Society of Medical Anthropology in Aotearoa

Launch and symposium report

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton

21 Dec 2017

On Wednesday, 15 February 2017, over thirty medical anthropologists from across Aotearoa (New Zealand) attended the launch of the Society of Medical Anthropology of Aotearoa [note 1]‘Aotearoa’ is the most widely known and accepted Māori name for New Zealand.
 (SOMAA). The launch was marked by a day-long symposium with thirteen presentations and a keynote address by Dr. Marcia Inhorn, William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Yale University. The launch of SOMAA is an important move, as it marks not only the growing interest in medical anthropological research and theory in Aotearoa universities, but also a deliberative collective movement committed to making interventions in medical and allied health public policy.

As currently conceptualized, SOMAA will serve as a national collective for medical anthropologists working in or on Aotearoa New Zealand. It offers a generative intellectual space aimed at bringing medical anthropologists together to discuss developments in medical spaces and health policy, and to support each other through regular interactions. The launch and symposium made evident that there was great excitement about collective work, support, and intellectual developments in the field of medical anthropology in Aotearoa. To that end, the day was organized into three main sections: a keynote and roundtable in the morning and two robust panels after lunch. The day concluded with a discussion and jovial group dinner in Wellington City.

Keynote – Cosmopolitan conceptions in global Dubai: A reprolexicon for 21st-century reprotravel

The day opened with an engaging keynote by Dr. Inhorn, titled ‘Cosmopolitan Conceptions in Global Dubai: A Reprolexicon for 21st-Century Reprotravel’. [note 2]‘Reprolexicon’ and ‘reprotravel’ are two terms that Inhorn theoretically develops in her recent book Cosmopolitian Conceptions: IVF Sojourns in Global Dubai (Duke University Press, 2015). Reptrotravel signifies travel for reproductive needs and treatment; reprolexicon is a desire to make language available to talk about reproductive sociality.
 She opened with an ethnographic vignette that took the audience through the halls of one of the conception clinics in Dubai where she had done fieldwork. Using that site as a central point of analysis, she talked about the many 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 a ‘reprolexicon’, she posited that Dubai is a ‘reprohub’ (a hub for reproductive travel and procedures) because of its cosmopolitan medical spaces that make infertility treatment ‘accessible’ to a global clientele. 

Roundtable – Challenging key ideas in medical anthropology: Local perspectives, global contexts  

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 Susanna Trnka (President of SOMAA and at the University of Auckland), Catherine Trundle (Secretary of SOMAA and at Victoria University of Wellington), Nayantara Sheoran Appleton (Victoria University of Wellington), Ruth Fitzgerald (University of Otago), and Tarapuhi Bryers Brown (at Thinkplace, Wellington and a graduate of the cultural anthropology program at Victoria University). Trnka discussed her work with Trundle, which argues for a wider understanding of responsibility than the current neoliberal projects of responsibilization. Trundle reflected on work with Hannah Gibson and Lara Bell to reconceptualize the concept of vulnerability within medical anthropology in order to show how positive and negative modes of vulnerability intersect within illness and healing. Fitzgerald discussed how ideas of choice in a New Zealand context reflect local cultural ideals, specifically around enduring relationships and responsibilities to society and the state. Appleton focused on ethics in biomedicine and the need for them to emerge from the ‘everyday’, as opposed to some abstract universal. Brown’s concluding remarks discussed the idea of healing by acknowledging the Māori and colonial histories of universities and the spaces occupied by contemporary medical anthropologists, both in Aotearoa in general and in that university room in particular. 

Key conversations

Care, citizenship, and the politics of well-being

The first panel featured papers by Fitzgerald, Sharyn Graham Davies (Auckland University of Technology), Susan Wardell (University of Otago), and Margaret Nyarango (Thinkplace, Wellington). They all made a compelling case for looking at care and well-being of self and other (sometimes in service of nation) as important sites of medical anthropological analysis. Drawing on similar literatures to that referenced by Inhorn, the panel presentations made evident that medical anthropology in different locations (Dubai, Aotearoa, and Indonesia) has valuable contributions to make in understanding the local while drawing on the global.

Reproduction, kinship, and health

The second panel continued with a focus on critically examining how health and kinship are deeply intertwined in Aotearoa New Zealand, as in most societies. The panelists discussed their work on subjects including surrogacy families (Hannah Gibson, Victoria University of Wellington), Tongan networks in genetic-testing clinical settings (Heather Mann, Massey University, Palmerston North), Zulu tribes (Eva Maureau, Abel Tasman Canyons), and schools in low-income communities in Aotearoa (Julie Spray, University of Auckland).

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 papers collectively examined the myopic public policy that drives some problematic initiatives and how medical anthropological interventions can help prevent this disregard for the local.

SOMAA launch and symposium: A prolegomenon for the future

The launch, exciting as it was, made evident that this first meeting was but the start of a very long conversation about medical anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand. Trundle, in a postsymposium discussion pointed out that:

SOMAA reflects both a growing interest in medical anthropology among scholars and students in New Zealand, and an increasing desire within the medical anthropology community to engage publically with local and national debates about health and healthcare. Medical anthropologists in Aotearoa New Zealand also have many important perspectives to offer international debates within the discipline, particularly in conversations about the intersections of private and public healthcare within neoliberal settings, how indigenous models of health transform biomedicine, and how localized ethics intersect with global healthcare practices and debates.

These remarks are a reflection about medical anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand and the launch symbolizes a collective opportunity for engaging and critical medical anthropology. The speakers and attendees represented six of the leading anthropology programmes in Aotearoa New Zealand including University of Auckland, University of Otago, University of Canterbury, Massey University, Auckland University of Technology, and Victoria University of Wellington. While the cultural anthropology programme of the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria University of Wellington was the host of the first meeting, the plan is to have different institutions across the country host SOMAA meetings over the next few years.  Already, an active reading group on the intersections between queer theory and medical anthropology is underway.

The organizational committee for the first meeting included Trundle, Gibson, and Appleton. The volunteers for the day, instrumental in making the event run smoothly, were anthropology graduate students Zoe Poppelwell, Callan Sait, and Annabel Bennett. For additional information on SOMAA and to stay abreast of our latest events, click here:

About the author

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton is a lecturer in the cultural anthropology programme at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work is in the fields of anthropology (medical, feminist, and visual), cultural studies, gender and sexuality studies, and science and technology studies. She is currently working on a book manuscript that seeks to critically analyze the implications of shifts in the politics of health and reproduction in liberalized India by focusing particularly on pharmaceutical contraceptives. Her second project on stem cell research and therapy extends her engagement with biomedically promoted regenerative medicine and burgeoning biotechnologies. She is also interested in anthropological methods for studying biomedicine.