4 March 2021

Opening speeches from the Chronic Living conference

Chronic Living

Read the opening speeches held at the online Chronic Living Conference 4-6 March 2021. The conference is organised by the Department of Anthropology in collaboration with the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

Elderly woman in wheelchair
Close to 500 researchers from 40 countries are attending the UCPH organised online conference from 4-6 March 2021. Photo: Colourbox

At the Chronic Living online conference taking place from 4-6 March 2021, opening speeches were given by:

  • Professor Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, UCPH
  • Professor (MSO) Bjarke Oxlund, Head of Department, Department of Anthropology, UCPH
  • Professor (MSO) Ayo Wahlberg, Head of the organising committee, UCPH

Read the three speeches in full below:

Professor Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences

Distinguished speakers, organizers and participants,

This conference has not only been long in the making – it has also been long-awaited. Originally scheduled for April 2020, the overwhelming conference registration had the organizers book one of Copenhagen’s larger conference facilities - but to no avail.

It seems almost ironic that a conference that brings together anthropologists and social science researchers with a keen interest in non-communicable diseases ends up getting postponed due to the onset of the worst communicable disease pandemic in several hundred years.

Meanwhile, the crisis also reminds us that the social sciences have a crucial role to play in relation to matters of health. Whereas our good colleagues in the medical sciences have moved swiftly to ensure rapid vaccine development, we in the social sciences are working hard to document how COVID-19 affects all corners of society and try to device solutions to social, economic and mental challenges that follow in its wake.

In a place like Denmark, where restrictions have arguably served their purpose well, the public now ponders whether the success of the lockdown comes at too high a price. “We stand together by keeping our distance” has been the mantra of Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, since 11 march 2020. Yet, questions now abound about the exceptionalism of COVID-19 during a year that saw a sharp decline in cancer diagnoses and a huge increase in mental health problems.

This takes us back to the topic of this important conference – chronic disease and chronic living. You have come here to collectively unpack and explore what terms such as quality, vitality and health might mean. The global COVID-19 crisis has made this endeavor more – not less – important to pursue, but now you will have to add the post-fix “in pandemic times” to make sense of the developments we have seen over the past year.

Finally, this conference marks the end of Professor Ayo Wahlberg’s ERC-funded VITAL project, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him and the rest of the VITAL team and the Chronic Living conference team for all their efforts in making this event come true.

I am honored that that the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Copenhagen is hosting such an international landmark event. I wish you all a great conference characterized by enriching discussions and deep insights.

Thank you so much for your attention – and a very warm welcome to virtual Copenhagen.

Professor (MSO) Bjarke Oxlund, Head of the Department of Anthropology

Distinguished speakers, participants and guests,

On behalf of the Department of Anthropology I bid you all a very warm welcome to the Chronic Living conference.

If there was ever any doubt that the sub-branch of medical anthropology has become the largest sub-branch within the discipline, the 500 or so abstracts that were submitted for this event go to show that anthropologists and social scientists with an interest in health are not only numerous, but also a vibrant lot.

I am proud that what we might dub the Copenhagen school of medical anthropology is hosting a conference with such a breath-taking line up of participants and speakers. In particular, it is an honor for me to welcome our keynote speakers - all startling world class scholars. They are - Professor Jeanette Pols, Professor Joe Dumit, Professor Aditya Bharadwaj, Professor Nikolas Rose and Professor Susan Reynolds Whyte.

Speaking of the latter. Susan Whyte has been the main scholar in Copenhagen to champion an anthropological interest in the fields of health and life conditions over five decades. Not only did she succeed in attracting multiple generations of students and PhD-students within our own department to the study of health worldwide. She also introduced us (I am one of them) to an international environment of anthropologists with an interest in health and medicine - particularly at the Universities in Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Oslo as well as multiple universities in the US and UK.

This is probably one of the reasons we were fortunate enough to see international scholar, Ayo Wahlberg, join the Department right after his stint as a research fellow at the BIOS center at the London School of Economics (where he worked closely with the founder of the center - Professor Nikolas Rose - I think you will appreciate the connection).
All these bio-things aside, to me this humongous conference with nearly 500 participants stands as a climax of the Copenhagen school of medical anthropology – so far – and perhaps as a first step of mobilizing around the theme of chronic disease internationally speaking.

It is only natural for the conference to be cast in the language of “living” and “living with”, because if there is one perspective that has come to the fore in all the studies that are undertaken around here, it is that after diagnosis comes prognosis. And of course - we shouldn’t think of prognosis in a strictly medical sense, but as one of coming to terms with how one can live with a given condition. Which impact is a given condition having on people’s lives? How do we deal with it in existential, technical, social and bureaucratic ways? These are questions that we ask as anthropologists irrespective of whether it is infertility, hiv/aids, coronary heart disease, back pains, diabetes or dementia that we study.

These are questions that you will be discussing in-depth over the coming three days. I hope that the discussions will be fruitful and energizing. We would have loved to see you in Copenhagen for real, but we are never the less extremely happy that you are still on board. Let me end by congratulating professor Ayo Wahlberg and his organizing team on this great achievement. What a blast this is going to be.

From the opening. Ayo Wahlberg addresses the conference.

Head of organising committee, Professor (MSO) Ayo Wahlberg

Dear Mikkel, Dear Bjarke, Dear esteemed keynote speakers, dear panel organizers, dear chairs, dear conference participants,

What a pleasure and a delight it is to finally be able to say welcome to you all! Welcome to Copenhagen, even if it is via fiber optic internet cables!

While we have missed out on the opportunity to show off this wonderful city of ours, and we miss being able to meet face-to-face, we will nevertheless do our best to give you a University of Copenhagen conference experience over the next three days with the help of Zoom. It truly is our great pleasure to be virtually hosting you!

Let me immediately start by acknowledging the amazing funders who have made this conference possible starting with the European Research Council, one of the last bastions for basic research where scholars are invited and encouraged to pursue big questions. My sincere thanks also to the Faculty of Social Sciences for their financial support which has been crucial given the losses we have incurred because of the pandemic, so thank you Mikkel. Likewise thank you to my Department of Anthropology for providing institutional support and assistance, so my thanks to Bjarke as well. And finally a huge thanks to the Asian Dynamics Initiative here at the University of Copenhagen for their support in making Chronic Living happen. If you are not familiar with the ADI make sure to look it up online, it’s an amazing initiative.

As we note in our conference guide we had not, in our wildest thoughts, imagined that we would get such an amazing response to our initial call for open panels and papers that we sent out two years ago. We have such a stellar programme lined up thanks to all of you! We are close to 500 registered participants who are zooming in from over 30 countries from all the continents (except Antartica!). Looking at the participants list what strikes us most is how our call to think about what Chronic Living might be has struck a chord with medical anthropologists, medical sociologists and medical STS’ers alike, just as we also have participants from different societal sectors. So welcome to all of you!

I just wanted to use the occasion of my welcome to tell you a little bit about how we came around to sending out our call, or put in another way “why chronic living”?

When I put together the application for the VITAL project for which this is our final conference, I argued that, alongside the biological body a new domain of life has steadily emerged (over the last century or so) as an arguably equally important object of therapeutic and health-related knowledge and practice, namely daily living as portrayed here in the covers of these “Living with” guides which are proliferating around the world.

Over the past five years, thanks to our ERC grant, this brilliant team of scholars has explored from different analytical perspectives, in different countries and with a focus on different medical conditions how “daily living with” a medical condition has emerged as an object of knowledge, as a matter of concern, as something we must measure the quality of, as a site of experimentation and tinkering as well as an arena of intimate (inter)subjective lived experience.

We kicked off our project through a series of reading workshops where we read so many inspirational works that really allowed us to stand on the shoulders of our colleagues as we embarked on our effort to understand how politics and practices of “daily living with” were emerging around different medical conditions in different parts of the world, whether HIV, infertility, artheroscelerosis or depression. These are some of the amazing works that we remain indebted to in so many ways.

So what then is this “living” that we as (medical) anthropologists, sociologists, STS’ers and others take as the object of our study, curiosity and interest? Well, given our different analytical interests and approaches within the VITAL project team, we came to conceptualize our common object of study as “chronic living” while at the same time insisting that we keep an open mind as to how we might conceptualize, theorize and study it. These collaborative intellectual endeavor led us to think about living (as a domain different from the molecular “life itself” that bio-scientists and biomedical practitioners have long been occupied with) 1) as a social activity (a doing); 2) as (inter)subjective, embodied, lived experience (a being); and 3) as an object of discipline/governmentality (a savoir/pouvoir). While far from exhaustive (of course there is more to living!) this multiplicity in our conceptualization will likely not come as a surprise to you as it maps neatly on to some of the key approaches that have materialized over the past 50 years or so within social studies of health and medicine.

We are of course all familiar with the practice turn with its focus on doing as tinkering, enacting or the vital affordances that enable them. If we take cancer as our empirical example, we see this in Benson Mulemi’s exploration of how cancer patients in Kenya strategically enact submissive roles in efforts to secure better care.

And of course, phenomenology has had a huge influence on many social scientists working in the medical field where we explore how medical conditions and efforts to treat them can shape and impact on intersubjective, embodied and lived experiences in profound ways. For example, in Dwaipayan Banerjee brilliant new book on cancer in Delhi where he develops an analytic of endurance that speaks to the very being of people living with cancer in India.

Thirdly, as we all know a Foucault effect has been palpable within social studies of medicine as daily lives come to be the object of disciplining and technologies of government. For example, and still sticking with cancer, Helle Ploug Hansen and Tine Tjørnhøj Thomsen have shown us how rehabilitation programmes for cancer survivors in Denmark are built up around technologies aimed at a “modification of the self”. At the same time, social scientists have also highlighted how structural inequalities profoundly shape the life conditions of individuals in often deadly ways, as Lenore Manderson, Nancy Burke, myself and over 40 contributing authors do in a forthcoming book with UCL Press on the COVID-19 pandemic, in which we highlight the stratified livability that the pandemic has laid so glaringly bare.

Each of these different analytical approaches has also informed our efforts to understand and study chronic living, and here are a few of the publications that have so far emerged out of our project.

  • “The tinkering m-patient” (Kingod 2020) – type 1 diabetes in Denmark
  • “Daily life dealings” (Mann 2021) – kidney disease in Austria
  • “Prognostic calibrations” (Svensson 2021) – congenital heart defects in Denmark
  • “Living with/out” (Lee 2020) – dementia in South Korea
  • “The ‘disabilitization’ of medicine” (Dokumaci 2019) – rating scales and QoL measures
  • “Surveillance life” (Heinsen, Wahlberg & Petersen 2021) – Lynch syndrome (inherited elevated risk of colorectal cancer) in Denmark
  • “Stratified livability” (Wahlberg, Burke & Manderson 2021) – pandemic effects

And so, whether we conceptualize the politics and practices of daily lives swayed by medical conditions in terms of chronic living, the new chronicities, life course, temporalities or disability worlds, what we do know is that we need to foster multiple analytical and methodological approaches to studying it. As only through such theoretical diversity will we in fact learn.

If there is one hope that I might express it is that this conference can play its part in cementing a place for the kinds of knowledge of daily living we are all pursuing and producing, once and for all, alongside the biomedical knowledge that currently organizes much of healthcare. Chronic living is a concept that I hope will travel out of conferences like these and into homes, hospitals and Ministries, in much the same way that biomedical knowledge tends to leave its laboratories and clinics. And so, with these few framing words of introduction I would like to invite all of us to continue the collective exploration of what chronic living might be. Indeed each of the panels that will be taking place over the next three days and each of the keynote talks will most certainly be adding so many more nuances and complexities to our understanding of quotidian experiences of living not least in these pandemic times of ours.

Finally, since we are not able to meet physically, please do visit our Somatosphere series which is running parallel to the conference (and will continue to do so over the coming weeks) for some amazing contributions. Do also visit our various virtual book displays and thank you to Donna McCormack and Ingrid Young for allowing us to link to their amazing online exhibition Capturing Chronic Illness, definitely check it out. Polity books is providing a conference discount so do check their catalogue and also don’t forget to fill out a few references in our collective google doc!

A bit of digital housekeeping: Let’s help each other get through three grueling days of zooming! Make yourselves comfortable at home, and do use the opportunity to revisit recorded sessions (remember they will be deleted after 1 week) – please no recordings of talks otherwise (unless you have explicit consent). Try to ensure best possible internet connection within your circumstances which we know can differ. Please do not share the password protected programme with anyone.

And finally a massive thank you to all of these brilliant people who have helped make this happen!

Read more about the conference on the conference website and in this article: The University of Copenhagen gathers medical anthropologists for a conference on chronic conditions