10 questions with ... Susan Wardell

In this installment of '10 questions with ...' we chat with Dr Susan Wardell about her recently published book, Living in the Tension: Care, Selfhood, and Wellbeing Among Faith-based Youth Workers (2018).

1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?

The book is founded on an interest in ‘caring for the carers’ - acknowledging first that for lots of amazing people in helping professions, giving, serving, and caring for others can still have a cost to their own wellbeing at times. ‘Burnout’ is one big buzzword for this at the moment, in a lot of different professions. Experiences such as burnout can threaten things very important to a care worker, including their sense of identity, purpose, and desire to be a ‘good’ professional, citizen, or carer. The second main thread of the book is about recognising the many different ways people are resilient and creative in the ways they respond to these darker parts of their experience of caring. This includes how they manage their emotions and wellbeing, and how they make sense of them through stories.


I use faith-based (Christian) youth workers as a case study for all this. It makes an interesting case study because I am able to show these young people draw from medical and psychological systems of meaning, as well as neoliberal/managerial ones, and also spiritual ones - sometimes all mixed in! Being an anthropological study, the book also compares between two different groups of youth workers, one in New Zealand and one in Uganda, to try and get a sense about how all of these things – care, compassion, vocation, spirituality, wellbeing, emotion, mental health and illness – are shaped by culture and context.

2. Why now?

Burnout is a big topic in the caring professions right now … and more widely in the working world. It had rarely been studied anthropologically or cross-culturally before. So I started my study looking at burnout and aiming to fill these gaps, but found I needed to widen my lens to wellbeing more generally, and actually let myself see ‘burnout’ as a culturally specific idiom of distress, related to specific neoliberal modes of subjectification. This is the other part of the ‘why now’, as below …

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

Neoliberalism is of course a major topic throughout academia at the moment, and though I didn’t set out to study this, it became impossible not to. The book speaks to (or rather against) a tendency to over-simplify a dichotomy between spiritual and capitalist, or spiritual and managerialist lenses. Youth work as a vocation, a realm of paid work (mixed with volunteer) especially in New Zealand, is fertile ground for ethnographic study that contributes to these conservations; following books like Andrea Muehlebach’s book The Moral Neoliberal (2012) for example.

The second thing I try and unsettle is some of the essentialising, modernist views of self/identity present in much work on ‘emotional labour’. While the theory has previously framed the pain of emotional labour as stemming from a disjunct between real and false self, I apply a more radically post-structuralist notion to this, reframing it as a tension between two different selves, both discursively constructed, but one which may be ‘cherished’ or internalized more closely, and thus labelled as or experienced as ‘real’.

4. What drew you to your topic?

My own experiences of burnout. My own involvement with volunteer work, non-profit sectors, and faith-based youth work … all while young, and studying. Witnessing both people who did suffer, like me, and those who seemed to go for years and years and stay healthy and balanced … I developed a burning desire to answer the question of ‘why’? I wanted to know the ‘secret’. Of course I didn’t get any simple answers to this, though I did get a chance to go deep into other people’s similar journeys and similar questions, and unpack some of the threads of meaning behind theiranswers. I do believe that most research is more personal than most of academia lets on, so I’m not ashamed to be steered by my own pressing existential concerns, into this very interesting area.

5. How was your publisher, Carolina Academic Press?

Extremely helpful. They made the process very smooth and non-intimidating, for a first-time author.

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

I really like talking about metaphors, especially where these become embodied. Talking about the ‘self-as-vessel’ (Chapters 8 and 9) felt interesting to me ethnographically. I am also proud of the way it comes together at a higher level in the final chapter (13), and the metaphor of the aerial dancer that came through as a way of expressing these theoretical connections of identity, performance, subjectification.

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

Because this book was developed from my PhD thesis, I think its final form, style, and tone, was not necessarily the result of intentional processes, but several different ‘evolutions’ and revisions of the test. I am also interested in creative writing and would probably be braver next time in exploring this, and particularly in moving away from authoritative writing modes to bring myself more into the frame and be more deconstructive reflexive about knowledge-making (in the field, and in the writing process). I called the book ‘intimate’, and I still hold this as a goal, but I think it could have been much more so.

8. Would you write another book?

Absolutely. There is something about a book that fulfils the dream of ‘closure’ around a certain project of topic. This is of course entirely false. Like art, ethnographic research is never ‘finished’, only abandoned. The covers of a book do not represent a start and end of the conversation, but are simply parenthesis in a much longer conversation. But it is still satisfying to hold it in your hands, a small monument to your own journey.

9. What’s next?

Since so much of my life has been about teaching since finishing my PhD, I’ve been working on some pedagogical research about affect in the classroom, that is currently top of the pile. But also ... grant proposals! I would love to do some more fieldwork, as I’ve been doing a lot of analysis of either classrooms, or online communities/texts since then, and I feel like getting some fresh air would be nice!

10. What are you reading at the moment?

As part of my pedagogical research, I’ve been reading a lot of work by Michalinos Zemblyas. The one that most impacted me was:

Zemblyas, M. (2012). ‘Critical pedagogy and emotion: working through ‘troubled knowledge’ in posttraumatic contexts’, Critical Studies in Education, 54 (2), pp. 176-189.

I’ve been really struck by how well this applies to historical and anthropological knowledge in or about New Zealand, as a (post?-)colonial nation. Paired with Dimitrina Spencer’s article in Teaching Anthropology, about emotional reflexivity in the discipline, I think this is a really rich area of possibility in terms of both teaching and research also.

Spencer, D. (2011). ‘Emotions and the Transformative Potential of Fieldwork: Some Implications for Teaching and Learning Anthropology’, Teaching Anthropology, 1 (2). https://doi.org/10.22582/ta.v1i2.301

In terms of ethnography, I’ve been reading Matthew Engelke’s book about Zimbabwean Apostolics, A Problem of Presence (2007). Fascinating; I love all his work. I’m looking next to get my hands on Robert Desjarlais’ recent book Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World (2016). His earlier ethnography of Nepal (Body and Emotion, 1992) is one of my favourites.

Susan Wardell is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Otago. She is also the Otago representative for SOMAA (Society of Medical Anthropology in Aotearoa, a section of ASAA/NZ).