Saiba Varma

Saiba Varma is an Assistant Professor of the Psychological/Medical Anthropology subfield. She is a medical and cultural anthropologist working on questions of violence, medicine, psychiatry, and politics as they pertain to Indian-controlled Kashmir and South Asia more generally. Saiba spent 20 months doing ethnographic research in Kashmir, the site of a chronic, unresolved conflict, and one of the most militarized places on earth. In her research, she explores how spaces of psychiatric and humanitarian care confront, but also become microcosms of, the broader politics of violence and occupation that characterize life in Kashmir. She is interested in how medicine and psychiatry, as forms of knowledge and relations, are not only ways of shoring up "facts" about illness, the body, or health, but also spaces where mistrust, doubt, and suspicion proliferate. 

Her work draws together the psychological and political to better understand how the body, illness, and health are the grounds on which social and political transformations are experienced and negotiated. Some questions that drive my research and teaching are:

  • How are social and political struggles experienced in and through the body, illness, and language?
  • What are the circuits of knowledge and expertise by which certain biomedical or psychiatric categories gain traction in specific contexts?
  • How are forms of biomedical, humanitarian, and psychiatric care imagined, experienced, and distributed across different sites, and to what effect?

At UCSD, Saiba teach courses on: global health and inequality; medical and psychological anthropology; humanitarianism; conflict and health; affects and emotions. All her courses are driven by a commitment to foregrounding feminist, anti-racist, and decolonial methodologies and approaches to ethnography.

Education

BA in Anthropology and Government, Franklin and Marshall College (2004)

Ph.D. in Anthropology, Cornell University (2013)

Posdoctoral Fellow, the Thompson Writing Program, Duke University (2012-2015)

My book manuscript, Encountering Care: Medicine in a Zone of Occupation, examines how the clinic and medical and psychiatric practices, ethics, and ideals have been reshaped by ongoing violence and militarism in Indian-occupied Kashmir. The book argues that the clinic becomes a critical site through which state projects of both biopolitics and necropolitics and their effects become visible and are marked as worthy of care or not. Drawing on over 24 months of fieldwork in sites of mental health care, the book centers on intimate, intersubjective encounters between clinicians and patients, aid experts and “victims” of violence, to understand how humanitarian and psychiatric care is forged, practiced, and at times undermined, by competing impulses on the part of aid organizations, as well as by recipients, who do not always recognize the gifts they are being given as gifts. The book foregrounds the indeterminacy, mistranslations and miscommunications in care encounters to show how practicing and delivering ethical care in Kashmir becomes an extremely difficult and at times impossible task.

A second, collaborative project I have been working on with Emma Varley (Brandon University), is titled, “Ghosts in the Ward.”  This collaborative ethnographic project examines how, and under what conditions, gaps and crises in public health infrastructures become intertwined with larger social and political concerns and how these concerns are expressed through patient experiences of ghosts and jinn in public health settings. This project is the first cross-border, comparative empirical study of Indian and Pakistan controlled Kashmir. It examines how patients and other actors contest the state’s purported, often failed goal of healing subjugated populations. By foregrounding hospitals as a critical site from which to examine social and political crisis, our project reveals the subtle, indirect outcomes of violence, such as how compromises to public health systems affect patients, providers, and future decisions about care, and, in so doing, sheds light on the precarious nature of state care for those who need it most.

A third project, which I have recently begun, is an ethnographic inquiry into the uses, circulation, and proliferation of visual media representations of injured and suffering Kashmiri bodies in relation to Kashmiri subjectivities, politics, and ongoing demands for self-determination, particularly in the wake of mass injuries caused by pellet guns. I am interested in examining how images of wounded and injured bodies have transformed how Kashmiris understand themselves, relate to each other, the effects of human rights discourses, and finally, how or why social actors mobilize representations of people in acute physical and emotional distress as part of their political projects. The project also critically examines the use of “non lethal” weapons such as pellet guns and argues that such technologies shift sovereign power away from necro/biopolitics to what I call “traumatopolitics.” The project will bring together literature in the social history of weapons, disability studies, and political subjectivity.

2018, Spectral Ties: Hospital Hauntings along the Line of Control. Medical Anthropology. Special Issue Ghosts in the Ward [forthcoming 2018] (co-authored with Emma Varley), pp. 1-15.

2018, From ‘Terrorist’ to ‘Terrorized’: How Trauma became the Language of Suffering in Kashmir. In Resisting Occupation in Kashmir. Mona Bhan, Cynthia Mahmood, Ather Zia, and Haley Duschinski, eds. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, pp. 129-152.

2016, Disappearing the Asylum: Modernizing Psychiatry and Generating Manpower in India. Transcultural Psychiatry 53(6): 783-803

2016, Love in the Time of Occupation: Reveries, Longing, andIntoxication in Kashmir. American Ethologist 43(1): 50-62

2012, Where There Are Only Doctors: Counselors as Psychiatristsin Indian administered Kashmir. Ethos 40(4): 517-535(Winner of the Condon Prize, Society for Psychological Anthropology,American Anthropological Association)

2010, Curfewed in Kashmir: Voices from the Valley.In Economic and Political Weekly 45(35),pp.10-14 (co-authored with Aaliya Anjum)