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Alka Menon

Area(s) of Interest

Medical Sociology; Science and Technology Studies; Race and Ethnic Studies; Gender; Cultural Sociology; Sociology of Law; Qualitative Methods


Broadly speaking, my research examines how medical technologies mediate the relationship between bodies and social identities, especially race, ethnicity, and gender. My dissertation project, based on in-depth interviews, ethnographic observation, and qualitative content analysis, uses the case of cosmetic surgery to examine physicians’ conceptions of race in the U.S. and in Asia. I argue that cosmetic surgeons draw upon cultural as much as biological explanations for racial and ethnic difference in constructing standards for physical appearance. While ethnic-specific beauty standards have arisen in the U.S., a pan-ethnic “Asian” beauty ideal is emergent in the multiethnic Asian country of Malaysia. I find that both the proliferating ethnic-specific beauty ideals and the pan-ethnic beauty ideal stem from the tension between standardization and clinical judgment in cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgeons conceptualize racial, ethnic, gender and class categories as markets and as populations for purposes of medical tourism and biomedical research. My research suggests that race and ethnicity may take on renewed salience in elective medicine, but for unexpected reasons: in contrast to a predominant concern in the sociology of science with how physicians and scientists have re-biologized race in the U.S. and abroad, my work emphasizes how physicians continue to connect race and culture.

Selected Publications

Menon, Alka V. “Do online reviews diminish physician authority? The case of cosmetic surgery in the U.S.” Social Science & Medicine 181: 1-8.

Menon, Alka V. 2017. “Reconstructing Race in American Cosmetic Surgery.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40(4): 597-616.

  • Winner of the 2017 ASA Sociology of Body and Embodiment Award for Best Graduate Student Paper
  • Winner of the 2016 Robert F. Winch Award for Best Published Paper in the Sociology Department, Northwestern University

Menon, Alka V. 2016. “Race in the Genomic Era.” Book Review of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (by Dorothy Roberts). Spontaneous Generations 8(1): 109-111.

Selected Awards and Fellowships

Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, National Science Foundation, Section of Science, Technology & Society, 2016

Social Science Research Council Dissertation Prospectus Development Fellowship, 2014

Robert F. Winch Award for Best 2nd Year Paper, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, 2013

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Undergraduate Research Prize, Department of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Cornell University, 2010

Additional Information

I am a Research Fellow with the Science in Human Culture program at Northwestern University and have been a Graduate Affiliate of the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Courses Taught

Sociology of Beauty; Sociology of Infectious Disease; Sociology of the Body


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