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Medical anthropologist provokes new thinking about water

- Wits University

Distinguished Professor Lenore Manderson created WATERSHED: Art, Science and Elemental Politics, a programme to provoke new thinking about water.

WATERSHED: Art, Science and Elemental Politics runs from 10-21 September 2018 at venues across Wits campuses, in Braam, and in Newtown and includes interactive art installations and performances, engineering, humanities and science displays, and interdisciplinary scholarly panels. It aims to facilitate conversation and build collaborations across creative arts practice and theory, the humanities, and the social, natural and physical sciences.

The sound of a forest

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise? This philosophical question about a natural phenomenon reflects how disciplines can merge. Similarly, acoustic ecologists map environmental sounds. Take that forest, for example. What is the impact on a local ecology if you remove not all the trees, but only a few?

“Bernie Krause recorded the sounds of a forest continually for a year.  After a year, there were massive changes in the biodiversity. We tend to privilege the visual over audio, but sound is often more sensitive than the visual,” says Lenore Manderson, Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology in the School of Public Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits.

Manderson is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), Brown University, USA, an honorary professor at Khon Kaen University, Thailand, and Adjunct Professor at Monash University.

“What does a polluted river sound like? It’s actually quite noisy,” says Manderson.

The point is that the absence of visual evidence doesn’t mean there isn’t any impact. 

And so it is with water.

Manderson conceptualised and directs WATERSHED:   This is a unique, topical, and important programme of exhibitions and academic symposia to provoke new thinking about water.

“The artwork is about getting people working outside the academy to engage with water in a way that they haven’t before. If you’re a dancer, for example, you may never go to a seminar by an earth scientist on palaeogeology, but finding ways to bring together artists and scientists opens up how you understand the world and what you understand to be the issues,” says Manderson, who lives in Melbourne, Australia; Rhode Island, USA; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

A social historian of medicine

As a qualified medical anthropologist, social historian of medicine, author, National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, and occasional actor, Manderson is uniquely positioned to interrogate global issues. She trained in Asian Studies, conducting early field research in Peninsular Malaysia. Her fields of research include questions of gender, sexuality and reproductive health; infectious and chronic disease; access to and ideologies of medical and healthcare; and disability and inequality.

Over the past four decades, she has worked as a medical anthropologist and social historian of medicine on questions of public health among diverse populations in Australia, east and Southeast Asia, and increasingly in Africa. She has collaborated continually with the World Health Organization Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Disease since 1988. 

Advancing research capacity in resource-poor settings

Manderson was an honorary professor at Wits from 2004-2013 and a Hillel Friedland Senior Fellow at the University in 2008. During the fellowship, she collaborated with Wits colleagues to develop a PhD programme in the School of Public Health, and concurrently, worked with her Wits colleagues to develop the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA).  She continues to be actively involved in CARTA, and in supporting the supervisory and research skills of academics throughout Africa. Globally, Manderson has supervised over 90 PhDs and some 65 honours/masters students. 

Health, healing and illness amidst inequality

A member of Faculty at Wits since 2014, Manderson has since 2016 been teaching a course entitled Medical Anthropology in a Global World. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in South Africa and elsewhere, the course explores and analyses health, healing, and illness in relation to inequality and structural vulnerability, bio-sociality and identity, agency and power.

In her research, Manderson is especially interested in the complex health problems facing South Africa and the region. Her current research project in Johannesburg concerns antimicrobial resistance, prescribing practices, and antibiotic use, as well as a study on women’s experiences of cervical cancer in Indonesia. 

These projects are part of a larger project on Technologies of Equity, Access and Health Outcomes, using a broad definition of technology to explore decisions around health and medical care, public health interventions, the structure of health services, diagnosis and care, and the implications of this in relation to social justice.

Provocative interdisciplinary collaborations

Manderson’s broad interests extend to interdisciplinary collaborations in the social and biosciences, humanities and creative arts, for social justice, human rights, and sustainability – hence WATERSHED: Art, Science and Elemental Politics.

“The artists are all in one way or the other engaging with water … they stimulate new ways of thinking about the issues. By people getting together from very different fields and interacting across different academic disciplines, we begin to play with how we understand the environment, water security, and governance, identify priorities, and determine where the research might go,” says Manderson. 

Download the official Watershed report