What They Learned: Erica Belfi ’21

The political science major explored the strategy of shaming in public health, building upon her internship work on rural sanitation in Mangochi, Malawi.

The coronavirus pandemic led to many health guidelines, including masking, not gathering in large groups, and hand-washing. These guidelines were, in part, enforced by social pressure, or “shaming,” people who broke the rules. Erica Belfi’s thesis considered this practice of shaming from an ethical and practical perspective. Her thesis focuses on shaming during the pandemic, but also considers other examples, such as fat-shaming and shaming during the HIV epidemic. 

The political science major, health studies minor, and peace, justice, and human rights concentrator started learning about public health shaming in her Center for Peace and Global Citizenship internship in Mangochi, Malawi’s Environmental Health Office. Her work there focused on critically evaluating a program called Community-Led Total Sanitation, a public health program that uses shaming-based tactics to affect behavioral change. 

“Its purpose is to encourage people in rural communities to build pit latrines, but it does so without providing financial support, addressing structural barriers, or granting the target community respect and dignity,” said Belfi. “I was still processing this learning experience when the pandemic hit, and all of a sudden shaming became a more prominent part of everyday life. I was — and still am — fascinated by the ways we try to navigate our shared circumstances through shaming. It’s a tool for accountability, but it’s also really harmful.”

Next year, Belfi is working for the War Prevention Initiative in Portland, Oregon as a part of her one-year fellowship with Quaker Voluntary Service. Eventually, she wants to continue work in public health. She hopes to pursue a Juris Doctorate and Masters in Public Health dual degree program before working in human rights and public interest law with a focus on public health. 

What did you learn from working on your thesis? 

My biggest takeaway from this project is that no matter how much I try to argue against shaming in (health)care spaces — on an ethical or practical level — the world does not lend itself to tidy conclusions. We don’t live in an ethical vacuum. I argue using several ethical theories, but I also recognize that there’s no such thing as ethical purity. Decision-making is messy and influenced by countless factors that are outside of our control. In responding to contexts of injustice, hardship, and fatigue, our circumstances sometimes require us to act in conflict with our ethics. The world is complicated and confusing, and that’s okay. That’s part of why it’s worth studying.

What are the implications of your thesis research? 

How we choose to construct health programs and communicate among ourselves shapes how we understand our physical bodies, our (whole) selves, and our relationships to each other. My focus is on shaming, but the underlying core conversation in my thesis is about the flaws in contemporary care. Care is about honoring the sacredness in our relationships and working to maintain those connections. This brings me to the broader questions in my thesis: How do we care for one another via institutions and through our everyday interactions? What are our obligations to care for one another and how does shaming disrupt this care? By examining shaming in relation to violence, the body, and personhood, I try to open up a conversation about our ways and obligations to care for one another. Part of the end goal is to prompt a necessary reimagining of (health)care practices institutionally and interpersonally.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.