Saturday, August 27, 2011

Article for OT connections magazine - Discovering the interface of OT and Anthropology discourse

Discovering the interface of OT and Anthropology discourse Antigua, Guatemala

NAPA-OT Field School (18 July – 12 August 2011)

Linda Rylands graduated from the Occupational Therapy program at the University of Queensland (UQ), in 2002. As an OT, Linda specialized in the area of mental health for 5 years. After spending time working and travelling abroad, she returned home to Brisbane in 2006 and joined an innovative and dynamic local network of OT’s: Occupational Opportunities for Refugees and Asylum Seekers ( This progressed to a case management role in a lead settlement service for refugees in Queensland where she was particularly interested in exploring the OT role during refugee settlement. Linda has been humbled by the stories and journeys that she has been privileged to share with families settling in Australia. Currently pursuing a BA of Anthropology, UQ she is now passionate to explore the fusion of Anthropology and OT frameworks in study and practice.

To further the development of this area, Linda successfully applied to join an intensive 4 week field school for July 2011 which included a faculty of 5 from the US and 12 international OT/Anthropology/Public Health students. The field school is a project of the NAPA-OT SIG (Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group within the National Association of the Practice of Anthropology). NAPA ( is a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Faculty includes anthropologists and occupational therapists with credentials in medical anthropology, occupational justice, health care access and human rights, gerontology, child development, disability studies, and public health.

The main vision of the field school is to offer a specialized transdisciplinary applied learning opportunity in the field of OT, anthropology and public health to promote leadership qualities and innovation in this area. The aim is also to collaborate with local projects and needs through Guatemala-based NGO networks. The curriculum consisted of weekly seminars and local guest speakers (e.g. Guatemalan health system in context of history of violence, human rights discourse), applied project work and opportunities for innovative dialogue through discussion groups (e.g exploring concept of “occupational justice” as emerging area in OT and anthropology). One of the 3 areas of Focus area group projects involved a research process (interviews, data analysis and report) with the aim to improve the coordination of surgery referrals to meet needs of local Guatemalan population. This offered the opportunity for individualized mentorship in field methods. In addition, the curriculum included study of Spanish for 9 hours a week and cultural immersion in a homestay with a Guatemalan family.

Interview with Linda:

What motivated you to choose to undertake such a program?

Ever since working as an OT in mental health, I have been driven to question, What is mental health? What is happiness and well-being? By who’s standards? In what context? How does this differ in other cultures? And how do OT’s help? Of course I quickly realized that these are questions with complex answers given the diversity of the human experience. Through my initial anthropological studies I have started to consider, despite this diversity, what are the human universals? And then how does this relate to ‘meaning’ and ‘occupation’.

On my path of discovery, I immersed myself in my work in different contexts (abroad, private, public), attended conferences (e.g. ‘happiness & its causes’). Of course I experimented with my own personal life, for example the value use of money and time and the activities of yoga and dance. I also became very conscious of the power relationships inherent in the ‘therapist-client’ relationship. From this exploration I was not convinced that the OT philosophy (being primarily occupation-centered) fitted with the primarily medical model orientated ‘mental health’ services. There was so much more to it.

I returned home from travelling in 2006 curious about the occupational experience of migrants and refugees settling in Australia. At this time I had the opportunity to attend WFOT 2006 where I was inspired by the OT’s working on a global scale in community development and introduced me to concepts of occupational justice and human rights. I experienced further exposure in my role in the refugee settlement service, through pure immersion in a diverse working environment as well as seeing the innovation and potential of several OT student projects. In addition, with my supervisor being from an anthropology and social work background she shared with me tools for working across cultural and language barriers, considering power dynamics and the continual role as an advocate. It got me thinking, what about the OT and Anthropology interface?

Why did you choose to apply to this particular field school?

After googling OT and Anthropology I found out about the NAPA-OT list serve. I promptly joined and started to receive regular updates about interdisciplinary OT/Anth work. This is how I learnt of the NAPA-OT program for 2010. As far as I knew, this is a unique program that is not offered elsewhere. I wanted to join straight away. I found out about it when I had just returned from a 2 month journey in Africa, and it was also around the same time as WFOT 2010 in Chile. Although I was unable to attend the WFOT conference, I committed to attending the NAPA-OT the following year in July 2011. I applied in December and was informed that I was successful in Jan 2011.

Who else will be participating in the program?

The program is headed by Gelya Frank (Ph. D Anthropology and founding contributor to occupational science), Rachel Hall-Clifford (Medical Anthropologist and Public Health); Nancie Furgang (OT – Pediatrics) and Peggy Perkinson (OT – Gerontology). There were 12 OT/ Anthropology and Public Health students from mostly from the US and also Canada and Holland. I was the sole Australian Ambassador.

What were your expectations of the program?

Other than general life and career inspiration, most of all I was hoping to leave the program with some understanding or frameworks to integrate the professions of OT and Anthropology. I was hoping that this could be the start of a new path where I would make some lifelong connections with people who were passionate in the same areas. In addition I was hoping to understand the academic literature in this area and to benefit from mentoring from those who were pioneers in this area. Perhaps I would like to apply this knowledge to healing traditions globally. All these hopes and more were met by the program.

What did you get out of it that you didn’t expect?

I was really pleased to be part of small research team where we were not only lectured intensively on topics but I also gained some tangible research skills. Working as part of a team of 4 students and mentored through the process, we worked on a compelling relevant topic for the Guatemalan health system and conducted real life research and through a complete phase with an action learning component. I feel like I have walked away not only contributing to building better collaboration between NGO’s focusing on service delivery in health services, but also concrete skills in interviewing, developing a research program, conducting data analysis and collating information into a research report. I also have a deep understanding of the Guatemalan health care context should I get the opportunity to do future projects.

I really enjoyed the challenge of learning a new language along with learning more about the context.

What conceptual learning did you develop?

I learnt that there were not really hard and fast answers in relation to the interface between Anthropology and OT but that these conceptual links had the creative edge of being a work in progress. For example in general Anthropology defines the ‘macro’ with OT looking at more a ‘micro’ lens – thus both need each other to function. While Anthropology can provide a deep lens to look at human diversity and the political and social context, OT frameworks have the confidence to ‘intervene’ and create change on a person or community level. OT was thus described as an ‘optimistic’ profession which is hopeful to inspire positive change. And finally - what is culture anyway? There are many definitions and this was the core of one of our dynamic discussions with the students especially due to the integration of OT and anthropology philosophies. One definition is culture as “sets of competing discourses (ways of thinking about things - meaning) and practices (ways that things are done – occupation) in a field of unequal distribution of power” – Sherry Ortner (Anthropologist). What is interesting about this is the incorporation of meaning and doing but also acknowledging the context of hierarchy and power structures in every society where some ideas or ways of doing are heard or given more power than others.

Would you do something like this again?

Yes, I am full of inspiration and the structured orientation to a culture as well as the learning by doing and applying was a rich and full experience and has added depth to my ability to practice and understand more about the context of many developing nations with government corruption. I encourage anyone interested in this interface to contact me for more information or apply for 2012.

How do you think it will change the way you approach your profession?

This course has reignited my passion in applying occupational frameworks into different areas outside of traditional health delivery. I look forward to applying the research skills that I have learnt to further projects of inquiry into unexplored areas and continue to complete my Anthropology studies. Most likely I will return to working with refugee populations when I return to Australia but also would like to work in the area of support and revitalization of Australian Indigenous culture. The networks that I have developed and mentoring relationships will be lifelong.

Where to from here?

I will be staying in San Marcos, Guatemala for the next 2-3 months to complete and independent study unit for my Anthropology studies – I will be focusing on healing methods in local Mayan contexts and looking further into the literature of OT/Anthropology interface.

In order to present the findings of our NGO project our team have been invited to attend a local conference in Guatemala on 7-9 October called “Beyond Development – Networking Conference” ( where we hope to be part of the dialogue and collaboration of many of the NGO’s working on the ground for health care in Guatemala. The cost is US$75 and would welcome any scholarship or donations to make this a possibility.

Please contact me at or skype: lindarylands12.

For those OTs interested I would like to host a discussion group/ resource sharing time in March 2012. .

No comments:

Post a Comment