Eirik Saethre, PhD

Associate Professor

Curriculum Vitae

Office: Saunders Hall 306
Office Hours: click here
Phone: 956-3995
Email: saethre@hawaii.edu

Find out more about the Medical Anthropology Specialization

General Interests
Current Research
Selected Publications


I was first introduced to anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews, where I received a degree in social anthropology and philosophy. Focusing on medical anthropology, I completed my doctorate at the Australian National University. I have served as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pretoria and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Belgrade. I currently hold a joint appointment as a Senior Researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.

My research explores the creation, maintenance and contestation of collective identities through medical narratives as well as the ways in which biomedical interventions acquire meaning within the context of social, economic and political struggles. I have examined these themes through long-term projects in Australia, South Africa, and Serbia.

General Interests

Medical anthropology; health inequalities; pharmaceuticals; identity; Aboriginal Australia; Romani Serbia; South Africa

Current Research

In 2011, I began examining the illness experiences of legally invisible and displaced Roma living in Belgrade’s informal settlements. Classified as ‘unhygienic’ by the Serbian government and threatened with demolition, these settlements often consist of small recycled wood homes that lack running water as well as regular access to electricity. Settlement residents derive an income from collecting paper, plastic, metal, and other recyclable materials. While an ever-increasing number of programs are implemented in an effort to aid Roma, I argue that post-socialist government health policies and transnational European health activism popularize bounded portrayals of Romani disadvantage while simultaneously obscuring the lived experience of ill Roma. Drawing from ethnography gathered while working and living in informal settlements, this project seeks to understand the embodied experience of Romani marginalization through an exploration of identity, mobility, labor, and illness.

Previous Research

In 1996, I started research into the complex meanings of health, sickness and treatment in a remote Aboriginal community in Australia's Northern Territory. Despite living in a wealthy nation with a comprehensive health infrastructure, Aboriginal Australians—like other Indigenous minorities in settler states—endure a high burden of disease. I assert that the acceptance of biomedical knowledge by Aboriginal people, often a primary component of many government intervention initiatives, does not inevitably lead to a reduction of Indigenous health disparities. Focusing on the ways in which illness and suffering have been employed to construct and perpetuate racial identities, my research explores medical meanings and interactions as a focal point in struggles over Indigeneity. As medicine and medical narratives have been used by the state to create and entrench notions of racial difference while justifying the control of Indigenous bodies, Indigenous people also manipulate medical meanings by linking disease to a history of colonization and government interference. Integrating medical discourse with local norms, beliefs, and social anxieties, Aboriginal narratives of diagnoses and treatments are capable of acting as a tool of contestation through which dominant narratives are challenged and rejected.

Building on the themes of culture, power, and medicine, I began my next project in the townships of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2005. Working in partnership with the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, this research centers on the Microbicide Development Programme 301, a randomized clinical trial that evaluated the effectiveness of PRO 2000 in preventing HIV transmission. Microbicides—pharmacologic agents often suspended in a gel or cream and inserted vaginally prior to intercourse—were developed as an empowering technology, intended foster women’s control of their reproductive health. Drawing from extensive interviews, focus groups, and participant observation, this project explores the motivations, experiences, and perceptions of trial volunteers and township residents to understand the social impact of international health interventions in developing nations. Examining the ways in which Johannesburg residents make sense of, and attribute meaning to, new and innovative pharmaceuticals, I argue that global clinical trials are not entirely foreign enterprises. Rather, they are firmly situated within a local context. Medical narratives and experiences involving the trial gel became a vehicle through which concerns regarding globalization, gender relationships, economy, social reproduction, morality, and wellbeing were articulated and negotiated.


Drawing from my own research interests and background as a medical and cultural anthropologist, I regularly teach the following upper division courses: Medical Anthropology; Biomedicine and Culture; Anthropology of the Body; Food, Health and Society; Anthropology of Religion; Anthropology of Sexuality; and Ethnographic Field Techniques.  In 2012, I was awarded the Chancellor’s Citation for Meritorious Teaching. 

Selected Publications


2013. Saethre, E.J. Illness is a weapon: Indigenous identity and enduring afflictions. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

2012. Stadler, J. and E.J. Saethre. Off label. AIDS Review 2012. Pretoria: Centre for the Study of AIDS.


2013. Saethre, E.J. and J. Stadler. Malicious whites, greedy women, and virtuous volunteers: negotiating social relations through clinical trial narratives in South Africa. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 27(1):103-120.

2011. Stadler, J. and E.J. Saethre. Blockage and flow: intimate experiences of condoms and microbicides in a South African clinical trial. Culture, Health & Sexuality 13(1):31-44.

2010. Stadler, J. and E.J. Saethre. Rumors about blood and reimbursements in a microbicide gel trial. African Journal of AIDS Research 9(4):345-353.

2010. Saethre, E.J. and J. Stadler. Gelling medical knowledge: innovative pharmaceuticals, experience, and perceptions of efficacy. Anthropology & Medicine 17(1):99-111.

2009. Saethre, E.J. Medical interactions, complaints, and the construction of Aboriginality in Central Australia. Social Identities 15(6):773-786.

2009. Saethre, E.J. and J. Stadler. A tale of two ‘cultures’: HIV/AIDS risk narratives in South Africa. Medical Anthropology. 28(3):268-284.

2007. Saethre, E.J. Close encounters: UFO beliefs in remote Aboriginal Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13(4):901-915.

2007. Saethre, E.J. Conflicting traditions, concurrent treatment: medical pluralism in Aboriginal Australia. Oceania 77(1):95-110.

2007. Saethre, E.J. UFOs, otherness, and belonging: identity in remote Aboriginal Australia. Social Identities 13(2):217-233.

2005. Saethre, E.J. Nutrition, economics and food distribution in an Australian Aboriginal community. Anthropological Forum 15(2):151-169.

Book Chapters

2012. Saethre, E.J. Much more than plastic: reflections on building Star Wars Stormtrooper armor. In The meaning of dress, 3rd edition. K. Miller-Spillman, A. Reilly, and P. Hunt-Hurst (eds.). New York: Fairchild. pp. 495-500.

2011. Saethre, E.J. Demand sharing, nutrition and Warlpiri health: the social and economic strategies of food choice. In Ethnography and the production of anthropological knowledge. Essays in honour of Nicolas Peterson. Y. Musharbash and M. Barber (eds). Canberra: ANU E Press. pp. 175-186.

2008. Saethre, E.J. Medicine. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition. Vol. 5. W. Darity (ed). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 63-65.