‘Worlds beyond us’: Symposium report by Cristina Raluca Douglas

Anthropologists have had a long interest in other-than- and more-than-human worlds, although that has mostly been in relation to what has been defined as human culture. In recent decades, the ontological turn, through mostly theoretical and methodological insights (as many have pointed out) has also opened up new ways of understanding the “worlds beyond us”.

The one-day symposium was entitled exactly like this. Worlds beyond us: SOMA Symposium on the Human and Non-Human in Medical Anthropology was organised on the 21st February 2019 by SOMA (Students of Medical Anthropology) and hosted by the Centre of Medical Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh through its president, Professor Ian Harper. This symposium proposed an exploration of our relation(s) with non- and more-than-human from this new, different perspective: not as mere context or passive components to be worked upon and distilled in our human culture, but as intimately woven into our social lives and our inter-connected subjectivity as living beings.

The conference was really small, with an intimate atmosphere, where everybody at the end felt that they knew each other. This offered a fresh way of academic interaction, which sometimes felt like a welcoming break from larger conferences.

Presentations were organised into three sections: Practices of care beyond personhood; Life and work with non-humans; and Follow, enter, unravel the thing. Two papers focused on old age and dementia: Valeria Lembo (Edinburgh Centre for Research on the Experience of Dementia, University of Edinburgh) presented on the Material objects and art & design-based methodologies for research with people with dementia, and my paper (coming from the University of Aberdeen) concerned Entangled stories: Emergence of personhood in dementia care during Animal-Assisted Therapy.

Valeria talked about the imperative of changing the focus on collaboration with people with dementia, and how an art-design based approach (through singing and dancing) can involve people with dementia more in the process of ones conducting the research. Her approach, which concerned the materiality of living with dementia through the objects that people find important through their emotional baggage, points to the subtle, affective anchorage of our mind into the material world, challenging the Western (theoretical) division between body/material world and mind. Valeria highlighted how we have to find creative ways of engaging with people with dementia by looking more at “research with” rather than “research about”. Interestingly enough, Valeria’s research interest in dementia was sparked after participating in the AAGE conference organised in 2017 at Oxford Brookes University. It is quite amazing to find out that an event like that can really touch someone’s academic life so profoundly!

My own presentation was related to my ongoing PhD research project about people with dementia (especially in advanced and very advanced stages) living in a care facility and therapy-animals (dogs and owls). I focused on how dementia and the practice of animal-assisted therapy open up the imperative of thinking differently about what it means to be a person, in a relationship that goes beyond cognitive and verbal abilities. The practice of animal-assisted therapy, I showed, also points to a different understanding of what sociality, relationality and how being a person is – in fact, it is an in-the-making process that goes beyond human/non-human; person/non-person; or body/mind divisions. I ended my presentation with a reminder of the necessity of redefining personhood in policies and practices of care, other than person-centred models, in which relations with a non-human (animal) should be taken just as seriously as inter-human relations.

Although not related to the topic of old age or life course, all of the papers, one way or another, found an echo in each other. Niamh Woodier (University of Edinburgh) presented how intermediary people, i.e. GP receptionists, can influence people’s experiences with the medical system, while Debbie Aitken (University of Cambridge) showed how practices of learning in medical schools can shape future medical “selves”. Cormac Cleary (University of Edinburgh) raised questions about the ethical responsibility towards the welfare of different species when research is conducted in more protected areas. Maythe Han (University of Edinburgh) approached inter-species intimacy through the gestures or nurturing, pointing to the uni-directional contemporary relation of dog food consumption. Ritti Soncco (University of Edinburgh) talked about the unseen entanglement between politics of landscape, the silenced tolerance of living in the vicinity of what might be considered a non-fatal disease, i.e. Lyme disease. Leah Eades (University of Edinburgh) showed how interconnected bodies, borders, and politics create a social life of abortion pills; Sophia Celeste Hoffinger (University of Edinburgh) presented about the practices of boycott and the intersection between product, consumption, state and affection; and Iona Walker (Beyond Resistance Network) approached the microbial worlds as our companion species, beyond military metaphors of resistance.

Although there was a specific focus on old age and dementia in late life only in two papers, all of the other papers offered interesting insights into how materiality and the non-human worlds shape our political, economic, cultural, and subjective experience of being in the world. If I was to summarise the essence of this conference from the life course approach, it would be probably something that we should have learned from many non-Western communities: our life is intimately entangled with materiality and non-human species. In fact, what makes us indeed human – how we live, age, and die – is the myriad ways in which we can think about and experience the world in this companionship.

Cristina Raluca Douglas is a doctoral student at the University of Aberdeen, whose PhD project research is on people with dementia and therapy animals. You can find out more about Cristina at: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/people/profiles/r01crd17 

Have you attended an insightful, provocative, or interesting conference, workshop or symposium? Please consider contributing a report to the AAGE blog – to do so, send your report to Narelle.Warren@monash.edu

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