Spotlight on Faculty: Gabriela Morales, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

This fall, four new tenure-track faculty members joined Scripps College, including Gabriela Morales, assistant professor of anthropology. The Office of Marketing and Communications recently sat down with Professor Morales, who works at the intersections of medical anthropology and indigenous studies. Her current book project is an ethnography of care practices in the context of Bolivian state-led efforts to decolonize healthcare services. She earned her BA in anthropology and English from the University of Arizona and her MPhil and PhD in anthropology from Yale University.

Scripps College: With the politics of decolonization in Bolivia as the backdrop, tell us more about your book manuscript.

Gabriela Morales: My book manuscript, which comes out of my PhD dissertation, examines the implementation of Bolivian policies to decolonize healthcare services during the presidency of Evo Morales. To provide you with some context, Evo Morales is the first indigenous person to be elected president of Bolivia, and he proposed to make addressing the oppression of Bolivia’s majority indigenous population a central part of his agenda. Government officials use the term “decolonization” to describe the process of reversing historically-rooted inequalities—although the precise form this might take continues to be heavily debated. In the realm of healthcare, reform has, broadly speaking, involved policies to make healthcare more accessible and the incorporation of indigenous cosmologies and healing practices into health services. My book, which is based on extended ethnographic fieldwork in the Bolivian highlands, describes the complexities of refiguring biomedicine and public health according to an indigenous ethics of care. I describe how doctors, healers, and patients enact different notions of “warm care” and “relational care” in ways that both challenge and re-inscribe racialized forms of treatment in Bolivian public clinics. A major argument of my work is that the ways people relate to one another—including how doctors care for patients, or families and neighbors care for patients—are profoundly political. Especially as indigenous patients are confronted with the limits of reform, practices of care also become a means for them to remind doctors and government officials of their obligations.

SC: Your work as a research assistant while an undergraduate at the University of Arizona must have played an important role—as undergraduate research opportunities at Scripps College often do for our students—in encouraging your ultimate career interest in medical anthropology. Can you tell us about that experience, and how that work influenced your career trajectory?

GM: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona many years ago, I benefitted greatly from the available institutional and financial support for undergraduate research. I worked for several years as a student intern at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology as part of small team working on the U.S.-Mexico border. It was a formative experience that got me thinking about the types of questions researchers ask, their relationships with the communities they study, and the political and ethical commitments of their work. Later, I also wrote my senior thesis in anthropology on Cuban medical aid to Bolivia. I became interested in this research, first of all, because my father’s family is from Bolivia, and I already knew I wanted to work long-term there, and second, because I was very interested in regional politics and forms of cooperation around health care. I designed the project and obtained funding to do qualitative interviews and participant-observation in Bolivia over the summer. My growing interest in the subfield of medical anthropology prompted me to work in the public health world in Bolivia after graduation and, eventually, to apply to PhD programs in anthropology. I encourage undergraduates at Scripps to take advantage of available research opportunities—and to think through their commitments, their relationships with the communities they study, and the purpose they want their project to serve.

Scripps College: What courses are you currently teaching? Will you be creating new courses that incorporate your interests in medical anthropology and indigenous studies? What might those look like?

GM: In both the fall and spring semesters this year, I am teaching medical anthropology, which draws many students interested in careers in medicine and public health. The class focuses on how health, illness, and medical knowledge are culturally situated, as well as how structural inequalities shape experiences of and access to care. This spring, I am also teaching a class on settler colonialism. We discuss the colonization of indigenous peoples as an ongoing process of elimination, enacted through sites such as resource extraction, sovereignty, education, gender, and others. We also think through the various ways scholars and activists have taken up the question of decolonization. In the future, I look forward to developing other classes. I am thinking of designing a Core III class on illness and embodiment as well as an upper-level seminar that focuses on the relationship between medicine and indigenous knowledge.

SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?

GM: In my limited free time, I do a lot of art (drawing and painting) and lift weights.

You can read more about Scripps faculty here.