Ep. #34 Knowledge Making: Emma Kowal talks Indigenous health care, difference & genomics

“Wherever you work, science and technology are everywhere … [and] ethnographic methods are crucial for answering the kinds of questions that STS scholars want to answer.”

In the second episode of our STS Series, Subscribe on Android Emma Kowal, a cultural and medical anthropologist and Professor at Deakin University, author of over 100 publications including Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia and part of Somatosphere’s editorial team, and recipient of the Thomas Reuters “Women in Research” Citation Award in 2015, chats with our own Julia Brown at the 2018 4S Conference in Sydney – which Emma co-chaired. They reflect on Emma’s academic journey from medical student to social activist to anthropologist, where her guiding goal has always been to “do the most good” for Indigenous Australians, then discuss the experiences and difficulties of doing native ethnography (that is, ethnography of your own people – so for Emma this was doing work amongst “white, middle-class, left-wing people” trying to make a difference in the Aboriginal health care system) and researching marginalised groups, and finally explore the relationship between anthropology and science and how each discipline may aid the other in the production of knowledge.


“A lot of what individual white anti-racists, as I called them, but also the broader policy frameworks are struggling with is the question of how do we enact Indigenous equality; how do we make the lines on the graphs that we draw of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous; how do we make those lines converge and ‘close the gap’, while maintaining Indigenous difference?”

“Making knowledge is a morally risky exercise… Knowledge making matters to people. If you’re working in Indigenous affairs, if you’re working in Indigenous anthropology, you can’t forget that.”

“It’s arguably impossible to distinguish difference from disadvantage”

“The emergence of Indigenous genetic ancestry testing … has the potential to really change the demography of the Indigenous population, in a context where identification is increasing a lot, all the time, and without saying this a good thing or a bad thing – I really don’t have an opinion about it – it’s a thing, and it’s an important thing that is changing what it means to be Indigenous”

“If people are getting upset by what you’re saying, particularly from multiple directions, it probably means you’re onto something that’s really important”

Julia: “Why should anthropologists care about science and technology studies?”
Emma: “…my one-word answer is knowledge; that science and technology studies is really at its essence about the production of knowledge, the dissemination of knowledge, the reception of knowledge, and particularly the contestation between different kinds of knowledge and different ways of knowing. So all of these questions are also completely central to anthropology”

“This kind of question of, “are these kids going to be better off if they go to school?” does haunt people’s minds. My work is really about acknowledging that as a really important part of the experience of trying to enact post-colonial justice.”

“Ethnographic methods are crucial for answering the sort of questions that STS scholars want to answer… to understand how people are experiencing disease, using drugs, engaging with new technologies, getting their genetic ancestry tested, making robots. All of these things are really interesting ethnographic questions about what it means to be human in 2018 and beyond.”


Emma Kowal, 2015, Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia, Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford.

You can find the book here:

You can read more of Emma’s articles here: https://deakin.academia.edu/EmmaKowal

Read more about the 4S Conference 2018 here: https://4s2018sydney.org/program/

For an explanation on the Aussie term ‘tall poppy syndrome’ see:

You can find Julia’s interview with 4S President Prof Kim Fortun here.

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Shownotes by Deanna Catto

[Image sourced at: https://unsplash.com/photos/pgfWIStWIfs]

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