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Professor Mhairi Gibson - University of Bristol. Bristol, , GB

Professor Mhairi Gibson Professor Mhairi Gibson

Professor in Anthropology | University of Bristol


Researching cultural traditions and norms and the associated harmful risks to health

Areas of Expertise (9)

Child Care

Female Lifestyles

Public Health

Community Lifestyles


Female Genital Mutilation


Social Attitudes

Applied Anthropology


Professor Mhairi Gibson's research explores parental decision-making in the context of cultural traditions, expectations and norms, on issues such as FGM (female genital mutilation). More specifically, she has been examining the causes and consequences of human population and health change in rural Ethiopia, and the social dynamics of ‘normative’ practices which are harmful to women.

This work has led to the development of a detailed longitudinal picture of the population health of parts of the Ethiopian community over 70 years - including growth and demographic data, child activity patterns and social norms governing attitudes to health, education, marriage and reproduction. Professor Gibson is lead editor of 'Applied Evolutionary Anthropology: Darwinian Approaches to Contemporary World Issues' and has been a guest editor of the Evolutionary Psychology journal.

Media Appearances (5)

Clean water linked to rising birth rates in Africa, need arises for women's reproductive services

Medical Xpress  online


The provision of a safe water supply increases child survival and improves women's health in these communities, but Dr. Mhairi Gibson, a Reader in Anthropology at Bristol, has discovered a subsequent rise in child malnutrition as village resources are strained by a booming population.

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Seeking the truth on female genital cutting

Tech Explorist  online


The University of Bristol Reader in Anthropology Dr. Mhairi Gibson said, “The elimination of female genital cutting is a key target for health policy-makers in high-risk communities such as parts of Africa and the Middle East.”

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8 projects to increase vital knowledge about women's health

Wellcome  online


Mhairi Gibson and team have been developing an important new methodology related to uncovering the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC). FGC has a huge impact on women’s health and is a major concern for public health policy makers. The team’s indirect questioning method has revealed the extent to which people publicly hide their views on FGC. These insights can be used to help develop more effective interventions.

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Ending the scourge of female genital cutting

Nature Middle East  online


A study by Janet Howard and Mhairi Gibson, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, aims to help policy-makers learn why their efforts to eradicate female genital cutting (FGC) have not succeeded.

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Cultural evolution and the mutilation of women

The Economist  online


This sort of cultural evolution is less studied than the genetic variety, but perhaps that should change, for a paper published this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, by Janet Howard and Mhairi Gibson of the University of Bristol, in England, suggests that understanding it better may help wipe out a particularly unpleasant practice: female genital mutilation.

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Articles (7)

Does Kin-Selection Theory Help to Explain Support Networks among Farmers in South-Central Ethiopia?

Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective

2019 Social support networks play a key role in human livelihood security, especially in vulnerable communities. Here we explore how evolutionary ideas of kin selection and intrahousehold resource competition can explain individual variation in daily support network size and composition in a south-central Ethiopian agricultural community.

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Is there a link between paternity concern and female genital cutting in West Africa?

Evolution and Human Behavior

2019 Here we explore the relationship between female genital cutting (FGC), sexual behaviour, and marriage opportunities in five West African countries. Using large demographic datasets (n 72,438 women, 12,704 men, 10,695 couples) we explore key (but untested) assumptions of an evolutionary proposal that FGC persists because it provides evolutionary fitness benefits for men by reducing non-paternity rates.

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Polygynous marriage and child health in sub-Saharan Africa: What is the evidence for harm?

Demographic Research

2018 Researchers from a variety of disciplines have presented data indicating that polygynous marriage is damaging to child health. This work has been used to support the classification of polygyny as a ‘harmful cultural practice’ and to advocate for marital reform across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Indirect questioning method reveals hidden support for female genital cutting in South Central Ethiopia

PLoS One

2018 Female genital cutting (FGC) has major implications for women’s physical, sexual and psychological health, and eliminating the practice is a key target for public health policy-makers. To date one of the main barriers to achieving this has been an inability to infer privately-held views on FGC within communities where it is prevalent. As a sensitive (and often illegal) topic, people are anticipated to hide their true support for the practice when questioned directly.

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Are wives and daughters disadvantaged in polygynous households? A case study of the Arsi Oromo of Ethiopia

Evolution and Human Behavior

2018 Whether polygyny is harmful for women and their children is a long-standing question in anthropology. Few studies, however, have explored whether the effect of polygyny varies for women of different wife order, and whether there are different outcomes for their sons and daughters. Because males have higher reproductive variance, especially when they are allowed to take multiple wives, parents may have higher fitness returns from investing in sons over daughters in polygynous households.

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Inequality in the household and rural–urban migration in Ethiopian farmers

Cambridge University Press


Parental investment theory predicts that biases in investment favour migration by driving some of the sibling group to disperse for resources. Here we test hypotheses arising from this theory to explain patterns of rural–urban migration in south-central Ethiopia considering familial and individual strategies.

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Measuring Hidden Support for Physical Intimate Partner Violence: A List Randomization Experiment in South-Central Ethiopia

Journal of Interpersonal Violence


Understanding how and why physical intimate partner violence (IPV) persists in high-risk communities has proven difficult. As IPV is both sensitive and illegal, people may be inclined to misreport their views and experiences. By embedding a list randomization experiment (LRE), which increases respondent privacy, in a survey of 809 adult Arsi Oromo men and women in rural southcentral Ethiopia, we test the reliability of direct questioning survey methods (e.g., used in the Demographic and Health Surveys) for measuring attitudes that underpin the acceptability of IPV.

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