Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution

Posted by Emily Henderson

Heartened. How's that for an opener? It was my privilege this past August to present a paper at the European Association for Social Anthropologists biennial conference, hosted by Tallin University in Estonia. The theme was ‘Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution’, in honour of Estonia’s 25th anniversary of their struggle and success in gaining independence from Russia after the Soviet fall.

The city of Tallin, Estonia
I am particularly grateful for this experience because of the importance of international exchange to my work. The panel I contributed to was entitled ‘Bodies out of bounds: anthropological approaches to obesity practices’. It aimed to rethink common understandings of obesity, and encourage interdisciplinary approaches to such a complex issue. I presented preliminary findings from my Wellcome Trust funded project exploring perceptions of the contribution of psychosocial factors to obesity. In short, I explore how cultural understandings of the causes of obesity and who is to ‘blame’ determines the ways in which all of us decide how obesity is to be addressed. I argue for the anthropological contribution to health interventions because it puts humanness and the human perspective and at the centre of these decisions. An outcome of this panel is an EASA special interest group, which I currently chair.

Brown peaty waters of the bogs, Lahemaa National Park
A shared issue that emerged from our collaboration was our belief that, while the study of obesity can be fascinating from a theoretical perspective, it also must be able to make an impact on health and wellbeing. The field of public health anthropology is considered ‘applied’ research, distinct from ‘pure’ research. This false dichotomy implies in the first that research cannot be both applied and generate theory, and that applied research is somehow ‘impure’. Central to social anthropology is ethnography and the personal contemplation it requires, as well as an emphasis on social justice. The translational research we do at Fuse - in particular through the coproduction model whereby those in policy and practice are equal partners in driving research - requires academics to give up their authoritative power over knowledge. This compels us academics to open up our disciplines to the world which is outside of our ‘pure’ surroundings.

Lantern collection at the Kasmu Sea Museum, on the Baltic Sea
The other panel I attended was ‘Anthropology as a vocation and occupation’, which served as a forum for exchange on career prospects at a time when the global economic crisis threatens higher education. A main focus was on the ‘precariat’ researcher who is unable to find jobs or job security, (or more specific to academia, ‘cognariats’) many of whom are ‘early career’ researchers. A little bird told me we should give great thanks to postdocs at Durham University, because their external funding is used to run our offices. It’s a fitting analogy that we supply the lighting around universities. Rather than the term 'young scholars' perhaps a positive spin would be call us 'fresh scholars'. At this conference, I may have received the best professional complement ever: A fellow obesity ‘fresh scholar’ said my work asked the bigger questions; alas for him, he feels only permanent ‘academic staff’ in France have the luxury of thinking deeply. In a setting where The Rule of the Game is ‘Publish or Perish’, free thinking is one of the few remaining perks to being merely ‘research-only staff’ in higher education, and is the life raft to which we cling.

Past, present, future
Life grows out of a deserted Soviet submarine
base, on the Baltic Sea
Finally, Estonia really captured me. Taking a cheeky guided tour to Lahemaa, their largest national forest, I observed first-hand their love of nature, as over half their country remains forested. While cooling our toes in boggy waters, a local employed by Skype, a company created within Estonia, told me all about the cutting edge technology going on in Estonia. Our guide ‘begged’ us that if we were to remember one thing about Estonia, it’s that they are Baltic and Nordic people, distinct from eastern Europe. I was struck by Estonians’ ability to preserve their heritage, and also to innovate and make their mark as a new EU nation. Perhaps one will be their example of conservation. The lesson I took away from my trip was that in order to drive forward, we have to keep looking back. Given the opportunity of reflection on my trip, I felt revived and ready to face challenges forward. Presently, this means cracking on with the business of it.

This trip was funded very generously by Fuse and Durham University’s Centre for Public Policy and Health (WHO Collaborating Centre on Complex Health Systems Research, Knowledge and Action).

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