Jessica Robbins

Jessica Robbins

Jessica Robbins

Bio Sketch

Jessica Robbins-Panko is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Gerontology and Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. As a medical and sociocultural anthropologist, she studies how individuals' experiences of aging--especially of health and illness--are part of broader social, cultural, political, economic, and historical processes.  

Dr. Robbins-Panko received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2013. Her research has been funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, P30 AG015281, and the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research, the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (through a grant from the US Department of State Title VIII), the International Research Exchange Board (through a grant from the US Department of State Title VIII), Elderhostel/Road Scholar, and several units at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.


Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Michigan (2013)
M.A., Anthropology, University of Michigan (2006)
B.A., Anthropology and Music, Williams College (2001)

Research Focus

Dr. Robbins-Panko's research is motivated by a concern for how some older people become valued and socially included, while others are devalued and socially excluded. As an anthropologist, she seeks explanations for these moral processes in the links between personal experience, personal and discursive imaginations, and transformations in political economy. In her first ethnographic project she sought to answer these questions through ethnographic research in Poland, a place where radical sociocultural and political-economic transformations have occurred in the lifetime of the oldest generations. Current ethnographic research investigates related issues of social inclusion and exclusion among older adults in the post-industrial urban United States.

Dr. Robbins-Panko's first book, Aging Nationally in Contemporary Poland: Memory, Kinship, and Personhood was published in December 2020 with Rutgers University Press. An ethnographic and historical account of the moral logics that make full personhood in old age contingent on health, this study draws on almost two years of fieldwork in diverse institutional sites in Wrocław and Poznań, Poland. She draws on theoretical perspectives from studies of kinship, postsocialism, and memory to create explanatory links across temporal and geographic scales.


In her fieldsite of the urban post-industrial US, Dr. Robbins-Panko is currently engaged in two related ethnographic projects:

1) A study entitled "Cultivating Life in a Revitalizing City: Understanding Social Relations and Health through an Ethnographic Study of Gardening among Older African Americans in Detroit" brings together in one analytic lens the phenomena of aging societies and urban change by studying a social movement in which these concerns unite: urban gardening. This project explores the links between urban change, personal and community health across the life course, and connections to land and environment.

2) A study entitled "Older Adults' Experiences and Understandings of the Flint Water Crisis," as Co-PI together with Dr. Tam Perry (Co-PI, Associate Professor, School of Social Work, WSU) explores how exposure to contaminated water shapes physical, mental, and social wellbeing of older adults. This project explores shifting notions of trust, responsibility, and morality at stake in the Flint water crisis through an ethnographic focus on older adults, a population that can be overlooked in humanitarian crises.


Dr. Robbins-Panko has an ongoing research project on the (pre)/(post)socialist histories of the sciences of aging in Poland, in which she seeks to understand how the fields of gerontology, geriatrics, andragogika and pedagogy, and social work were shaped by sociocultural and political-economic transformations in central Europe. She is also developing two new projects: 1) on gardening and memory among older African Americans with dementia, as a way of bridging cognitive and social scientific understandings of memory, and 2) on reminiscence therapy among people with dementia, as a way of understanding the intimate politics of memory in later life. Other research interests include aging and memory in the Polish-American community in Michigan, and memory and palliative and hospice care.


Office Location

234 Knapp Building

Areas of Expertise

Topical: medical anthropology, aging and the life course, kinship and personhood, memory, postsocialist studies, political economy, morality, population studies, palliative and hospice care, gardens.

Geographical: Poland, Central/East Europe, European Union, US.

Courses Taught

ANT 2100 (Introduction to Anthropology)

ANT 3100 (World Cultures)

ANT 5400 (Anthropology of Health and Illness)

ANT 7020/7010 (Anthropological Theory II/Proseminar II)

ANT 7630 (Kinship and Social Relations)

ANT 7680 (Medical Anthropology)


Professional Associations

American Anthropological Association
American Ethnological Society
Association for Anthropology and Gerontology
Gerontological Society of America
Polish Studies Association
Society for the Anthropology of Europe
Society for Medical Anthropology
Soyuz: The Research Network for Postsocialist Cultural Studies





2021 Robbins, J.C. Aging Nationally in Contemporary Poland: Memory, Kinship, and Personhood. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Buch, E., and Robbins, J.C. (2020.) Age, Isolation, and Inequality in the Time of COVID-19. Anthropology Now.

Robbins, J.C. (2020.) Commentary: Towards an Inclusive Anthropology of Aging. Łódzkie Studia Etnograficzne (Ethnographic Studies of Łódź) 59: 231-237.

Robbins, J.C. (2020.) Aging Societies, Civil Societies, and the Role of the Past: Active Aging beyond Demography in Contemporary Poland. East European Politics, Societies & Cultures. 1-17.

Robbins, J.C. (2019). Expanding Personhood beyond Remembered Selves: The Sociality of Memory at an Alzheimer’s Center in Poland. Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Robbins, J.C., and Seibel, K.A. (2019). Temporal Aspects of Wellbeing in Later Life: Gardening among Older African Americans in Detroit. Ageing and Society 1-21.

Seaman, A., Robbins, J.C., and Buch, E. (2019). Beyond the Evaluative Lens: Contextual Unpredictabilities of Care. Journal of Aging Studies.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2014). National Dimensions of Personhood among Older People in Poland. Etnografia Polska (Polish Ethnography) 58(1-2):159-174.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2014). Thinking with “Postsocialism” in an Ethnographic Study of Old Age in Poland. Cargo: Journal for Cultural/Social Anthropology 12(1-2):35-50.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2013). Challenging Marginalization at the Universities of the Third Age in Poland. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(2):157-169.

Robbins, J.C. (2013). Understanding Aktywność in Ethnographic Contexts: Aging, Memory, and Personhood in Poland. Forum Oświatowe (Educational Forum) 1(48):87-101.

Robbins, J.C. (2013). Aktywność i jej etnograficzne konteksty: starzenie się, pamięć i podmiotowość w Polsce. Translation of the above, by Patrycja Poniatowska. Forum Oświatowe. 1(48):103-119.

Robbins, J.C. (2008). “Older Americans” and Alzheimer’s Disease: Citizenship and Subjectivities in Contested Time. Michigan Discussions in Anthropology. 17:14-43.

Robbins, J.C. (2006). “Starsi Amerykanie” a choroba Alzheimera. Biopolityka, podmiotowość i obywatelstwo. (“Older Americans” and Alzheimer’s Disease: Biopolitics, Subjectivities, and Citizenship.) Translated by Ania M. Nowak. In Trzeci wiek drugiej płci: Starsze kobiety jako podmiot aktywności społecznej i kulturowej. (The Third Age of the Second Sex: Older Women as a Social and Cultural Entity.) Edyta Zierkiewicz and Alina Łysak, eds. Wrocław, Poland: MarMar Press. Pp. 223-241.

Book chapters

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J. C. (2017). Aspiring to Activity: Universities of the Third Age, Gardening, and Other Forms of Living in Postsocialist Poland. In Successful Aging: The Anthropology of a 21st Century Obsession. Sarah Lamb, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Pp. 112-125.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2017). Responsibilities of the Third Age and the Intimate Politics of Sociality in Poland. In Competing Responsibilities: The Ethics and Politics of Responsibility in Contemporary Life. Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle, eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Pp. 193-212.

Lamb, S., Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C., Corwin, A. (2017). Introduction. In Successful Aging: A 21st Century Obsession. Sarah Lamb, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Pp. 1-23.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2015). “Active” Aging as Citizenship in Poland. In Generations: Rethinking Age and Citizenship. Richard Marback, ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. Pp. 270-286.

Robbins, J.C. (2013). Shifting Moral Ideals of Aging in Poland: Suffering, Self-Actualization, and the Nation. In Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. Caitrin Lynch and Jason Danely, eds. New York: Berghahn Books. Pp. 79-91.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2018). Aging. In International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell. Hilary Callan, ed.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2016). Exploring the “Shadow Side” of Ethnographic Research on Aging in Poland. Invited essay for centennial issue of Lud (journal of the Polish Ethnological Society). 100:143-152.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. (2016). “Little Sisters’ Home for the Aged Poor.” Digital story created with Katie Korth, as part of Ethnic Layers of Detroit. Digital humanities project, Dr. Krysta Ryzewski, PI.

Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C. and Marback, R. (2015). Conclusion. In Generations: Rethinking Age and Citizenship. Richard Marback, ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. Pp. 313-322.

Červinková, H., Robbins-Ruszkowski, J.C., and Uherek, Z. (2014). Editorial. Cargo: Journal for Cultural/Social Anthropology 12(1-2):1-3.

Robbins, J.C. (2013) Blog post for Wenner-Gren Foundation summarizing conference funded by Engaged Anthropology Grant. July 19.

Robbins, J.C. (2009). Aging, Memory and Personhood in Poland. Anthropology News. 50(8):15-16.


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