Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Challenging perceptions of disciplinary divide: an ethnographer’s experience of collegiality, collaboration and crisis
  1. Renée van der Wiel1,2
  1. 1 Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  2. 2 Department of Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Renée van der Wiel, Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa; reneevdw{at}


Warned by social scientists about ‘the disciplinary divide’ and the hostility of medical professionals to qualitative research, I was pleasantly surprised by the collegiality I experienced while conducting fieldwork among clinician-researchers in South Africa. This commentary is a challenge to common discourse, historically dominant in a global (north) anthropology, that biomedical practitioners are necessarily antagonistic to the humanities. Drawing on my field experiences, I propose an optimistic outlook for collaboration and inclusivity in developing medical and health humanities in Africa. While conducting anthropological fieldwork among doctors producing medical research, I gained access to elite professional spaces, even presenting anthropological work in medical research forums. I established relationships with leading figures in various clinical departments and research institutes. There were, unsurprisingly, times when I had to rigorously defend my methodology. I had to revise my methodological knowledge including on quantitative methods to explain varying epistemologies to both sympathetic and doubtful medical colleagues. But, I was often treated as a fellow researcher, a colleague. Some clinician-researchers accepted me as having different, valuable expertise to analyse human complexity and proposed opportunities for possible collaboration. I argue that these clinicians appreciated this expertise because of their pervasive perceptions of crisis in healthcare and an awareness of the complexities of biomedicine in an African context of social heterogeneity, medical pluralism and legacies of social injustice. These concerns around crisis and complexity may be points of leverage for expanding interdisciplinary collaboration and facilitating access to research sites and research forums.

  • medical humanities
  • medical anthropology and social science
  • ethnography

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Contributors RW is the sole author of this submission.

  • Funding National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, in collaboration with the South African Humanities Deans Association, and Mellon Foundation Medical Humanities.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval University of the Witwatersrand Human Research Ethics Committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.