Sharing “impediments and catalysts”: notes on the MAYS meeting in Tarragona, June 10-11 2013

From June 10th to June 14th, the Catalan city of Tarragona, Spain, saw its population rise by about 500, as medical anthropologists from over 51 countries arrived for two associated conferences, the Medical Anthropology Young Scholars (MAYS) Annual Meeting and the Joint International EASA-SMA Medical Anthropology Conference. While the EASA-SMA conference certainly took the central stage, the MAYS Annual Meeting was an important part of my conference experience in Tarragona, as it was for many other students who made the trek to Spain in early June and convened at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili campus. Because the spotlight mostly fell on the “Encounters and Engagements” meeting, I would like to dedicate this post to discuss my impressions as a first-time presenter and attendee at MAYS.

The Medical Anthropology Young Scholars network was founded in 2009 by Susanne Huschke and Claire Beaudevin to create a space where young European medical anthropology students could get to know each other, share their research, ask and give suggestions about European MA and PhD programs, and stay informed on funding and research opportunities. MAYS is a special interest group under the Medical Anthropology network of the European Association of Social Anthropology (EASA). Unlike EASA however, joining MAYS does not require any membership fee and just entails subscribing to the google group, or being updated through the website or Facebook page.

While the network is mostly made of European-based MA students, PhD students and post-docs, this year’s international conference drew a good number of overseas participants.

In their call for papers for the MAYS conference, Katerina Ferkov (University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia) and Dominik Mattes (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany), the current network coordinators, invited contributions that addressed the many challenges that medical anthropologists face in different phases of the research process. These included factors that young researchers find “stimulating” or “aggravating” while preparing for the field, doing fieldwork, writing up or in disseminating their results. The coordinators encouraged contributors to outline tentative new agendas for the discipline inspired by those same “impediments and catalysts.”

Further suggestions in the call for papers prompted questions regarding different themes: geography (what are the physical boundaries of the field in an interconnected world?); time frame (are we just visiting or are we aiming for long-lasting ties?); methods (are our methods useful and are there any others we should be using?); ethics (what defines ethics in the field and what are we held accountable for?); language and audience (how and who are we writing for?); the role of the researcher (how does the anthropologist’s subjectivity come into play? ); and finally, the structural framework (how do institutions and funding dynamics affect what and how research is carried out?).

I found all the questions extremely pertinent and thought-provoking. What really resonated with me were issues I had grappled with in my own brief research experience. The temporary nature of fieldwork, its ethical implications and its relational limitations were all aspects I had to confront while conducting fieldwork for my MA thesis with brain injury survivors in a rehabilitation center in the Midwest of the United States. I very much looked forward to listening to others’ perspectives on their conundrums as well as developing insight onto my own.

Upon arriving in Tarragona and meeting a few other fellow participants, I realized that I was not alone. Many were eager to voice their concerns, articulate their discomforts about ethnography, unravel theoretical knots during their presentations and beyond. The meeting structure allowed for all this to occur mainly via two different routes, which corresponded to two distinct panel sessions. While one addressed the delicate positioning of the anthropologist in the field (“immersing in fieldwork as a relational process”), the other focused on the ethical commitments and political repercussions of research (“meeting ethico-political responsibilities”).

The first session grouped contributions focusing on the role of the anthropologist, both as a medium of participatory observation whose actions inevitably informs its objects, and as a new social actor within a community, who often raises some degree of suspicion or puzzlement.

“What’s a medical anthropologist to do in a hospital?” was one of the questions raised by Alice Larotonda’s presentation (University of Amsterdam). Reflecting on her work in a pediatric rare disease unit in Italy, she noted that it is “the clinical incompetence” of medical anthropologists that allows for the ethnographic method to be powerful in a clinical setting. The legitimization of the discipline in the biomedical world was also discussed in regards to accessibility of language and targeted audience, be it clinicians or patients.

The Meeting ethico-political responsibilities panel session tackled methodological and ethical issues ranging from being involved in grey political areas while researching chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients in Uruguay (Megan Wainwright, University of Durham) to investigating medical students’ conceptualizations of the body in the anatomical room in Denmark (Maria Olejaz, University of Copenhagen). Information management, ownership and dissemination were also addressed as part of the ethical issue of returning research findings to participants. It was suggested that insights from anthropology were often limited by disciplinary format and style; differentiating language and  presenting research through visual media were discussed as alternative ways to communicate findings to different interlocutors – research participants, health practitioners and policy makers.

Contributions throughout all of the sessions expressed the range of impediments and catalysts encountered in research on different aspects of care, carried out in a wide range of geographical locations. At the end of the meeting, the final plenary session summed up what had emerged throughout the two days, having all participants actively share thoughts on new agendas for next year’s meeting. One issue that seemed to be pertinent was the question of geography, not applied to fieldwork in this case, but to the conference itself. The meeting had some cancellations due to funding issues faced by a few presenters, and the question was raised as to which it would be necessary to physically attend the meeting to present and rather have technology lend a hand to compensate for lack of funding or great distances. Another suggestion was to create a database for MAYS to share fieldwork locations and research topics. MAYS coordinators were also eager to point out that they could be contacted if any of the members needed advice in facing a particular situation in the field. For the meetings to come, some participants expressed interest in having skill-forming workshops on an array of practical challenges most students and researchers face in their career: how to effectively write an abstract or paper, how to work through the application process, how to successfully draft a grant proposal, how to deal with one’s own institution’s ethics board. While such skills are mostly picked up along the way as a learning-by-doing process, these actually do constitute impediments that could be dealt with through mutual collaboration.

As a Master’s graduate attending my second conference, on top of reporting on the ethical and methodological (in)adequacies encountered in my fieldwork with brain injury survivors, I had to face the inadequacy that came with being a mostly inexperienced presenter. Going to MAYS before the EASA-SMA allowed me to get acclimated with presenting, get my bearings and listen to suggestions from other participants.

The relatively small number of MAYS attendees – at least compared to the meeting that would follow in the next few days – allowed for close interactions, lots of discussions over tapas and insightful feedback, in many ways in which the EASA-SMA meeting to follow would not, for obvious reasons, the main one being its size. The “engagements” and “encounters” that I experienced during the MAYS meeting lasted into the following days and, in my view, made the entire conference week much more fruitful, a collective experience which provided some guidance in the extremely stimulating – but at times disorienting – stream format that was to follow.

Personally, the conference helped me to understand my research, but also addressed larger questions about what it means to be young, committed to and interested in medical anthropology. The participants realized to be part of a small, though vibrant, community, whose members are seriously engaged with important epistemological, theoretical and practical issues in and out of the field.

MAYS created a venue to discuss personal and academic impediments and catalysts, striking a balance between unpacking methodological challenges and ethical concerns, addressing the many practical difficulties in research, while creating informal spaces to socialize and give and take advice. The atmosphere of this kind of productive uneasiness and constructive disquiet led to an extremely satisfying and engaging meeting. Who knew that sharing inadequacies could be so rewarding?


Livia Garofalo received a master’s in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Bologna, Italy, with graduate coursework at the University of Chicago. Her thesis looked at traumatic brain injury survivors’ ambivalent experience of rehabilitation. She is currently a research assistant at University of Chicago Medicine in the Department of Surgery in a project on early childhood language disparities.