Interview With Mille Thorsen

The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

Mille Kjærgaard Thorsen holds a position as Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work and at the Research Centre for Health and Welfare Technology both at VIA University College. She obtained her PhD from the Department of Anthropology at Aarhus University in 2019.

What is your article “Under Pressure: Living with Diabetes in Cairo” about?

The article examines ethnographically the topic of type-2 diabetes in Cairo, Egypt. It depicts two different prevailing understandings of what causes the condition among those living with it and their healthcare providers. It shows how those diagnosed with type-2 diabetes primarily relate their condition to experiences of ḍaghṭ, translated as “stress” or “pressure,” whereas their healthcare providers primarily relate the condition to matters of obesity. The article exemplifies these different understandings of type-2 diabetes by drawing on the topic of food. It argues that whereas those diagnosed with type-2 diabetes relate issues of food scarcity and insecurity to their condition (specifically to the ḍaghṭ brought on by such scarcity and insecurity), their healthcare providers relate an excess consumption of food and calories to the condition. Overall, the article shows how transnational policies, markets and research interfere with the physiology of bodies – manifesting in ailments such as type-2 diabetes.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.

I worked as a healthcare assistant in a nursing home and at a hospice during my first formative years as an undergrad student at the Department of Anthropology at Aarhus University. This drew me to the field of Medical Anthropology during my grad and post-grad years. Since finishing my PhD in 2019 (the article above is based on research I conducted as part of my PhD), and through the last couple of years as an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work in Aarhus, I have grown particularly interested in issues of inequity in relation to healthcare issues. During my PhD I was especially interested in exploring the notion of (mis)trust in relation to such issues; this theoretical interest has more recently evolved into a focus on the relations of (mis)trust, empathy and ethics more broadly.

What drew you to this project?

I have always been keen to learn different languages and decided during my undergrad that I would devote six months to studying Egyptian Arabic in Cairo before resuming to grad school. Of course, I fell for Egypt; its people, history, culture and language. When forming my PhD project several years later I knew from my time in Egypt that the prevalence of type-2 diabetes within the country was as high as, for example, in Denmark, however little research had been conducted locally in regards to understandings and treatment paths in relation to the condition. I also discovered that the Danish-founded medical company Novo Nordisk was quite vested in diabetes care and prevention strategies within the public healthcare system in Egypt, which further drew me to examine the global and local intersections of type-2 diabetes within the country.

What was one of the most interesting findings?

One of the most interesting findings of my overall PhD project (the above article touches upon this briefly) is the fact that ḍaghṭ (translated as “stress” or “pressure”) is in fact biomedically acknowledged as a risk factor of type-2 diabetes; however, it is was not acknowledged in medical practices in Egypt or in Denmark throughout my research. Put differently, certain etiologies of type-2 diabetes transformed into medical practices and others did not. These findings raised the subsequent questions of 1) why this happens, and 2) what we potentially overlook that could make a difference in succeeding with diabetes treatment and prevention strategies within Egypt and within the region at large?

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

Staying on the topic of Egypt: I am halfway through Alaa al-Aswany’s “I ran to the Nile” which depicts the time of the uprisings in 2011. It is simultaneously beautiful and painful, but also full of humor and warmth.

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?

To apply the fact that diabetes care and prevention cannot solely take place in a doctor’s office or through treatment targeting individual bodies – it should also take place in the offices of those who form national and transnational policies that affect the conditions in which those individual bodies exist.

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