Matthew C. Watson


  • Chair of Sociology and Anthropology
  • Associate Professor of Anthropology
Matthew C. Watson

Matthew C. Watson is a historian of the social sciences, a feminist science studies scholar, and an experimental ethnographer. His wide-ranging publications invite experimentation with twentieth-century U.S. anthropological constructions of culture, history, religion, and knowledge. In his writing, as in the classroom, Watson contends that understanding the emerging political and ethical shapes of anthropology requires deep sensitivity to the field’s historical formation. This commitment motivates Watson’s current research on ethnographic fieldwork in midcentury Chiapas, a project grounded in extensive work across Mexican and U.S. archives. 

Between 1940 and 1980, the indigenous southern margin of North America became one of the world’s most intensively-studied cultural areas, hosting fieldwork teams from institutions including Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Escuela Nacional de Antropología. Most immediately, Watson is composing a book on the infrastructural and technological conditions of ethnographic research carried out by the Harvard Chiapas Project (1957-1980). Provisionally titled The Ethnographic Drive, the manuscript details how constructions of both ethnographic method and “the Maya” hinged on four infrastructural and technological conditions: newly-built roads, Land-Rovers, aerial photographs, and mainframe computers. This work has inspired a subsequent project on the surprisingly-intertwined histories of feminist and cognitive anthropologies.

Watson’s 2020 Duke University Press book, Afterlives of Affect: Science, Religion, and an Edgewalker’s Spirit, synthesizes concepts from science studies and affect theory to model an “excitable anthropology” centering experiences of wonder and joy in contexts of scientific and historical discovery. Afterlives of Affect textures experiences of discovery through attention to a major development in Maya archaeology, linguistics, and art history of the 1970s and 1980s: the ancient Maya writing system’s much-lauded grammatical decipherment. The book, a person-centered experimental ethnography, follows artist and art historian Linda Schele into decipherment as a spiritual attachment to ancient Maya lords and scribes. Reimagining decipherment as a field of extraordinary affects, Watson shows how Schele imbued a banal space of historical research with an aura of joyous revelation. The book affirms decipherment’s zestful excess as a spirited blurring of science, history, art, and religion.

A faculty member at Mount Holyoke since 2015, Watson offers two core courses for the Anthropology major annually: History of Anthropological Thought; and Issues in Contemporary Anthropological Theory. He also regularly teaches a section of Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and periodically offers courses on topics such as: Science as Culture; Writing Capitalism’s Ruins; Cultures of Power in Mexico; and Science, Feminism, and Mount Holyoke.

Areas of Expertise

History of Anthropology; Feminist Science Studies; Affect Theory; Public Science; Ethnographic Writing; Mexico


  • Ph.D., M.A., University of Florida
  • B.A., Grinnell College

Recent Publications

Watson, M. C. and Cornfeld, L. (2023). Donna Haraway. In J. L. Jackson (Ed.), Oxford bibliographies in anthropology.

Watson, M. C. (in press). Rearview mirrors: Harvard Land-Rover interviews and the ethnographic drive in midcentury Chiapas. Anthropology & Humanism.

Watson, M. C. (2020). Afterlives of affect: Science, religion, and an edgewalker's spirit. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Recent Honors

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