo-ed in poor countries. Dr. Erikson works with Masters and PhD students committed to deep work in anthropology, and who are intent on using critical anthropological theory and methods in their own work.