Todd Meyers is Associate Professor of Anthropology at NYU Shanghai. He has written widely on issues in global health and is the founding director of NYU Shanghai’s newest research center, the Center for Society, Health, and Medicine. Here he discusses his latest research, his vision for the new center, and why NYU Shanghai is the perfect place to build a hub for the humanistic study of global health.
How would you describe your research field?
I’m a medical anthropologist, which is really just a shortcut for saying I’m a sociocultural anthropologist who is also trained in public health science and the history of medicine. My work focuses on the tangle of medical systems and concepts, clinical encounters, social relations, and individual expressions of distress that form the experience of illness.
What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
I’m currently finishing a book entitled Black Figurine that I began in 2002, which follows the life of a chronically ill woman in Baltimore. It charts the impact of multiple chronic and acute illnesses over time and discusses the idea of “care” very broadly conceived. It’s medical research that seeks to appreciate the everyday reality of living with multiple forms of illness and harm. It focuses on the contingent character of chronic, recurrent symptoms that reshape social and family relations as much as the relation of a person to her body and environment.
I also do a lot of collaborative work. I have just finished a couple of long-term projects. The first written with Stefanos Geroulanos, who teaches in the history department at NYU, on concepts of homeostasis and holism that emerged out of medical research during the First World War, entitled The Brittleness of the Body. The second was written with Richard Baxstrom, an anthropologist at University of Edinburgh, on the search for evidence of unseen forces as a foundational problem in the human sciences, through a study of film and early modern witchcraft.The book, entitled Realizing the Witch, was published by Fordham University Press in 2016. Both are archival projects, which took about five years each to complete.
You are setting up a new cross-disciplinary research center at NYU Shanghai dedicated to advancing the understanding of global health issues. Can you tell us about your vision for the center?
The aim of the Center for Society, Health, and Medicine is to promote the humanistic study of health and medicine. What this means in practical terms is that we’re open to multiple perspectives on health and healing that don’t necessarily use a biomedical framework as their starting point.
Public health is, by definition, interdisciplinary. The technical aspects of public health science are hugely important, but how public health practice comes to define problems and works to develop interventions requires broad, smart, and informed efforts, which draw from different resources found in history, political science, anthropology, etc.
Health and its absence is something that ties so many parts of our lives together. A center that's dedicated to that tangle of health and illness in our everyday lives, across histories, and across geographies, real and imagined, is important at any university. Because NYU Shanghai is a dynamic learning environment, filled with students and faculty that see and experience global education in ways that are challenging and fresh, it's an ideal home for the Center for Society, Health, and Medicine.
How will the center support student learning?
The Center for Society, Health, and Medicine aims to foster broad disciplinary intersections to give students the chance to consider the reach and application of their learning in different areas, thus reinforcing the interdisciplinary character of academic programs at NYU Shanghai.
In future, it will sponsor a year-long course open to all students, every year, entitled "Society, Health, and Medicine," which will explore current problems in medicine and global health.
What are some early programs and activities of the center?
The Center is holding a workshop on Global Histories of Medicine on February 22-23, followed by a public discussion panel on February 24.
The workshop will bring together a group of scholars representing a broad range of disciplinary expertise--from the history of neurology and neuroscience to food culture and health, global cancer research, the impact of pharmaceutics on society, epidemics, medical ethics, and the history of animal experimentation--to finalize chapters for a forthcoming edited volume, “Cultural History of Medicine, 1920-2000, The Modern and Postmodern Age,” to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing.
It is a nice way to open the Center and to start a conversation at NYU Shanghai about the socio-political impact of global health today.