Bob Trotter: Studying the Relationship between Culture and Health

Trotter 230

Robert T. Trotter, II

Regents' Professor of Anthropology

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Associate Vice President for Health Research Initiatives

Before he was appointed Associate Vice President for Health Research Initiatives, Robert T. Trotter, II, Regents’ Professor, was Chair of the NAU Department of Anthropology, and his office was filled with an abundance of publications, plaques, and pictures in nearly every corner of the room. Each item highlighted a unique story about his life and career as a medical anthropologist—a career that spans several decades.

A prodigious output

Dr. Trotter is the author of 10 books and 152 publications, which include a diverse selection of articles, media productions, book chapters, monographs, workbooks, and special editions of journals. Some of his publications include looking at the health and educational needs of migrant farm workers, assessing Native American cultural and environmental conditions, understanding the impact of drugs and alcohol on Mexican-American border communities, and investigating the cultural connection between traditional healing practices and those of modern medicine.

Throughout his career, Trotter has focused his time and efforts in two areas: medical anthropology and corporate anthropology. A few examples of his work include conducting research for the General Motors Corporation, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. In total, Dr. Trotter has been part of 56 funded research projects, and he has received 17 prestigious honors and awards in recognition for his work—his most recent award is the 2012 Robert B. Textor and Family Prize in Anticipatory Anthropology by the American Anthropological Association. He also holds a patent based on his corporate research in the area of collaborative relationships.  

From the beginning

Dr. Trotter’s passion for medical anthropology, which has led him to the work he is doing today, developed quickly and early on. “I started out in my career being very interested in how you transform a conventional health-care system to accommodate cultural differences,” he recalled.    

While working along the U.S.-Mexico border in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Trotter looked for ways to accommodate modern medical systems and integrate them into multiple cultures and vice versa. He wanted to figure out what the critical elements were for transforming health-care structures. “I started out really looking at language and culture within the hospital where I was working along the border,” said Trotter. “Good models were then developed for better communication and transformation within the local health-care system.”

Simultaneously, Trotter became involved in academia, starting out as a part-time instructor and eventually becoming a full professor at the University of Texas-Pan American (formerly Pan American University) in Edinburg, Texas. While teaching, he wrote numerous publications on the work he was doing. “My early publications revolved around how you create culturally sensitive and culturally competent health-care systems, especially in a multicultural area,” he explained.

A passion for studying culture and health

Later on, Trotter explored the world of corporate anthropology, analyzing the best methods for companies like General Motors to create successful partnerships—even creating his own video game. “It was an opportunity to test out some of my evolving cross-cultural theory and methods in a work environment that was different from health-care-systems research, in order to see if they were robust enough to translate from one important social context to another important cultural environment. And it worked,” he said.

It was not long, however, until Trotter decided to return to his real passion of studying the relationship between culture and health. “While I continue to have interests that take me into other kinds of venues, such as business, education, and community action, my real focus is medical anthropology,” noted Trotter. “My idea is to bring back the lessons that I learn elsewhere and apply them here.” 

--Candice Giffin

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