Interview with Dr Barbara Andersen, Social Anthropology, Massey University (Auckland)

 Dr Barbara Andersen

Dr Barbara Andersen

On Wednesday 9 March 2016 Dr Barbara Andersen gave an ethnographically rich seminar titled "Gender, Infrastructure, and Health Care in Papua New Guinea" at Victoria University of Wellington. Her seminar drew on the concept of infrastructural violence to illuminate some of the challenges faced by nurses and nursing students in Papua New Guinea. Her discussion of how nursing students learn to navigate unreliable infrastructure that the state cannot (or will not) maintain - such as the lack of adequate buildings, roads, equipment, water supply, electricity, and security - highlighted the harmful and avoidable problems posed by infrastructural violence.

I took the opportunity afforded by Barbara's visit to Wellington to interview her about her studies and how she became interested in anthropology. Barbara started university at the age of nineteen with the intention of studying anthropology. She told me that this interest did not occur due to a specific moment in her life; instead, she had always had an interest in archaeology and history:

“I became specifically interested in medical anthropology after taking an undergraduate paper with Stacy Leigh Pigg at Simon Fraser University in Canada. One of my parents was chronically ill for much of my childhood, and I found that medical anthropology could help me understand why this experience was so disruptive and sometimes confusing.”

For her dissertation Barbara worked with nursing students in Papua New Guinea and how they were trained to think about social inequality. Within her research she focused on the relationship between health care and social change. Barbara’s research also illustrates how ideas about social class, development, and education increasingly infuse perceptions of personhood in Papua New Guinea. As a budding anthropologist myself I was interested in what barriers she accounted working in the “field.” She said:

“The main barriers to my research were institutional. It took me over a year to obtain permission to do fieldwork in a Papua New Guinean nursing school, and I was never able to get permission to work in hospital wards. This was partly due to ethical concerns about what my presence might mean for patients, but I believe was largely about jurisdictional issues between different government entities and policies governing research. Papua New Guinea is a postcolonial nation and many people in the public service are wary of foreign researchers who they think are unlikely to contribute to national development. There is also a history of unethical behaviour by foreign researchers, including anthropologists.”

However this is not to say that engaging in this particular part of fieldwork was without reward, both in an academic and personal sense. Barbara was quick to note the many aspects of her fieldwork that she enjoyed:

“Despite these initial barriers, I felt very welcomed by the nursing school staff and students… Traveling locally in PNG is an amazing experience. Much of my research took place in a single, urban location, but I frequently took long bus trips out of province to visit friends—or trips to rural communities for nursing practicums—and these experiences of travel were not only fun and exciting, but also taught me a lot about perceptions of space and social difference in PNG”. 

While Barbara notes that her experience did not necessarily to encourage her to be reflexive of the differences between Western and Papua New Guinean medicine, it did provide her with something else:

“This may not be directly connected with medicine per se, but interacting with nursing students made me more reflexive about how experiences of social disconnection and dislocation affect the body. Many students arrived at the nursing college from different provinces and they talked about how being away from their homes made them feel sick and weak, and lose weight (which they considered a negative event). I also felt weak and tired a lot during fieldwork, and these conversations made me realize the value of this sort of sociocentric view of the body—like, of course people get sick when they are in a strange place, separated from their loved ones! When I came back to PNG after going home for Christmas, people would compliment me on having gained weight and looking more healthy, and they would say that I must have been happy to be with my family. The idea that people’s relationships show on their skin can be a powerful moral vision."

I found this point of great interest because of how it provided me with an insight of how we can relate to and understand our research participants in a symbolic and embodied sense.

Barbara Andersen holds a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from New York University and took up a permanent position at Massey University's Albany campus in 2015. Her dissertation, Our People are Still Out There: Nursing Education and Dilemmas of Development in Papua New Guinea (2014), investigates how nursing education prepares students for the challenges of working as medical professionals in conditions of heightened gender inequality and gender violence. Her other interests include the gendered consequences of resource extraction projects, land tenure reform and monetization; Papua New Guineans' conceptions of race and class; and missionary medicine.