Research in focus: Laura Meek
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9 January, 2023
Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies, Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Year I started working at UBC:
Provide an overview of your research in 75 words or less:
I am a cultural, medical anthropologist researching global health inequalities and the politics of healing in Africa. My current project, "Pharmaceuticals in Divergence," is based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in Tanzania and focuses on the proliferation of counterfeits in local markets, where 30-60% of drugs are substandard. I approach this material through the lens of feminist, anti-racist, and postcolonial science studies to engage conditions of radical uncertainty and world-making innovation in Africa today.
What do you hope will change as a result of this research?
My research challenges prevailing public perceptions of the so-called “misuse” or “overuse" of drugs like antibiotics in Africa. Popular media frequently portray African patients and healthcare workers as ignorant and largely to blame for the rise of antimicrobial resistance within their own communities and globally. Such representations do harm by reinforcing colonial and racist perceptions of Africans, while locating the source of illnesses in the cultural difference of “others” rather than in global structural inequalities.
Are there any research collaborators you'd like to acknowledge and why?
I am working with colleagues Jia Hui Lee (Haverford College, USA) and Jacob Katumusiime Mwine-Kyarimpa (Makerere University, Uganda) to co-edit a public digital series on Somatosphere that analyzes the manufacturing, circulation, and interpretation of contested truths over Covid-19 in Africa. Our series foregrounds pieces written by African scholars, which we consider an important intervention at a moment when African voices are very rarely centered in the media or scholarly analyzes of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What have you learned during your research that has surprised you the most?
I have learned that ordinary Tanzanians have an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the sensory, aesthetic, and material qualities of pharmaceuticals, and that they rely on this knowledge to help them identify counterfeit and substandard drugs. I have come to think of such knowledge practices as forms of “fugitive science" – everyday empirical experiments that take place outside official or institutional sites like laboratories or hospitals, but that serve a critical, life-saving function.
Describe any interesting research milestones you are approaching
A special collection I've been co-editing with geographer Abigail Neely (Dartmouth College, USA) will be published in the journal Medical Anthropology Quarterly in 2023. This collection, entitled “Beyond the Limits: Medicine, Healing, and Medical Anthropology," includes a transcribed conversation and a collection of essays that draw upon disqualified types of knowledge and minor practices to demand a rethinking of biomedical limits in pursuit of more expansive visions of health, care, cure, ethics, and healing.
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