6th Medical Anthropology Young Scholars (MAYS) Annual Conference

Tanja Ahlin, Annelieke Driessen, Natashe Lemos Dekker, Judith Schühle

28 Oct 2015

What are the relationships between medical anthropology and emotions? How are emotions present in our work, and how do we work with them? What counts as emotion at all? These and similar questions were the starting point of the 6th annual MAYS conference, which took place on 11–12 June 2015 in Amsterdam. The conference was opened with a keynote by Ria Reis of the Anthropology Department of the University of Amsterdam. She suggested that emotions are not an unnecessary ‘fungus’ that should be cleansed from research, as once advised by Claude Levi-Strauss (1955). Working against the dichotomy between emotions and rationality that is still present within anthropological debates, Reis proposed that our conference consider 1) emotion as a research topic, 2) emotion as a method, and 3) the emotional consequences of research. This theoretical and methodological framework was further explored in four smaller groups over the two days of the conference.

Emotion as a research topic

Reis noted that emotions in anthropology have been examined mainly under the branch of psychological anthropology, which to date remains a small field of several different schools (including psychoanalytic anthropology, psychiatric anthropology, and ethnopsychology, among others). Anthropologists of emotions seek to understand, for example, the links between emotions and social suffering and the specific ways in which these become articulated. During the conference, Ben Belek (Cambridge University), for instance, analyzed how emotional rhetoric is used online in the context of autism self-advocacy in the United States. He argued that the language of emotions is a powerful instrument of resistance and that autistic people in his study used it to negotiate their identity, representation, and social position. Marcos Andrade Neves (UFRFHS/Freie Universität Berlin) discussed how various interest groups utilize emotions related to euthanasia and assisted suicide to claim rights, and how different groups may resort to the same emotions to achieve different or contradictory goals.

The topic of pain featured in several presentations. Sarah Seerup Laursen (University of Southern Denmark) explored how pain is constructed as a physical, emotional, and moral event at a pain clinic in Denmark, and Emmaly Berghuis (VU University Amsterdam) examined the experience of and practices related to chronic pain among Moroccan migrant women in the Netherlands. These presentations raised questions about emotion and pain: When does the physical feeling of pain change into an emotion? How is this process embedded in specific cultural contexts? It was agreed that terms needed to be used thoughtfully: What is a ‘feeling’? What is an ‘emotion’? Can these terms be used interchangeably and, if so, in what circumstances? 

Emotion as method

In her keynote address, Reis argued that using emotions as a methodological tool requires significant (self-)reflection before, during, and after fieldwork. Using the notion of ‘emotion as method’, we discussed the effort to be aware of and subsequently take into account one’s feelings in the questions one asks, making one’s own vulnerabilities a part of the research endeavor. A challenge hereby is to balance distance and proximity. In an earlier work, Reis (1998) described how resonance – making a connection between what is being observed in the field and the researcher’s own past experience – may be used as an analytic method. Maria Lo Bosco (University of Lisbon), conducting fieldwork among caregivers and family members of autistic children in Portugal, convincingly argued that a researcher’s emotional experience is a ‘valid and powerful sensory way of knowing, an instrument of deep-engagement with people in the field’. During the conference, Francesca De Luca (University of Lisbon) analyzed childbirth pain in the biomedical context in Portugal by reflecting on archival records of birth pain and sensitively comparing her findings with her own experience of childbirth.

Emotional consequences

How do researchers, particularly young anthropologists, deal with emotions related to their fieldwork? As Reis noted, studies have indicated that many doctoral students experience distress during and after fieldwork, particularly in relation to safety issues, ethical dilemmas, and challenging situations in the field setting. Marion Linska (University of Vienna) raised the important point that many researchers feel they ‘could have done better’. Research on suffering, especially, may lead to distress due to the researcher’s direct exposure to extreme events, mirroring (empathy), and resonance with one’s previous experience (Wikan 1992). Among other things, this may cause difficulties in (academic and professional) functioning. Reis concluded that while not all fieldwork leads to emotional problems, the researcher-as-subject is always at stake, which is why emotions should be reflected upon systematically during all phases of research.

In a workshop on research and affect, Thomas Stodulka (Freie Universität Berlin) presented a lecture entitled ‘The Emotional Economies of Fieldwork and Ethnography’, via Skype from his field site in Bali. Stodulka stressed that emotions are fascinating phenomena, and that acknowledging them is crucial to doing research well. Fieldwork can be understood as emotional labor (Spencer and Davies 2010), but researchers’ emotions often remain undervalued and are even less frequently the direct object of research. Eager to counter this undervaluation, Stodulka set up a project in which researchers used an emotional diary to document their emotions during fieldwork. Herein, ‘field emotions’ (emotions that we as researchers have in relation to our research projects, such as distress over the many social roles one takes, or anxiety about doing research the wrong way or not doing enough) were distinguished from ‘epistemic emotions’ (emotions directly related to actual encounters with interlocutors, informants, and observed phenomena). He posited that discussing field emotions may demonstrate one’s ability to reflect on one’s work, and that the latter are relational data. The authors of this report wonder whether emotions in the field could not also blur this distinction: if we develop relationships with our respondents in the field, would the joy and satisfaction that result from fieldwork encounters not be classified as field emotions (for our relationships are our greatest method) and well as epistemic emotions?

The workshop continued with an invitation by Samia Dinkelaker and Ferdiansyah Thajib (Freie Universität Berlin) to take part in an ‘Empirical Affect Montage’. Sharing participants’ vignettes on emotionally challenging or surprising field encounters, we productively discussed how emotions can be useful in uncovering previously unknown support systems in the field and how they may be a very real consequence of our work.

Highly relevant for many young scholars was the workshop by Niko Besnier (University of Amsterdam), who was stepping into his role as the new editor-in-chief of American Ethnologist. During this workshop, both the necessity and practicalities of publishing were discussed. Important questions we pondered were: Why publish? How can we best show the relevance of our work? How to write an introduction that will catch the interest of editors?

During the wrap-up session, many emotions were voiced and shared: MAYS 2015 left us inspired, happy, connected, slightly exhausted, and analytically positively unsettled. We are excited about the next MAYS conference, which will take place in June 2016. Natashe Lemos Dekker (University of Amsterdam) will co-organize the event for another year. Maria Lo Bosco (University of Lisbon) will be replacing this year’s co-organizer, Judith Schühle (Freie Universität Berlin). Natashe and Maria cordially invite all young scholars in medical anthropology to participate in 2016.

About the authors 

Tanja Ahlin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam, working in the fields of medical anthropology and science and technology studies (STS). In her research project, she explores the influence of everyday information and communication technologies on elderly care in Indian transnational families.

Annelieke Driessen is PhD Candidate in the Long Term Care and Dementia project at the University of Amsterdam. In her ethnographic research she looks at relationality, personhood and the body in the provision and reception of care with bathing, eating and movement, in three nursing homes for elderly living with dementia in the Netherlands.

Natashe Lemos Dekker is a PhD candidate in the medical anthropology department at the University of Amsterdam. Her research is on long-term care and dementia in the Netherlands with a specific focus on the end of life and the politics of death. Based on ethnographic fieldwork she analyzes the social processes and the management of death and dying with dementia.

Judith Schühle is a research associate and PhD candidate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin. Her multi-sited research focuses on the migration of Nigerian physicians to the US, the UK and Trinidad and Tobago. She is interested in skilled migration, biomedical pluralism and actors’ positioning on a global biomedical landscape. Together with Natashe Lemos-Dekker, she was elected coordinator of the Medical Anthropology Young Scholars (MAYS) network 2014-2015.


Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. Tristes tropiques. Paris: Librarie Plon.
Reis, Ria. 1998. ‘Resonating to Pain: Introspection as a Tool in Medical Anthropology “at home”’. Anthropology & Medicine 5: 295–310.
Spencer, Dimitrina, and James Davies. 2010. Anthropological Fieldwork. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. http://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/57829.
Wikan, Unni. 1992. ‘Beyond the Words: The Power of Resonance’. American Ethnologist 19: 460–82.