Student Profile: Tracy Brannstrom

This is the second installment of ADTSG’s new student profiles feature!

These profiles are a way for the ADTSG membership to become acquainted with the next generation of anthropologists of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.  In this vein, each profile will introduce one graduate or undergraduate student to the group by asking him or her a series of questions related to his/her background and career aspirations in this field.

In this installment, we are profiling Tracy Brannstrom, a master’s student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Why did you choose to study anthropology?

During undergrad, I took a lot of philosophy courses because I loved asking the ‘big questions’ about humanity, and I had planned to make this my major. But then I had an anthropological methods course, in which the students worked on a long-term ethnographic project with field work, interviews and archival research, and this hooked me. Anthropologists seemed to work with philosophical content, but in a grounded way – sourcing big ideas from the lived realities of their informants. I liked the methodology. Applying to graduate programs in anthropology was a natural progression from this, and I ended up in a small division of the anthropology department at Berkeley that focuses on folklore studies, for my MA.

Why are you interested in alcohol, drugs, and tobacco research?

I’m drawn to questions and topics of human consciousness – the mind/body problem, conceptions of self, spirituality, things of this nature. “Drugs” seem to be compounds that can push the boundaries on ordinary perception, and I think these alterations can tell us a lot about the mind. I’m most interested in psychedelics because of their potential to facilitate new perspectives and re-work structures in the mind that we often think are solidified, but are actually malleable. Addiction is also something I’m very interested in from a social scientific perspective.

What are your research plans for studying alcohol, drugs, and tobacco?

For my current MA project, I spent three months looking at contemporary practices of folk medicine in the Peruvian Amazon. The project has more to do with medical knowledge and practice, but categories of “medicine,” “drug,” and “food” are always overlapping in complex ways. My fieldwork took me to women who claimed to have cured their Type 2 Diabetes with sessions of Kambo – the application of tree frog venom into the bloodstream, a process that is said to clean the blood and other organs. I also observed a healer’s home-based practice as he treated patients for alcohol addiction with Ayahuasca and other herbal preparations. When I returned to the US, I sorted through documents that belonged to the late anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios, who did extensive work on mestizo shamanism and ayahuasca use in the Peruvian Amazon. This was at the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection at Purdue University.

What do you hope to do after you graduate?

I will finish my MA in the summer of 2018, and I hope to continue in a doctoral program – or to continue research in some capacity. I’d like to look at opiate addiction in the Northeastern US, which is research that I’ve already began since working as a newspaper reporter in Vermont before coming to Berkeley. My training in the folklore program here has drawn my attention to the ways that narratives are constructed and circulated, and I’d like to look at competing narratives regarding how and why addiction forms, in Vermont and/or New Hampshire. One of these narratives has to do with the African psychedelic Iboga, which is seen by many in the Northeast as a cure for opiate addiction, and was even the subject of an ongoing discussion by a committee in the Vermont legislature (!) when I was reporting. I’d like to return to this region, and help to document, and think through questions of addiction.

If you are a student and would like to be profiled for the ADTSG website, please contact ADTSG Student Liaison, Breanne Casper, at for more information!