Liberating (Medical) Anthropology

Liberating (Medical) Anthropology

By Mahalia Changlee, Emily Garvin, Georgia Welford-Tuitt, Katja Holtz

Who are we?

The Anthropology ‘Liberating The Curriculum working group’ was founded in 2016 by student representatives who had voiced concerns over the lack of diversity and interrogation of critical concepts within the Anthropology department. Over the next five months these StARs, alongside other students, orchestrated an investigation that analysed and suggested ways to combat these issues. To date, we have produced and circulated a 28-page report analysing the content of all Anthropology core courses (where we feel most of the problems arise). We have had 1-1 meetings with over 25 lecturers, conducted a student satisfaction survey, and gained the full support of the Head of Teaching (Caroline Garaway), Head of Department (Susanne Kuchler), and the outgoing and incoming Black Minority Ethnic sabbatical officers (Sayeeda Ali, Ayo Olatunji). Yet, our greatest success thus far is the allocation of over £1500 worth of funding from the ‘Liberating the Curriculum’ strand of UCL. The funds will employ three PHD students to become ‘ambassadors’ for the cause and make the administrative changes to the core course reading lists.

Why ‘Liberating the Curriculum’?

Anthropology is a subject that in basic terms studies the ‘other’, rooted in European exploitation, genocide and colonialism.  Consequently, the discipline has an infamously complex relationship with itself, from its purpose in society to its methodology and practice. The postmodern turn, inspired by the work of Franz Boas in the early 20th century, stressed the need for reflexive and critical dialogue. Still, Anthropology continues to struggle with acknowledging how this history impacts its current practices. Our research has found that this critical reflexivity is yet to make it consistently to our lectures and seminars at UCL. Anthropology by its very nature is designed to speak to the world yet for the vast majority of its history has only spoken about the world. For us, liberating the curriculum is not simply (re)introducing voices which critically interrogate classic theories, but also re-conceptualising where we seek to find and view valuable knowledge.

Liberating Medical Anthropology

Our analysis found that the UCL Medical Anthropology subdivision is better at provoking interrogative discourse and reflecting diverse perspectives than Material Culture, Social Anthropology and Biological Anthropology. However, there is still a long way to go. We acknowledge that liberating the more ‘scientific’ parts of anthropology require different approaches and please be assured that we have taken this into consideration. Here, we focus on one course we found encouraged students to critically engage with course themes and materials.

Sara Randall: Reproduction, Fertility and Sex

Sara’s reading lists are crafted specifically to bring in competing ideas. Not only do case studies discuss areas from Sub-saharan Africa to Asia and South America, but the authors she selects do not corroborate one version of reproductive success but challenge each other.

This debate is something that Sara exploits to the advantage of her students within seminars. All students aren’t expected to do the same readings. Instead, from a list of approximately 10-12 studies each student is randomly allocated two readings and thus brings a unique perspective to the seminar setting. This means that seminars aren’t a space where people are frantically writing down notes, but filled with debate and controversy. Furthermore, providing a space for students to contemplate the effect of policies at the time of implementation and against its legacy – an important aspect sometimes overlooked when reading core theorists within the discipline.

This style of learning that Sara fosters within her classes mean that students are made to think critically and see the value in learning from different contexts. This means students cannot take for granted the opinion of the author as indicative. Instead, despite the extensive references and academic esteem of the writer, their research still remains a perspective that can be critiqued. This is also something she stresses in the formative assignment, where students are made to discuss at least two perspectives in their answer, be it psychological, biological or social which gives greater depth to their claims. Isn’t this what Anthropology students should be pushed to do?

Finally, students we have spoken to have also praised the use of guest lecturers which enable a fantastic opportunity for students to engage directly with the researchers about their work and interests.

So What Should Medical Anthropology Be Doing?

Medical Anthropology does indeed have some stand-out courses, but this article would not be doing justice if it didn’t make clear that it still has points to address.

We are currently developing frameworks that we hope to implement in the coming months that will be able to provide specific guidance to facilitate a more diverse and rigorous curriculum.

These include:

  • Creating a collaborative database for academics to share resources of and by communities underrepresented in traditional academia.
  • Creating a framework for benchmarking diversity to be used as supportive tool for lecturers when developing content.
  • Appointing and employing three PhD ‘Diversity Ambassadors’ to undertake the administrative work on reading lists and selection of sources. Ambassadors will act as representatives within the department ensuring diversity and inclusion remains a priority for students and staff in the future.

However, in the meantime we ask the Medical Anthropology department to:

  1. Include more primary sources like speeches that can easily be accessed online.
  2. Include more non-textual sources e.g. video (see: Alexander Street)

Finding these sources does not have to fall solely onto the lecturer and students should be involved in the unveiling of alternative sources they feel relevant to their courses. Many communities across the world choose not to record information in the same way as us, and even when they do, language barriers mean they fail to permeate the Western academic sphere. Video, images, and primary sources that with modern technology can be translated simply with the click of a button offer ways to introduce non-textual forms of knowledge into the classroom.


Liberating the Curriculum means letting student input play a large role in re-envisaging education. Creating an environment where education is informed by the rapidly changing academic and political climate. And, in which academics are learning and maintaining a dialogue with movements like ours that want Anthropology to more accurately represent its interlocutors.

UCL prides itself on being ‘London’s Global University’; drawing students and staff from every corner of the globe. Yet, this international outlook does not necessarily equate to diversity. UCL still has problems with the low intakes of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Particular ethnic groups are significantly underrepresented and the attainment gap between students of colour and their white counterparts is a very real problem. UCL Anthropology prides itself on understanding other cultures, if these cultures do not see themselves accurately represented in our content, then it is up to us to supplement our work with alternative sources of knowledge. For Medical Anthropology, with its interest in the everyday processes associated with sickness, pain, and social change this discussion is especially pertinent. A course which actively engages with its student body and the world will be more appealing to the kind of inquisitive and critical students it seeks. There are some who refuse to acknowledge the value and need for such changes in the curriculum. But, we trust that with active student-staff engagement such apathy and complacency can and will be overcome. Anthropology has a duty to decolonise and liberate its content and in doing so better represent the people it recruits and engages with.

More about the decolonising project in academia:

Why Is My Curriculum White? By Mariah Hussain

Anthrolens Blog: resources for decolonising curricula

A recording of a SOAS event on Decolonizing Language

Kicking The Kyriarchy podcast Episode 6: Why is my curriculum white?

For more information on the liberation of the UCL Anthropology Curriculum and the initiative in general contact: Mahalia Changlee at or Dr. Caroline Garaway at

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