Associate Professor Susanna Helen Trnka
BA (University of California at Berkeley), PhD (Princeton University)
Research | Current
I am a social anthropologist whose primary research areas are the body, state-citizen relations, and subjectivity. My specific interests include the politics of the body; embodiment and affect; the politics of medicine; crises and states of emergency; science and technology studies; new health technologies; history, memory, and the senses; and political violence. I currently conduct research in the Czech Republic and New Zealand, and have in the past worked in Fiji.
My most recent book project is a phenomenologically-inspired, ethnographic examination of our ways of seeing, experiencing, and moving through the world and the kinds of persons we become through them, a process I refer to as traversing. Drawing from philosophical concepts developed by two continental philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Jan Patočka, and putting them in conversation with ethnographic analysis of the lives of contemporary Czechs, the book examines how embodiment is crucial for understanding our being-in-the-world. In particular, I examine three kinds of movements we make as embodied actors in the world: how we move through time and space, be it by walking along city streets, gliding across the dance floor, or clicking our way across digital landscapes; how we move towards and away from one another, as erotic partners, family members, or fearful, ethnic “others;” and how we move towards ourselves and the earth we live upon. Traversing: Embodied Lifeworlds in the Czech Republic was published by Cornell University Press in May 2020.
Currently I am leading a multi-disciplinary, research team in an examination of young New Zealanders’ uses of digital technology for promoting mental wellbeing and their effect on patient agency and patient-doctor communication. Funded by a Royal Society Marsden grant, "Ka Hao te Rangatahi: Fishing with a New Net? Rethinking Responsibility for Youth Mental Health in the Digital Age" is a collaborative endeavour involving specialists from medical anthropology, clinical psychology, Kaupapa Māori psychology, Pacific studies, and medical ethics. My preliminary analysis has identified significant tensions in how young people view their own agency versus the agency of digital technologies. Specifically, I have found that digital technologies ostensibly designed to foster independence and personal responsibility are sometimes felt to take on a life of their own, making "demands" that young people feel they must strategize to mitigate (rather than harness for their own ends), as outlined in my 2016 article in Engaging Science, Technology, and Society.
Prior to these projects, I conducted research on 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 engaged in 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, Responsibility, and the Politics of Global Health, was published by Stanford University Press in 2017.
I have also been 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, was published by Duke University Press in 2017.
Teaching | Current
ANTHRO 203 Thinking like a Social Anthropologist
ANTHRO 732 Reading Medical Ethnography
ANTHRO 760 Anthropological Theory and the Contemporary World
Current PhD students
- Lloyd Johns. Primary supervisor. Topic: Alcohol Use and Sociality among West Aucklanders.
- Danjel Hall. Co-supervisor. Topic: Affect, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), and Innovation. (PhD in Education).
- Shauney Thompson. Co-supervisor. Topic: Young People, Digital Tech, and Mental Health. (DClinicPsych).
- Anja Uhlmann. Co-supervisor. Topic: Young Women, Agency, and Identity in the Cook Islands.
Past PhD students
- Julie Spray. Primary supervisor. Thesis title: “The Practices of Childhood: Coproducing Child Health in Aotearoa New Zealand.” > Awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Best Thesis Prize (2018) and the Society for Medical Anthropology Dissertation Award (2019)
- Faruk Shah. Co-supervisor. Thesis title: “An Ethnography of Biomedicine and Healing in Rural Bangladesh.”
- Sarah Krose. Co-supervisor. Thesis title: “Same People, Different People: Recognition, Knowledge and the (Re)construction of Relationships in Bilua, Vella Lavella.”
- Hadas Ore. Primary supervisor. Thesis title: "Can Home Come in a Tin Can? Senses and Emotions in Migrant Jewish-Israeli Mothers' Foodways in New Zealand.”
- Anthony O’Connor. Primary supervisor. Thesis title: “Governing Bodies: A Māori Healing Tradition in a Bicultural State."
Current MA students
- Miriama Aoake. Primary supervisor. Māori Women's Expressions of Pain.
- Imogen Spray. Primary supervisor. Parkinson's Support Groups.
- Brodie Quinn. Co-supervisor. Memory and Religious Identity in Ireland.
Past MA students
- Claire Black. Primary Supervisor. Digital Technology and LGBTQ Identity.
- Lauren Ghoram-Henderson. Primary Supervisor. Older Aucklanders’ Perspectives on Value.
- Lloyd Johns. Primary Supervisor. Anthropological Perspectives on Biology.
- Lakna Jayasinghe. Co-supervisor. Cortisol and Stress among Migrants to Auckland.
- Courtney Addison. Primary supervisor. Responses to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
- Anastasia Bader. Co-supervisor. Jewish youth and memory in Auckland.
- Guy Collier. Primary supervisor. Ayurvedic practitioners in Auckland.
- Heidi Käkelä. Primary supervisor. Trauma and the Christchurch earthquakes.
- Mythily Meher. Primary supervisor. Old age care in India.
- Julie Spray. Advisor. Immigrant children, stress, and cortisol levels.
- Stephanie Symington. Co-supervisor, MA portfolio. Embodiment and pregnancy.
- Charlene Ramlu. Co-supervisor, MA portfolio. Gender, violence, and indenture in Fiji.
- Jessica MacCormick. Primary supervisor. Migration, childhood and memory among Cambodian New Zealanders.
- Markus Balkenhol. Co-supervisor. Sensibility and Diabetes Prevention: Body, Food, Authority and Identity in the Context of a Samoan Community in Auckland.
- Nichola Davies. Co-supervisor. Conceptions of Health for Young Adolescent Boys.
- Deon York. Primary supervisor. Mad scientists and the ignorant public: genetics, trust and fear.
Areas of expertise
- Social anthropology
- Medical anthropology
- The body / Embodiment
- Citizenship / State-citizen relations
- Crises, States of emergency, and Political violence
- Health/patient experience
- Theories of responsibility
- Digital healthcare
- Youth mental wellbeing
- The Czech Republic
- Post-socialist societies
- New Zealand
Invited Lectures/ Workshop Participation (selected):
2018. “Neoliberalism or Havel? Rethinking Responsibility through the Lens of Social Contracts, CSR, and Childhood Asthma in the Czech Republic.” Invited Lecture. The Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, Australia. October 24.
2017. “Issues of Environmental Health or (Ir)responsible Citizenry? Struggles over Asthma in the Steel Heart of the Czech Republic.” Invited Lecture. Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. March 2.
2017. “Domestic Experiments and the Recasting of Responsibility for Asthma.” Invited talk, Woolcock Institute of Medical Research. Sydney, Australia. March 3.
2017. “Competing Responsibilities: Exploring a New Framework for Understanding Responsibility in Contemporary Life.” With Catherine Trundle. Invited talk. Victoria University, Wellington. July 21.
2016. “Rethinking Responsibility in Light of Childhood Asthma.” Invited Lecture. Yale-Nus College, Singapore. December 1.
2016. “Youth, Mental Wellbeing, and Health Apps.” Kidz First Centre for Youth Health. Manukau, Auckland. Invited Lecture. December 8.
2016. “Reclaiming the Ambiguity of Time: Illness and Healing, as Cases in Point.” Keynote at the 4th Biennial Conference of the Czech Association for Social Anthropology. Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. October 1.
2016. “Competing Responsibilities: Reckoning Personal Responsibility, Care for the Other, and the Social Contract in Contemporary Life.” Gellner Seminar. Institute for Ethnography. Prague, Czech Republic. October 18.
2014. “Domestic Experiments: How ‘Parent-Experts’ Reinterpret Medical Guidelines.” Talk for the NZ Asthma Foundation, Wellington, October 9, 2014.
Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)
- Trnka, S. (2020). Rethinking states of emergency. SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY10.1111/1469-8676.12812
- Trnka, S. (2020). Traversing Embodied Lifeworlds in the Czech Republic. Cornell University Press. Pages: 222.
- Gibson, K., & Trnka, S. (2020). Young people's priorities for support on social media: "It takes trust to talk about these issues". COMPUTERS IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR, 102, 238-247. 10.1016/j.chb.2019.08.030
Other University of Auckland co-authors: Kerry Gibson
- Trnka, S., & Stöckelová T (2019). Equality, efficiency and effectiveness: going beyond RCTs in A. L. Cochrane's vision of health care. Sociology of health & illness, 41 (2), 234-248. 10.1111/1467-9566.12817
- Trnka, S. (2018). Not all fun and games: The force of humor in political life. In J. K. Rehak, S. Trnka (Eds.) The politics of joking: Anthropological engagements (pp. 179-186). Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge. Related URL.
- Trnka, S. (2018). Diagnostic refusals, temporality, and subjectivity among “non-compliant” sufferers of asthma. Subjectivity, 11 (1), 1-20. 10.1057/s41286-017-0039-5
- Trnka, S. (2017). Efficacious holidays: The therapeutic dimensions of pleasure and discipline in Czech respiratory spas. Medical Anthropology Quarterly10.1111/maq.12403
- Trnka, S. (2017). Reciprocal responsibilities: Struggles over (new and old) social contracts, environmental pollution, and childhood asthma in the Czech Republic. In S. Trnka, C. Trundle (Eds.) Competing responsibilities: The politics and ethics of contemporary life (pp. 71-95). Durham, USA: Duke University Press.
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Primary office location
HUMAN SCIENCES BUILDING - EAST - Bldg 201E
Level 8, Room 825
10 SYMONDS ST