Meet Claire Somerville, an anthropologist who addresses gendered and health inequalities

Claire Somerville is a distinguished anthropologist whose work is at the crossroads of global health, gender, power, inequalities and participation. As an anthropologist, she tells us how she relentlessly tackles the question “How can this be?” regarding the power dynamics that influence healthcare access and gender inequalities mainly. Her perspective offers us a holistic lens through which we can approach participation and policy. She is also a member of Missions Publiques’ Global Fellowship Program(1).

Missions Publiques: First, what does anthropology mean to you?

Claire. Anthropology is a disciplinary lens that holds profound significance in my career although typically I work within interdisciplinary teams including medical practitioners as well as disciplines from the allied health sciences. Simultaneously, I possess an unwavering passion for and dedication to addressing gendered inequalities. These facets are integral to my approach to research collaborations, policy engagement, and my teaching and guide the trajectory of all my work.

To me, anthropology is essentially a series of inquiries, centered on questions rather than predetermined assumptions. It is crucial to consider the types of questions we pose, how we articulate them, and the context in which we frame them. Our sociocultural, epistemological and political experiences typically shape the ways we formulate our questions. As researchers and anthropologists, we must challenge ourselves to become aware and make present our changing positionalities and remain attentive to these when we engage in inquiry. For me now, my experiences of parenting three children at different stages of development, aging and the life cycle, as well the structural experiences of making Switzerland my home all shape the ways that I approach research questions and analyses that differ from 20 years ago. They have all influenced my interest in gendered power relations.

One of the core questions in anthropology is deceptively straightforward: “How can this be?” This inquiry encourages us to observe our surroundings with a discerning eye, pushing us to question assumptions and prompting a thorough examination of the intricate interactions among humans, society, and the environment. This holistic approach encompasses various elements, including cultural, religious, symbolic, and even cosmological systems, as well as social, political, and economic structures. Anthropology starts with questions, resisting the urge to predefine the world before subjecting it to scrutiny. It involves a profound exploration of the world that envelops us.


Missions Publiques: How does this connect to global health?

Claire. My research in global health has focused on the intricate connections between gender, power, and health in various settings and contexts. One particular experience that shaped my perspective was a project involving women who had recently given birth in a rural clinic in Mozambique. We were curious about the reasons behind their contraceptive choices, and the clinic staff attributed it to a “gender thing.” This sparked our interest in understanding what a “gender thing” meant to different stakeholders including women, their partners, service providers, local religious and political leaders and also international donors. Issues of disclosure, household level decision making, birth spacing, distance to health centre, access to transport and women’s financial autonomy, gender-based violence (GBV) and donor funding priorities were some of the overlapping factors that powered contraceptive choices and impacted birth rates.

"Our sociocultural, epistemological and political experiences typically shape the ways we formulate our questions.

Claire Somerville


Missions Publiques. And colonial history plays a role in shaping these dynamics?  

Claire. Mozambique, like many other countries in southern Africa, has indeed a colonial history which remains present in many ways today, including the use of Portuguese as one of its national languages. This colonial legacy has had a lasting impact on healthcare delivery, geopolitical relations with key donors and also the gendered nature of power dynamics. Confronting these dynamics is central to the broader political project of decolonization. Decolonizing global health involves reevaluating not only the knowledge bases, often rooted in a particular epistemology, but also addressing the unequal power relationships between donors and recipients that have persisted into the 21st century. It’s about acknowledging and transforming this coloniality.

And these power dynamics aren’t just restricted to Mozambique. The pandemic exposed appalling geopolitical power dynamics. When there was the outbreak of COVID-19, one glaring issue was the failure of the COVAX initiative, which aimed to ensure equitable access to vaccines. Many Northern Western countries stockpiled vaccine supplies, leaving other parts of the world without adequate access. This failure highlighted the limitations of global health organizations, including the WHO, in addressing such inequalities. It’s a complex issue involving various stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry and supply chains.


Missions Publiques: Shifting gears a bit, could you tell us about your current projects, especially your focus on gender?

Claire. Certainly. I’m currently involved in two significant projects. One centers around the gendered aspects of digital gender gaps, specifically within the framework of the Equals EU project(2). The second project explores the gender dimensions of digital work platforms and political participation in digital spaces, particularly post-COVID. Digitalization has transformed our world, and we’re keen on understanding how it can both hinder and facilitate gender equality, reproduce and perhaps also address structural inequalities. In the case of the latter project, we’re conducting immersive research, engaging with women’s groups and girls’ education initiatives in Nairobi’s informal settlements, where digitalization during the pandemic has been unprecedented.


Missions Publiques. How do you believe anthropology helps you better understand human interactions, both in research and policymaking?

Claire. Now anthropology, at its core, is about understanding the full range of human experiences and organization. It encompasses all our senses, our ways of being in the world and forms of human organization within material, sociocultural, plant/animal and cosmological ecosystems. Human-technological interactions that make our worlds and generate meaning are a fascinating dimension of life on this planet. In the context of digitalization, immersive and ethnographic methods can help us to conceptualize new forms of relations and interactions and in turn, social organization itself. Put simply, anthropology provides us with ways to think about how we live and respond to the question “how can that be”?

When we engage all our ethnographic senses, we gain a deeper understanding of human experiences. Even in citizen participation, informal settings like sharing tea or snacks can facilitate meaningful conversations. These sensory experiences can enrich the policymaking process as well. By actively involving our senses, we ensure a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. It’s a perspective that can lead to more inclusive and informed decisions.

(1) Read more about Missions Publiques’ Global Fellowship Program on our website here.
(2) Read more on the Equals EU project on our website here.
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