Researcher Portraits

Get to know some of the researchers at the department better. Read about their research areas, fieldwork and why they do what they do.

Claudia Merli: Anthropology and the medical fields, unexpected research findings and working with disasters


Claudia Merli specializes in medical anthropology and disaster anthropology. The specialization was rather due to coincidence than planning, and Claudia sees following up on unexpected events as one of the strengths of the discipline. In the interview, she talks about how her interest in painting led her to investigate the role of a pre-modern Japanese creature in the Corona pandemic and what happened when the tsunami suddenly hit the Thai villages she was conducting fieldwork in, in 2004.

Photo: Carla Lomakka

-It was a coincidence that I ended up in the field of Catastrophe and Disaster. I was doing fieldwork in Thailand for my PhD project about reproductive health in 2004 when the tsunami struck some of the villages where I was working. I saw it as an obligation to the local population to follow up on the catastrophe and I started publishing articles about the tsunami before I even received my PhD. I never planned to be in a crisis but because of this coincidence, catastrophe together with medical anthropology has become the primary research field for me. Increasingly I work where the two fields intersect.

To follow up on coincidences and unexpected findings is one of anthropology´s most important contributions, according to Claudia.

-That clashes with how the process of research funding applications is planned. You are supposed to present a clear path to your findings before even starting and plan it as if you already know what you are going to find. Anthropology does not really or exclusively work like that. We are looking at what is happening now and unexpected discoveries. As examples, I can mention that in my long-standing research in Thailand, the role that male and female genital cuttings played in the context of reproductive health in Thailand, as well as practices of female spirit mediums in connection to fertility were not originally included. This was nothing I could have known before going there.

Recently Claudia has been part of an interdisciplinary research project on respiratory hazards connected to volcano ash in Mexico, Indonesia, and Japan for the HIVE consortium. Claudia was responsible for the qualitative fieldwork in the three sites, and personally conducted fieldwork in Japan.

-To work interdisciplinary allows anthropologists to have an impact beyond academia. Through this project, we have provided recommendations for the World Health Organization and other authorities. Anthropologists make an important contribution in these settings by explaining the ground perspective of people living with risk, instead of a top-down perspective on disaster risk reduction. Just after returning from Japan at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during months of remote teaching, I returned to my artistic inclination by painting a lot. Through that, I came across an interesting Japanese icon of the pandemic. Many people in Japan were painting this figure and sending it to friends and family as protection from the disease. When I started to look into the phenomenon, I delved into this old icon from premodern Japan, that is connected to epidemics. It is not one of the most popular figures, but Japanese people picked it up as it somehow resonated with the situation. As a phenomenon, it started from below and was later used even in Japan’s public health communication. The more I was thinking about it, the more complex and interesting it became. Finally, it ended up as an article on the cover of Anthropology Today.

1846. An Amabie image taken from a kawara-ban (broadsheet) newspaper of the Edo era. Kyoto University Library. Public domain

Claudia thinks interdisciplinary collaboration has both its ups and downs.

-Good collaboration can be fantastic. I have realized that it can be easier to collaborate with colleagues from the natural sciences than with other social scientists. Many other social scientists have misconceptions about how anthropologists conduct ethnography and fieldwork, such as that you would not need a long-term commitment or to simultaneously explore your own position. We are asked to do faster fieldwork and even faster publications. But the understanding of the other human being takes time. Anthropologists hold on to that. It is a matter of respect to listen, continuously and long term, to try to understand the experience of a world from the perspective of the other. This connects to another collaborative research project I am doing in Italy, together with anthropologists and archeologists. It is about a catastrophe that happened in 1963. We tend to forget that a disaster that happened 60 years ago still has long-term effects.

Work in the field of disaster also has a deep effect on the researcher.

-In Thailand, I was traumatized but didn’t want to see it. I was only peripherally in the tsunami, but by meeting survivors in the hospital only days after the disaster, their stories became part of my emotional world. Back in Uppsala, I became part of Hugo Valentin Centre’s multidisciplinary research network TRAST for trauma and secondary traumatization, with other researchers who had been working in humanitarian crisis or conflict.

Your other specialization is in medical anthropology. What can anthropology contribute to medical science?

-Anthropology has a lot to contribute because we are trained to see other things than most other professionals. Anthropology is taking seriously what patients experience and has an elaborate sensitivity and sensibility to the dynamics of power on the ground. Many leading medical anthropologists were originally trained as medical doctors but retrained as they experienced that something was missing. Medicine is getting more and more fragmented. I was part of a PhD supervisory team in the UK, where the candidate who was also a doctor, investigated some drastic changes in the UK health system, when they introduced a pay-per-performance scheme called the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) that transformed the medical encounter into a sort of body commodification, with economic incentives related to specific biomarkers. The whole system for general practitioners was broken down into quantifiable data and economic returns. Many doctors had a feeling that something was wrong but they didn’t seem to have the tools to analyse its complexity. Neither the health care system nor our understanding of health and disease are separated from culture and society.

Another important aspect of medical anthropology is to provide a critical voice about the development of new medical technology.

-Some of the examples that come to mind are the studies on how assited reproductive technologies relate to sociality and definition of kinship, genetic screening, etc. Right now I think people should be very worried about what is happening in the field of brain implants. Behind some of the research, there are highly questionable companies and motivations. If humans start receiving brain implants, we cannot be sure about if and what ethics will apply. It could turn out to make science fiction (like the book and movies The Manchurian Candidate) into a dystopic reality, the actual posthuman. This is a growing research field for anthropologists, prosthetics and Augmented reality, and we should not be naive about the implications it could have, says Claudia.

Text: Jennie Sjödin

Researcher of the Month

Last modified: 2023-11-22