Tomas Matza

  • Director of Graduate Studies & Associate Professor

Tomas A. Matza received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2010. His research interests extend across the subfields of sociocultural, environmental, and medical/psychological anthropology, and touch on issues of mental health, political economy, environment, and global health, and theoretical considerations of subjectivity, care, expert knowledge and power. His research to date has focused on Russia, El Salvador, and Hawai'i.  His newest project focuses on land stewardship in Hawai'i as a form of human/more-than-human care and as a practice of environmental justice in the Anthropocene.

Research Description

Tomas A. Matza’s first book, Shock Therapy: Psychology, Precarity, and Well-Being in Postsocialist Russia (2018), draws on fieldwork in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he explored the psychotherapy boom that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. This involved ethnographic research in psychological assistance organizations for children and adults, media analysis, and extensive interviews. The book examines how new ideas and practices of selfhood, and what he calls “precarious care," emerged alongside Russia's political and economic transformations following the collapse of the USSR. Shock Therapy describes the various political afterlives of psychotherapeutic care, which is now practiced as: a marketable commodity, a technique of biopolitical management, and a means to personal healing. These transformations in the nature of care have, in turn, turned the “self” into a site of political, economic and ethical production, providing practitioners with new forms of geographic and class mobility, but also creating new means of social differentiation among clients. 

Professor Matza’s second project engaged with critical global mental health. This work draws on fieldwork in El Salvador and focussed on an NGO’s effort to promote child wellbeing in child welfare centers. His research explored how psychological theories (in this case related to attachment), circulated in the contexts of neoliberalism, El Salvador’s postwar gang violence, and Western hemispheric security, as well as how anthropological critique can be incorporated into collaborative research. The project also explored the social life of metrics and data in the pursuit of “global health.”  He is currently working on a collaborative ethnography that explores the potential for life history to offers insights into political struggle, forms of violence, and reliance.

Professor Matza’s newest research explores care in a new context—via biocultural stewardship in Hawai‘i. The Hawaiian islands are global biodiversity hotspots whose habitats and endemic species continue to be threatened by introduced species, over-development, increasing water scarcity, and other factors. At the same time, as many in the native sovereignty movement have pointed out, Hawai‘i was illegally annexed by the United States, and thus remains a sovereign kingdom. These overlapping social, ecological, and political contestations present significant challenges when it comes to caring for land. Are there ways to do so that can promote multi-species well-being? What is “just conservation”? Who should care for the land and on whose behalf? Through a collaboration with Dr. Nicole Heller, Associate Curator of Anthropocene Studies at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and in conversation with scholars in Hawai‘i doing research on biocultural stewardship, the project aims to use collaboration, co-development, and transdisciplinary research to answer these difficult questions.

Public-Facing Engagement

Since 2022 I have been co-developing an environmental justice learning initiative with my colleague and friend, Dr. Nicole Fabricant (Towson University). This work brings together environmental justice community activists from Baltimore and the Pittsburgh region, and faculty and students from University of Pittsburgh, Towson University and other educational institutions in the context of three activities centered on environmental justice harms and community responses for repair in Southwestern Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio and South Baltimore. The larger goal of this initiative is to build cross-regional solidarities as a basis for developing community-facing collaborative projects, resources, educational materials, and even possible policy interventions.

I am a member of the Pitt Faculty Union's Communication Action Team, and am one of many working to improve working conditions for our colleagues as I see a natural link between their well-being and the quality of our students' educational experiences. 

Disciplinary Service

In my final year's role as a Councilor for the American Ethnological Society I am co-organizing with Dr. Heath Cabot the AES spring conference on the theme of "Repair." This conference is co-sponsored by APLA and will take place at Pitt from April 4-6, 2024. I have benefitted immensely from collaborations with Darlène Dubuisson, Nicole Heller, Noah Theriault, Emily Wanderer, and Gabby Yearwood.

Graduate Recruitment

As an interdisciplinary scholar myself, I welcome applications from prospective students with multidisciplinary backgrounds. I enjoy working with students who are insatiably curious; who are both rigorous and generous in their engagement with other scholarship; who are interested in contributing to a convivial departmental atmosphere through cohort building and departmental citizenship; and who are interested in linking their work to the pressing concerns of our times. Applicants interested in my mentorship should be familiar with my research and approach, although interests need not exactly mirror my own. Instead, I am best suited to mentoring students with whom there is an exciting thematic, theoretical or geographic resonance and for whom my expertise would provide a solid foundation for a PhD. Successful applications should also identify links with other faculty in the department, department thematic clusters, and other relevant university resources. Please feel free to contact me by email with questions.


Environments, Health, and Power

Graduate Seminar. The Anthropocene, a new geological designation identifying humanity’s unprecedented, massive impact on the Planet, has been a fertile area of anthropological inquiry. Concerned with giving an ethnographic grounding to the impacts of climate change, species loss, land enclosure or pollution, scholars have documented the specific ways that capitalism and colonialism continue to animate many of these harmful processes, while also prompting pressing questions about the relationship between human and more-than-human worlds. How are political economic processes implicated in new forms of dispossession? What is the best way to account for the slow violence of toxic pollution? How should scholars respond to the ending of local lifeways and place-based societies? At the same time, anthropologists have also focused on mitigation efforts, adding complexity to our understanding of the politics of protection efforts, the permeabilities between human and more-than human words, and the way that the Anthropocene affords us with new imaginative capabilities. What insights does this literature offer scholars writing in responses to crises? What does it contribute to public understandings of the relationships between environments, health, and power? And what broader take-aways might there be for debates about the future of life in the Anthropocene? To explore these questions, this graduate seminar organizes anthropological and allied social theory literatures around four different themes—conservation, exploitation, contamination, and re-imagination–as relates to human/nature relationships. We aim to grapple with how power operates in and through environment at a moment when human/nature relationship have become matters of life and death. Topics include Anthropocene/Plantationocene studies, coloniality & decolonization, infrastructure and the built environment, affect, resistance, and repair.

Culture & Politics of Mental Health

Undergraduate Lecture Course. Are emotions universal, or are they culturally specific? Are talk therapies, drug regimes and diagnostic categories effective in the same ways cross-culturally? And, thinking beyond cultural diversity, how does psychological knowledge intersect with power and capital? How, for instance, are some qualities made to seem more “healthy” than others? Finally, do affective disorders carry a biological marker, or are they the result of particular ways of seeing? And what difference does that distinction make to people who provide mental healthcare, and those living under the description of disorder? At their core such questions are fundamentally anthropological, touching on topics of personhood, identity, subjectivity, medical authority and power and temporality, to name a few. This course explores these topics by exploring several ways in which anthropology has intersected with “the psychological.” Those include: studies that have sought to add anthropological depth to a psychological accounting of the human; studies that have interrogated the “psy-ences’” as a social institution enmeshed in relations of power; and studies exploring the increasing biomedicalization of mental health. The goal is to gain not only an appreciation of the rich diversity of human experience, but also a critical understanding of how our feelings and senses of wellbeing are structured by forces beyond ourselves.

Anthropology of the Anthropocene

Undergraduate Seminar. The “Anthropocene” is the name that many scholars are using to name a new epoch in the Earth’s history. The idea is that human impacts on the planet have grown to such a scale as to match other Earth system phenomena. The signs of the times include anthropogenic climate change, the impending sixth extinction (due in part of human-caused habitat loss), the disappearance of coral reefs and ocean acidification, etc. What sense can we, as concerned humans, make of this situation? And how can anthropology help us to grapple with the multiple meanings of the current age? How do the answers to these questions vary across different groups? And what are the prospects for confronting this shared challenge as a collective when responsibility for the crisis, and possibilities to survive, are often unevenly distributed? This course examines these questions from two angles: disaster and adaptation/hope. We will devote significant time to reading contemporary ethnographies from around the world. These texts demonstrate a variety of approaches and outlooks on the current planetary crisis. To prepare to engage with this material, we also devote several weeks at the start of class to read up on the history of the Anthropocene as a concept and scientific descriptor. And we also explore the question of whether the Anthropocene is a concept that means the same thing to every person.

Global Health & Humanitarianism

Undergraduate Seminar. In the face of various global crises—health inequality, refugees, violence, natural disasters—the impulse to do something is understandable; however, helping is far from straightforward. What does it mean to help? Should those receiving it be consulted? What are the politics of help? This discussion-based seminar sets out to investigate these and other questions by examining two recent trends in international assistance—humanitarianism and global health. Humanitarianism, in its contemporary form, mobilizes international sentiment, ranging from sympathy to outrage, to address a variety of crises—displaced peoples (refugees), natural disasters, genocide, hunger. The movement for Global Heath, a successor to international health aid, leverages private/public partnerships to measure and eradicate the rising “burden of disease” globally. While distinct in their practices, both of these share a vision of global responsibility, as well, generally, as a transfer of expertise and concern from the global north to the global south. The course will place these two trends in historical and critical perspective by introducing students to a careful, anthropologically-based consideration of them. It seeks to push beyond two forms of naiveté—on the one hand the idea that help is always good; on the other, that it always masks some ulterior motive. The primary aim is to promote students’ awareness of the political, socioeconomic, medical and cultural complexity of the globalization of humanitarian and health concerns, and the importance of anthropological perspectives in discussing unintended problems and pursuing solutions.

Graduate Core Course in Cultural Anthropology

Graduate Seminar. This course is an intensive, graduate-level introduction to key theoretical paradigms in Euro-American sociocultural anthropology since the late-19th century. The purpose is to provide you with an understanding of how anthropological ways of thinking have been shaped through specific debates, controversies and lines of inquiry. In the first half of the course you will see an evolving discourse on such core topics as culture, function, society, structure, comparison, objectivity, materiality, symbols and signs, agents, history, change, practice, method, politics and anthropology’s status as a social science, to name a few. And you will learn about how lines of inquiry that were formed at an earlier stage (for example kinship and social structure) return later in altered form (e.g. challenges to the category of “kinship”; interventions around gender and sexuality). Throughout the semester, partner readings will also destabilize “the canon,” calling attention to its construction, who (or what) is left out, and how the history of theory in cultural anthropology also bears the imprint of hierarchy, position and privilege. In the second half of the course we examine anthropology’s “reflexive turn”—a series of moments in which cultural critique took a more central place in the discipline. Topics covered include gender and sexuality, race, knowledge, power, difference, decolonization, ontology and posthumanism.

The Social Life of Climate Change

Undergraduate Seminar. Anthropogenic climate change is arguably the biggest challenge of the 21st century. If scientists are correct, we stand to lose whole cities due to sea-level rise, suffer food shortage due to desertification, trigger the sixth mass extinction, and endure unforeseen effects on human livelihood. What perspectives do scholars in anthropology and related fields offer on this contemporary problem—a problem that, elusively, appears on a future horizon? This course draws on emerging social science scholarship to show how an attention to the social and cultural dimensions of climate change can help us think about the causes, consequences and possible responses to the “carbon problem.” Topics covered include: the basic science of climate change; consumer culture and global inequality; climate policy as seen through the anthropology of development; living through disaster; representing slow violence; and, finally, how climate change is prompting us to rethink “the human” and “the future.” Together, these topics will offer students a robust sense of the social life of climate change, as well as a set of critical tools for thinking about this pressing contemporary problem.

Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

Undergraduate Lecture. Cultural anthropology is a social science that seeks to understand human diversity and social life. This course aims to introduce students to the fundamental methods, theories, and concepts of cultural anthropology. Some of the questions we explore include: How widely variable are the norms and forms of social organization? How do cultural values shape our perception of the world, our language, and our identity? How do class, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity influence how we position ourselves/are positioned in the world? How does the mass media shape conceptions of family and community? Finally, how should we understand cultural difference in a rapidly changing world? In exploring these questions this course will seek to demonstrate the usefulness, but also complexity, of the concept of culture and related anthropological modes of observation and interpretation. Readings, lectures, and activities draw on case studies from a variety of settings – both familiar and distant – in order to examine sources of commonality and difference between human groups. By the end of the course you can expect to have a solid understanding of the history of cultural anthropology, its central topics and approaches, and a sense of new and exciting areas of ethnographic research. Finally, you will see the ways in which cultural anthropology is a productively reflexive field, in constant conversation with its past and the politics of representing others.

Anthropology of Latin America

Undergraduate Seminar. Latin America is vast, covering 7.4 million square miles of territory, and includes 33 countries, nearly 450 languages, and diverse histories. Counting it as one entity is challenging. Nonetheless, a range of historical processes, experiences, cultural orientations and trajectories link together this diversity. Colonialism, indigenous dispossession, slavery, post-colonial nationalisms, indigenous struggles for sovereignty, and navigating neoimperialism are just a few such shared histories. In this course we explore a range of processes that cut across the region, tying “Latin America” to other transnational and global processes. Topics explored include neoliberalism, development and democracy; extraction and indigenous dispossession; legacies of war, violence and security; novel racial formations; migration patterns; and alternative knowledge and healing systems. Students can expect to gain broad knowledge of the region, an understanding of the ways in which Latin America has globalized over the last centuries, and what that has meant for its diverse peoples.

Precarity and Affect

Graduate Seminar. Precarity, as primarily used in European social movements and taken up elsewhere, references a shift in the conditions of late-stage capitalism towards more flexible, irregular, and casual labor. This shift has been accompanied by a turn towards affective labor: capitalism that draws upon and produces/commodifies affect. This course explores the two concepts of precarity and affect in terms of their intersection, overlap, and interface: How is affect experienced and produced under conditions of global capitalism and expanding inequity, risk, and insecurity in social living around the world?  We look here at: affect under precarious conditions of labor and life; how affect gets managed and extracted by post-socialist/neoliberal economies; and the commodification of affect but also activism and solidarity generated by an affect of hope or outrage over (shared) precarity. The course will tack between theoretical and ethnographic studies of the two concepts, considering their utility, how they can be expanded in other directions, and what an anthropological approach does, or could, lend to these topics. How does one do an ethnography of affect/precarity? What might a theoretics or politics or ethics of precarity/affect entail? What does anthropology illuminate about the affective landscapes of contemporary precarious existence?

Everyday Life After Socialism

Graduate/Undergraduate Seminar. When everyday life as one knows it is disrupted, how does one survive? This course explores this broad question through the prism of the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse and re-composition as Russia. Taking as a point of departure “the everyday,” the course will explore the ordinary intimacies, pleasures, and also forms of violence and exclusion that have proliferated throughout Russia as people have sought to survive the turmoil of the 1990s and 2000s. We focus on the themes of art and/of death, gods, food & rest, life’s infrastructures, home and homelessness, and belonging. The course’s aim is to consider the everyday not as a site mundane existence, but rather as a locus of social and cultural vitality, as well as political contestation.

Fieldwork Methods

Undergraduate Seminar. This course has two objectives: to explore what is—and how to do—ethnography, and to engage some of the central debates and discussions about ethnographic method in anthropology. Over the course of the semester you will conduct research that culminates in an ethnography of some aspect of social life; at the same time, the course readings will prompt deeper reflection on, and perhaps even trouble, that research. The tension between these two objectives is an important aspect of the course. Beyond being just a methods class, this course will challenge you to think about epistemology—that is what we know, how we know it, and how we gather information to constitute knowledge. Thus, students will be asked to consider in practice and also as a conceptual operation how to transform gossip, field notes, impressions, documents, interviews, emotions, personal experiences, entanglement, dislike and love into ethnography.


2021 “Emotional Warfare? Track Two Diplomacy and the Emotionalization of the Cold War,” Emotions & Society 3(1):15-33.

2020 “The Surrounding Trees Whispered with Their Leaves,” in Post-COVID fantasies,” Catherine Besteman, Heath Cabot, and Barak Kalir, eds. American Ethnologist website, 19 October. Co-authored with Nicole Heller.

2019  “Critique and Collaboration: The Objects and Ends of Critique in the Age of Assistance,” Medicine, Anthropology, Theory 6(2), Special Issue: “Objects of critique in critical global health studies,” eds. Biruk & McKay. ONLINE PUBLICATION

2019  "Global Ambitions: Evidence, Scale and Child Wellbeing in El Salvador,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 33(3): 364-385.

Matza, Tomas. (2018) Shock Therapy: The Ethics and Biopolitics of Precarious Care in Post-Soviet Russia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Matza, Tomas & Heller, Nicole. (2017) Anthropocene in a Jar. Remains of the Anthropocene. Armiero, Emmett & Mittman, eds. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

O’Neill, Kevin & Matza, Tomas, eds. (2014) Politically Unwilling (Special Issue), Social Text, 120.

Matza, Tomas & O’Neill, Kevin. (2014) "Politically Unwilling: Introduction," Social Text, 120:1-10.

Matza, Tomas. (2014) "The Will to What? Class, Time, and Re-Willing in Post-Soviet Russia," Social Text, 120:49-67.

Matza, Tomas & Solomon, Harris, eds. (2013) "Commonplaces: Itemizing the Technological Present." Somatosphere. ONLINE PUBLICATION.

Koopman, Colin & Matza, Tomas. (2013) "Putting Foucault to Work: Analytic and Concept in Inquiry," Critical Inquiry, 39(4): 817-840.

Matza, Tomas. (2012) "'Good Individualism’? Psychology, Ethics and Neoliberalism in Postsocialist Russia," American Ethnologist, 39(4): 805-819.

Matza, Tomas. (2012) “Allan Chumak,” A Collaborative Genealogy of Spirituality. ONLINE PUBLICATION

Matza, Tomas. (2009) "Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics and Politics on the Russian Talk Show," Cultural Anthropology, 24(3): 489-522.