The Alumni Interview: 10 Questions for Anita von Poser

March 30, 2023

At irregular intervals we publish interviews with alumni of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. We find out where they are living and working now, what they are conducting research on, and how their time at the MPI shaped their subsequent careers. In closing they share their advice for young anthropologists and name a book that has impressed them recently.

1. When were you at the MPI and what did you work on while you were here?
I was at the institute from January 2010 to September 2011 following the completion of my doctorate at Heidelberg University.  As a postdoctoral fellow in the interdisciplinary Max Planck International Research Network on Aging (MaxNetAging), I had the opportunity to become acquainted with two Max Planck Institutes – the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology here in Halle, where I worked in the former Department ‘Integration and Conflict’. This fellowship allowed me to explore my interest in a field that has tended to be neglected in anthropology and was, at the time, still quite new in German-speaking research contexts: namely, the anthropology of aging. I was able to build on and continue my previous ethnographic field research in the southwest Pacific (Papua New Guinea).

2. Where do you work now?
Just across the street! In October 2022 it was my great pleasure to accept a professorship at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, where I hold the chair for Mobility Studies, focusing on human-human and human-environmental relations.

3. How did the time you spent at the MPI shape your current career?
The time at the MPI was immensely important in shaping the course of my career. As mentioned, I used the opportunity to immerse myself more deeply in the research on ageing. After leaving the MPI, I continued to pursue this topic as a researcher and instructor at FU Berlin, where I was a postdoc for several years. Subsequently, together with colleagues from the field of psychiatry, I became PI of a project at the Collaborative Research Center Affective Societies (SFB 1171), in which we studied the affective efforts of migration into old age. At FU Berlin I also held my first professorship, in Psychological Anthropology with a focus on migration, psyche, and aging. At MLU in Halle, many of the topics that I was able to focus on while at the MPI continue to play a central role in my research.

4. When you think back on your time at the MPI, what stands out most strongly?
The many possibilities for thriving as a researcher in an exceptional academic environment with excellent access to resources!

5. Do you still have connections with the MPI, and if so, what kind of contact and with whom?
Many colleagues whom I originally met at the MPI are now at other universities and research institutes, but this does not mean that we have lost touch. And sometimes it is the other way around: I am always delighted when I see colleagues here at the MPI whom I know from other contexts. For example, I know Julia Vorhölter in the Department ‘Anthropology of Politics and Governance’ as a result of a shared interest in psychological anthropology – an important focus of my research. There are also long-term ties with people such as Bettina Mann, with whom I share an interest in the anthropology of foodways; for many years we have headed a working group on the role of food in anthropology in the German Anthropological Association (GAA) in order to promote the visibility of this field of research. A number of colleagues, including MPI Director Ursula Rao, supported my nomination of Robert Desjarlais (Sarah Lawrence College, New York), a prominent expert in phenomenological anthropology, for the Humboldt Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; thanks to these efforts, I am able to welcome him as a guest in my department at MLU this year and next year. Here, too, I am looking forward to new and exciting collaborations with the MPI.

6. What is your current research topic?
Together with colleagues from both anthropology and psychiatry, I am currently working on a project, which explores “Carescapes in the Making” in Vietnamese-German lifeworlds in Berlin. We are interested in the connections between (post-)migration, diversity and societal participation in worlds marked by im-/mobility. A special feature of this interdisciplinary project is the aim of applying our ethnographic insights in multiple public spheres in a critical and socially committed way. For example, our team was instrumental in helping create a mental health network for Vietnamese communities in Germany. The network has now existed for several years and brings together people from diverse fields in order to provide activities and offerings to strengthen and improve existing psychosocial services. Being able to be a part of this process, with its mixture of research and engagement, has been both challenging and inspiring.

7. What are your plans for the future?
First, I plan to continue and investigate new questions in my current research project on urban and transnational lifeworlds between Vietnam and Berlin. For example, I wish to explore the question of how the global challenges of our time are mobilizing existing carescapes – that is, contributing to the ways these structures are being strengthened, weakened, or transformed. Second, with my team at MLU I want to return to questions of human-environment relations via a land-/water-/foodscapes lens; this topic played an important role in my first long-term field research in Oceania, where I investigated the social and emotional meanings of food, food production, and culinary customs for sociality.

8. What are the strengths of anthropology in comparison with other social sciences?
Listening attentively and decentring our perspectives – this is a tremendous advantage of the anthropological endeavour when seeking insight into processes of how communities and societies are made and unmade.

9. What advice would you give to students studying social anthropology today?
Stick with it and use the solid grounding in anthropology as a basis for boldly participating in public discourse!

10. What text – whether a book or article – have you read recently that particularly impressed you?
With the first-semester students in our bachelor’s programme I recently read Sophie Chao’s article “Gastrocolonialism: The Intersections of Race, Food, and Development in West Papua” (2022, The International Journal of Human Rights 26, 5). The text thematizes structural and racialized violence against indigenous societies in West Papua – a Pacific region that has long been under the military occupation of Indonesia. One of the ways that the social, cultural, and political oppression of the inhabitants is enacted is through the rhetoric and practices of national food security.

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