Medical anthropologists in/of Aotearoa meet for launch and symposium

By Nayantara Sheoran Appleton.

On Wednesday February 15th, just over 30 medical anthropologists from across New Zealand attended the launch of the Society of Medical Anthropology of Aotearoa (SOMAA). The launch was marked by a daylong symposium with 13 presentations and a keynote address by Professor Marcia Inhorn who is the William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Yale University. SOMAA “is a national collective for medical anthropologists working in or on Aotearoa.” It will serve as intellectual space aimed at brining medical anthropologists together to discuss developments in medical spaces, health policy, and support each other through regular interactions. The launch and symposium made evident that there was great excitement about collective work and the intellectual developments in the field.

The day opened with a short introduction by Dr. Catherine Trundle and Associate Professor Susanna Trnka, the secretary and president of SOMAA respectively. Welcoming everybody, they outlined the aims and scope of the group. This was followed by an engaging keynote by Professor Inhorn, titled, “Cosmopolitan Conceptions in Global Dubai: A Reprolexicon for 21st Century Reprotravel.” She opened with an ethnographic vignette that took us, the audience, through the halls of one of the conception clinics in Dubai where she had done fieldwork. Using that site as central point of analysis, she talked about the various couples that had traveled across the globe to seek out infertility treatment in this ‘cosmopolitan’ hub. Drawing on five key terms that she has developed as part of this work, what she calls the ‘reprolexicon,’ she posited that Dubai is a ‘reprobub’ because of it cosmopolitan medical spaces that make infertility treatment ‘accessible’ to a global clientele.

The keynote was followed by a roundtable that aimed at addressing some of the key ideas in contemporary medical anthropology including ‘responsibility,’ ‘vulnerability,’ ‘ethics,’ ‘choice,’ and ‘healing.’ The roundtable comprised of junior and senior scholars including Associate Professor Trnka, Dr. Trundle, Dr. Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, Associate Professor Ruth Fitzgerald, and a former student of the cultural anthropology program Ms. Tarapuhi Bryers-Brown. An impressive roundtable, was made particularly pointed by the concluding remarks made by Ms. Bryers-Brown tying in all concepts to the idea of healing by acknowledging the historicity of the Māori space being occupied by contemporary medical anthropologists – in Aotearoa in general and in that university room in particular.

The morning keynote and rigorous roundtable set the tone for the day, which while engaging and exciting also enable some contemplative ways of approaching medical anthropology here in New Zealand. A break and then two panels with four presentations each in the afternoon followed the morning sessions.

The first panel, ‘Care, Citizenship, and the Politics of Wellbeing’ featured papers by Dr. Fitzgerald, Associate Professor Sharyn Graham Davies, Dr. Susan Wardell, and Ms. Margaret Nyarango. They all made the compelling case for looking at care and wellbeing of self and other (sometimes in service of nation) as important sites of medical anthropological analysis. The second panel, ‘ Reproduction, Kinship, and Health’ continued with the focus on critically examining how health and kinship are deeply intertwined in Aotearoa (like most societies). The work drew heavily on anthropological fieldwork in interesting new sites like surrogacy families for Ms. Hannah Gibson, Tongan networks in clinical settings as they discuss genetic testing for Ms. Heather Mann, the Zulu tribes for Dr. Eva Maureau, and rheumatic fever testing in low decile schools in Aotearoa for Ms. Julie Spray. The two panels were ethnographically rich and instructive of the range of work being done by medical anthropologists in and of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The speakers and attendees represent six of the leading anthropology programs in the country from University of Auckland, University of Otago, University of Canterbury, Massey University, Auckland University of Technology, and Victoria University of Wellington. The symposium was held in the Old Kirk building and the room was filled to capacity. The cultural anthropology program in the School of Social and Cultural Studies (SSCS) provided coffee and a sumptuous lunch. The organizational committee included Dr. Trundle, Ms. Gibson, and Dr. Appleton. The volunteers for the day, instrumental in making the event run smoothly, were Zoe Poppelwell, Callan Sait, and Annabel Bennett.


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