Associate Professor Susanna Helen Trnka

BA (University of California at Berkeley), PhD (Princeton University)

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Associate Professor

Research | Current

  • Social anthropology
  • Medical anthropology
  • The body
  • Citizenship
  • Subjectivity
  • Political violence
  • Health/patient experience
  • Theories of responsibility
  • Fiji
  • Czech Republic
  • Post-socialist societies

I am a social and medical anthropologist whose primary research areas are the body, citizenship, and subjectivity. My specific interests include embodiment; illness experience; new medical technologies; patient-doctor communication; political violence; history, memory, and the senses; and childhood. I have long-standing research interests in Fiji and in the Czech Republic and also conduct fieldwork in New Zealand.

For the past five years, I have been examining the politics of childhood asthma in New Zealand and the Czech Republic. Supported in part by a grant from the New Zealand Asthma Foundation, I have conducted a cross-cultural comparison of how neoliberal reforms are redefining patienthood -- in particular, how we allocate personal and collective responsibility over health, care, and the environment -- and the effects of these changes on children’s health and wellbeing. My book on this topic, One Blue Child: Asthma, Personal Responsibility, and the Politics of 21st Century Patienthood, will be published by Stanford University Press in 2017.

My work on the politics and ethics of health has led me to become involved in a wider critical re-evaluation of notions of responsibility. In collaboration with Catherine Trundle, I have been exploring the notion of “competing responsibilities” as a way of framing the multiple forms of responsibility that shape contemporary social life. Our edited book, Competing Responsibilities: The Politics and Ethics of Social Life, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2017.

I am currently developing a new project that draws on phenomenological theory to examine the intersections between bodies, technologies, and temporalities. One facet of this research examines how digital healthcare technologies are reshaping patient-doctor communication as well as patient-to-patient communication through the creation of virtual communities of care. I am also exploring how these new technologies may alter the temporality of both illness and healing. More information on the early stages of this research, as well as the experiences of a summer scholar who worked with me on this project, are available in the New Zealand Herald.

Since 1999, I have been examining issues of political violence, embodiment, and citizenship in Fiji. I have published widely on politics, history and memory in Fiji, as highlighted in my book, State of Suffering (2008, Cornell University Press), which documents the impact of the 2000 Fiji coup on Indo-Fijian communities. I have also examined Indo-Fijian perspectives of physical pain; pollution and religious practice in Indo-Fijian communities; and violence against Indo-Fijian women.

I also have a long-standing interest in the body, memory, gender, and political transformation in the Czech Republic. Some of my earlier work documented the impact of the 1989 Velvet Revolution on the domestic and working lives of Czech women, resulting in the books Young Women of Prague (1998, MacMillan Press, co-authored with Alena Heitlinger) and Bodies of Bread and Butter: Reconfiguring Women’s Lives in the Post-Communist Czech Republic (1993, Prague Gender Studies Center, co-edited with Laura Busheikin). Currently, I am looking at the roles of affect, history and memory in contemporary Czech society, as developed in a special issue of Focaal, Recasting Futures and Pasts: Imagination and Memory across Generations in Post-socialist Europe (2013), which I co-edited with Haldis Haukanes.

I practice research-informed teaching, contributing primarily to courses in Social Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, and Gender Studies/Women's Studies. (For course details, see below).

For more information on my research, see:

Teaching | Current

ANTHRO 203 Thinking like a Social Anthropologist

ANTHRO 732 Reading Medical Ethnography

Postgraduate supervision

Current PhD students

  • Julie Spray. Local biologies of childhood asthma in New Zealand. (co-supervised with Judith Littleton)

Past PhD students

  • Faruk Shah. Biomedicine in Bangladesh, completed 2015. (co-supervised with Julie Park)
  • Sarah Krose. Kinship, community, and recognition in the Solomon Islands, completed 2015. (co-supervised with Christine Dureau)
  • Hada Ore, Can Home Come in a Tin Can? Senses and Emotions in Migrant Jewish-Israeli Mothers' Foodways in New Zealand, completed 2014. (co-supervised with Phyllis Herda)
  • Toy O'Connor, Governing Bodies: A Maori Healing Tradition in a Bicultural State, completed 2007. (co-supervised with Julie Park)

Current MA students

  • Lloyd Johns. How Biologists Perceive Nature and Culture. (co-supervised with Christine Dureau)
  • Lakna Jayasingh. Biocultural perspectives on stress among immigrants to Auckland. (co-supervised with Bruce Floyd and Heather Battles)

Past MA students

  • Courtney Addison. Lived Experiences of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (co-supervised with Judith Littleton)
  • Anastasia Bader. Jewish youth and memory in Auckland. (co-supervised with Christine Dureau)
  • Guy Collier. Ayurvedic practitioners in Auckland. (co-supervised with Christine Dureau)
  • Heidi Käkelä. Trauma and the Christchurch earthquakes. (co-supervised with Maureen Molloy)
  • Mythily Meher. Old age care in India. (co-supervised with Christine Dureau)

Areas of expertise

Research interests

Social anthropology, medical anthropology, the body, citizenship, subjectivity, political violence, health/patient experience, theories of responsibility, Fiji, the Czech Republic, post-socialist societies.


Committees/Professional groups/Services

Conference presentations

2015. “The Futures of the Present: Reckoning the Familiar and the Strange through the Experiential Temporalities of Asthma.” American Anthropology Conference. Denver, CO, November 21.

2015. “From Gasping for Air to Chronic Disease Management: The Multiple Temporalities of Asthma and Associated Healing Techniques” Australian Anthropological Society. Melbourne, December 3.

2015. “Rethinking Medical Uncertainty.” Closing Discussant for the “Managing Medical Uncertainty” panel. Melbourne, Dec. 3.

2015. “Momentarily Asthmatic: When Self-Management Turns into Re-diagnosis.” European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Global Health Conference. University of Sussex. Sussex, England. September 10.

2014. "Reflections on Responsibility." Closing Plenary Speaker. Competing Responsibilities Conference. Wellington, August 17.

2014. “New Directions in Scholarship on Responsibilities.” With C. Trundle. Workshop on “Rethinking Responsibilities.” Co-organized with Catherine Trundle and Sarah Pinto. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. April 9.

2014.  “Breathing Politics: Citizen-State Relations and Environmental Responsibility in the Czech Republic.” Workshop on “Rethinking Responsibilities.” Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. April 9.

2014. “Hidden Anxieties: Towards a Phenomenology of Breathlessness.” American Ethnological Society annual conference. Boston. April 10-12.

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Trnka, S. (2017). One blue child: Asthma, responsibility and the politics of global health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. Pages: 280.
  • Trnka, S. H., & Trundle, C. (Eds.) (2017). Competing Responsibilities: The Ethics and Politics of Contemporary Life. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. Pages: 296. Related URL.
  • Trnka, S. H. (2016). Digital care: Agency and temporality in young people’s use of health apps. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 2, 248-265. 10.17351/ests2016.119
  • Trnka, S. (2015). Playing cowboys and Indians: The therapeutics of nostalgia. Canadian Slavonic Papers = Revue Canadienne des Slavistes, 57 (3-4), 284-298. 10.1080/00085006.2015.1090759
  • Trnka, S., & Trundle, C. (2014). Competing Responsibilities: Moving Beyond Neoliberal Responsibilisation. Anthropological Forum, 24 (2), 136-153. 10.1080/00664677.2013.879051
  • Trnka, S. (2014). Domestic experiments: Familial regimes of coping with childhood asthma in New Zealand. Medical Anthropology, 33 (6), 546-560. 10.1080/01459740.2014.883621
  • Haukanes, H., & Trnka, S. (2013). Memory, imagination, and belonging across generations: Perspectives from postsocialist Europe and beyond. Focaal (66), 3-13. 10.3167/fcl.2013.660101
  • Trnka, S. (2013). Forgotten pasts and fearful futures in Czechs' remembrances of communism. Focaal (66), 36-46. 10.3167/fcl.2013.660104

Contact details

Primary office location

Level 8, Room 825
New Zealand