The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Nicholas Bartlett, Assistant Professor of Contemporary Chinese Culture and Society at Barnard College, to the WEAI faculty. Professor Bartlett, who earned his PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco, specializes in medical and psychological anthropology, addiction and recovery, civil society, mental health service provision, and psychoanalysis. In the following Q & A, Professor Bartlett discusses his scholarship and teaching interests.
1. How did you become interested in the field of medical anthropology?
My interest in medical anthropology grew out of previous experiences in public health. I started working on HIV prevention projects in China in 2002, and later participated in research studies and interventions targeting injection drug users. I came to feel frustrated by how my interactions with this group centered on questions relating to the transmission and treatment of infectious diseases. I wanted to learn more about who they were as people. Medical anthropology, which explores both the social production and individual experience of illness, offered me the opportunity to ask new questions about addiction in China and create deeper relationships with individuals whose lives had been affected by heroin.
2. What led you to conduct your research and fieldwork in China?
The first time I lived in China was immediately after college as a Freeman Fellow conducting a research project on how the privatization of table tennis training ventures affected aspiring young athletes. My dissertation research grew out of contacts I made with NGO activists and service providers with heroin use history who I had met while working for a foundation that supported harm reduction programs in the region. They convinced me to do fieldwork in southern Yunnan, and were incredibly supportive during the time I lived there.
3. What is your current book project about?
My current book project is a phenomenological study of recovery among long-term heroin users in a tin mining city. Heroin use in the region proliferated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when the Maoist “iron rice bowl” state employment system was threatened by a tumultuous mining boom. Young workers’ early encounters with the opiate were often inextricably connected to their participation in a nascent private sector. Today in their late 30s and 40s, members of the group that I call the Heroin Generation are encouraged to “return to society” (huigui shehui). But this frequently repeated government slogan provoked practical and existential questions—How were recovering drug users to “return” to a city that had been radically transformed since their childhood? What type of future could they expect? What aspects of their past lives might be retrieved?
The book’s later chapters explore how individuals imagined and attempted to realize their post-addiction lives. For example, one struggling long-time heroin user argued that his only chance for a decent life required breaking not just his relationship to heroin, but also a host of other bodily habits he had acquired as an aspiring mining boss in the 1980s. Seeing his task as adapting to a new historical moment rather than returning to the past, he looked to successful 21st century entrepreneurs as models for how he should move through the world. Another chapter focuses on a small group of unemployed workers who argued that certain Maoist ideas about the therapeutic value of labor offer powerful alternatives to more recent state policies. I also follow a couple who hoped that their wedding rituals might help others recognize them both as newlyweds and people who had successfully “walked out” of addiction. And finally, I interpret the claims of an activist who insisted that the only way to break from the past was to develop a political self-consciousness. In attempting to navigate their precarious positions in a rapidly transforming industrial city, members of this cohort display a historicity and desire for both familiar and emergent ideas of living that draw attention to frequently neglected aspects of postsocialist life in the new millennium.
4. What kinds of questions drive your research and teaching?
I have a long-standing interest in mental health and healing. In addition to exploring how broader political, social and economic processes contributes to individual maladies, I am interested in the symbolic and dialogic aspects of clinical encounters, whether they occur in biomedical hospitals, psychodynamic consulting rooms, or Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics. My research and teaching engage conversations about history and embodiment, with a particular focus on how individuals narrate and experience time. I am also interested in the concept of civil society in China, and how participation in non-government collectives shapes the subjectivity of marginalized citizens. I also find that I continually return to questions relating to changing conditions of labor and its role in workers’ pursuit of meaningful lives.
As a result of participating in a psychoanalytic training program in preparation for a new research project, I have become interested in the dialogue between psychoanalysis and anthropology. In particular, I am curious about how psychoanalytic concepts come to be interpreted in China and how attention to the unconscious can enrich our understandings of the production of needs, wants, fantasies and desires within a complex global field. I also hope my future course offerings can explore the political economy of affect and examine the role of emotions in the production of anthropological knowledge.
5. What aspects of being at Barnard and Columbia particularly excite you?
This is a fantastic place to be teaching and learning about topics related to East Asia. I am very excited to have the opportunity to interact with undergraduates in a small liberal arts college environment while also having the chance to work with graduate students. It is also inspiring to be around so many people doing amazing work in AMEC and EALAC, anthropology, sociomedical sciences, and psychoanalytic communities, not to mention all the great events at WEAI and other institutes.
6. What classes are you planning to teach in the coming semesters?
This spring (2017) I am teaching two new courses. One focuses on the politics of desire in contemporary China and another is called Culture, Mental Illness and Healing in East Asia. Next year, I will offer a seminar that will think about methodological issues and epistemological challenges of conducting research in East Asia. I also plan to develop a survey class that will provide an overview of topics in contemporary Chinese culture and society.