Interview with Prof. Dr. Susan Erikson (Senior Fellow)

Yanda Bango, Ratanak Khun, Diana León-Espinoza, March 4th, 2015.


Prof. Dr. Susan L. Erikson is a medical anthropologist. She conducts research on global health systems in Africa and Europe. After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Education and English Literature, she went to Sierra Leone for two years where she provided teaching training and raised money to build a village school. She then moved to Washington, DC, where she worked for foreign aid institutions. After almost a decade working in international development, she decided to become an anthropologist.

Why did you choose Anthropology in particular?

IMG-20150304-WA0001S.E:  Contemporary Anthropology has moved away from the study of so-called exotic practices, and I was very interested in finding a PhD programme where I would receive training in understanding complex systems. Today anthropologists receive very good training in how to look at global systems. We have a methodology for studying what happens when different groups come into contact and influence each other. The system analysis approach explained the international development world I had just come from. It is a very useful approach because it explains how some nation-states become dominant and remain powerful, and how others become highly disadvantaged and exploited by the world system.

Anthropology can help solve many of the world’s problems. For anybody working in difficult and unstable places, Anthropology in the first instance helps you understand problems better. You can use anthropological frames to understand different kinds of situations, and then figure out the actual problem that needs solving.

At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to be a researcher?

S.E: When I started my Ph.D. programme I was unsure about whether to pursue research as a career, even up to the point that I left for for fieldwork. Teaching and project administration came much more easily to me. Conducting research well and ethically is harder. I had to work hard in order to succeed as researcher, but now I love it, now I prefer it.

What would you say is interesting about your research topics?

S.E: Human behaviour is infinitely fascinating. It is easy for people who live in one place to believe there’s only one way to do things, but anthropologists know how varied – both in bizarre and banal ways – human behaviour is. Anthropology provides the tools to walk into any organization, country, or situation, and unpack and understand what the humans are doing. That is just the coolest party trick ever.

After having worked in both Sierra Leone and Germany, what are the most important things that you have learned from this experience?

S.E: One of the problems that we face now when people are working in international affairs is that poor countries tend to get lumped into rather staid and overdetermined categories. I have a problem, for example, with the way that Sierra Leone gets put in the category of “poor country,” end of story. There are very wealthy people who live in Sierra Leone. One of the things that very much disturbs me is how much people don’t know about a place like Sierra Leone, and yet those same people are often quick to impose ‘problem solving’ policies and regulations.

I don’t think binary categories are very useful for solving serious problems. There are ways that Germany is deficient and there are ways that Sierra Leone is deficient. Some of those deficiencies are products of contemporary global ideologies. For me it is an advantage to be able to conduct research in both countries because it enables reflection on the differences that money and governance actually make. It potentially moves people beyond their assumptions about what is true for rich countries and what is true for poor countries.  I published a paper in 2012 on statistical practices in both Germany and Sierra Leone. The current push for statistics and data is a global phenomenon that most people don’t actually understand very well. I wanted to bring to attention to the ways that neoliberal health governance affects citizens’ health in both places.

Methodologically, I followed statistics as a subject. When you study numbers as a subject, the results can reveal the strengths and weaknesses in systems. This raises different kinds of insights into what the problems are.  Anthropology is a particularly good discipline for asking the right questions about global and federal systems.

One of the best things about Anthropology is that it is an emergent methodology. You come up with an interesting question, you go to the place where you have a good chance of answering the research question, and then you revise your question as you learn more about the contexts and problem. In Anthropology, you begin fieldwork, and then you are able to revise your theory and update your findings as you learn more. This is different from many health sciences disciplines, but also with many international development survey models in which you sit in your office devising survey questions that will be distributed to 5000 people in 5 countries over the next 5 years, the questions never changing despite the changes inevitable in five years’ time.

Anthropology is brilliant for the way that you can integrate what you learn as you go along. You don’t have to be stuck with questions that you formulated when you knew nothing about a place or situation. This is a very important difference methodologically with the other disciplines. This is one reason why I say that Anthropology gives you different kinds of information and different kinds of insights about the problems.

What do you think needs to be done in the Humanities and Social Sciences fields to attract more young scholars?

S.E: It takes very little to get people interested in Anthropology actually. All you need is a good teacher. It takes very little because these ways of thinking are very good for explaining what people are seeing and experiencing in the world.

If anything, I see these fields being repressed by institutions in some countries. When you become educated in Social Sciences and Humanities, you are sometimes more challenging to the system because you know how to ask questions and you know how to identify problems. Depending where you are in the world, this is not necessarily something that people in power want young people doing.

Which topics do you consider to be more innovative right now and should be researched more?

S.E: I unapologetically favour fulfilling basic needs and infrastructure first, and unfortunately water and sanitation systems, for example, are not sexy or necessarily innovative. The current emphasis on funding and incentivizing for so-called innovation make me ask, Can we just please accomplish basic things first? Then we can move on to the innovations. This is a big theme in my work and in my life. Let’s feed pregnant women first before we bring in ultrasound to see if their babies are too small.

Having said that, I want to encourage people to think about governance innovations. We need more people who understand how statistics and bureaucracies work. If you want to understand power and systems of power, you need to understand how new governance technologies work, how data performativity works, and how technologies of participation work.

How is your work bridging the gap between social research and practical life?

S.E: My work has many facets, and each research project, when complete, reveals both strengths and weaknesses in the systems and subjects of study.  The strengths are something to celebrate – like the amazing job Germany does as a nation-state providing universal prenatal care or the significant strides Sierra Leone has made in accountability over the last decade. The weakness revealed in my studies provide blueprints for pragmatic improvements, should anyone be interested.

For example, in Germany in any given year 70-80% of the women during pregnancy are labelled, identified, and treated as if they are having high risk pregnancy. This is a ridiculous number of women for a condition that is not life threatening. Statistically speaking, between 2-4% of both moms and babies actually have some kind of complication that is long-lasting after the birth itself. To label 70-80% of women at risk during pregnancy introduces anxiety and stress that is not good for mother or child and actually has chemical effects on uterine ecology.

Let’s actually look at how it is that 80% of women come to be labelled at risk. Women are getting ultrasounds scans at every prenatal exam. When a doctor looks fifteen times with ultrasound, he or she will likely find something. (I have an article published in Global Public Health on this very point.)No country should have a medical system that produces so many high risk pregnant women. This is a problem in Germany. And in international development, routine prenatal ultrasound scanning is now a system that is being uncritically exported as an ideal.

In Sierra Leone, as I said, there has been some success with systems accountability. What you also simultaneously see is the creation of a system that is not acknowledging and taking measure of what is succeeding in the country. Some Sierra Leoneans want the donations and cooperation from wealthy countries to continue, which is a problem because I found that they are sometimes hiding good results; they only get help and money when they have ‘bad numbers’ and when they can show systems failures.  This has all level of ramifications, not least for the ways it works against fortifying Sierra Leonean health sovereignty.

Going back to the question of the practical application, Anthropology is eminently practical. We talk to people, and we hang out with people. Our keenest insights come because we as researchers are not simply directing others all the time in a master research plan, but rather because we’re sitting and going slow and taking up residence and speaking the language, all in order to sort out what people are explaining with their words, deeds, and everyday behaviours.

In Anthropology, the kinds of truths that we tell are complicated because human lives are. These truths sometimes point out the hypocrisies of systems. People in power do not always want these truths told.

Why did you come to the Käte Hamburger Kolleg?

S.E: I heard nice things about it; it was getting a good buzz in Canada. From the website, it looked like the kind of place where there was enough structure, but also enough freedom. I was especially drawn to the freedom part.

How would you describe your experience in Duisburg during your stay?

S.E: My experience in Duisburg has been fantastic. I haven’t had any of the pressures that I have back home. When you become a professor you are very busy all the time, especially with committees and paperwork. I am free from that here, so I am very happy. The support team is phenomenal. It was very easy to get to work from Day 1.

Can you recommend 10 books that you have read and have remained meaningful to you over the years? 

S.E: I still find Marx’s Das Kapital one of the most instructive books for thinking about systems.  It is a very important book for understanding why some people are structurally disadvantaged. Another is Debt: the First 5000 Thousand Years by David Graeber. which is about the systems of indebtedness that keep people in cycles of servitude.  Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism explains how money and labor work. Global Assemblages by Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier theorizes quite nicely how things like global regulations, nation-states, and private investing come together in complex systems. Friction by Anna Tsing theorizes what to look for and how it happens that conflicts are useful starting points for understanding underlying interests and competitions in systems.

In the ethnographic section of my bookcases, I have long loved Waiting by Vincent Crapanzano, which is an evocative ethnography about South Africa race realities before apartheid ended. Remotely Global by Charles Piot is another long-time favourite about people in both urban and rural Togo and the ways they are linked to each other as well as into the global imaginary. Far-Fetched Facts by Germany’s Richard Rottenburg about international development agendas in Africa is a current favourite, as are Marginal Gains by Jane Guyer and Speculative Markets by Kristin Peterson, which are different takes on how money moves in West Africa.

More from Susan Erikson

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