Listening to voices missing from the debate

Socially engaged research is important to anthropologist Catherine Trundle who is currently exploring the effect of the housing crisis on women.

Dr Catherine Trundle has vivid memories of her travel journalist father coming back from his trips to Asia and the Pacific with great stories.

Whenever she was lucky enough to be allowed to travel with him, she’d find herself “both frightened, in terms of my sense of what was normal and abnormal, and excited, because I could see there were so many ways to build a life for yourself in the world”.

It was those early experiences, Dr Trundle believes, that led to her career as an anthropologist and researcher focusing on the politics of inclusion and exclusion.

Dr Trundle’s research has ranged from the charitable practices of wealthy American expatriates in Italy to the experiences of nuclear test veterans fighting for healthcare.

“I carry out socially engaged research, exploring questions of inequality and social exclusion from different angles,” she says.

“My research makes me put myself in new situations and go through new experiences. I want to work with people at a deeper level and have my research questions driven by my research participants’ own concerns and ideas.”

Dr Trundle is a Senior Lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Social and Cultural Studies. She studied for her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University and now teaches first-year anthropology students in the same lecture theatre she attended as an undergraduate.

After graduating, she went to the University of Cambridge to study for her PhD. “I loved the intellectual rigour of Cambridge,” she says. “But it also made me realise one of the things I loved about New Zealand was the way our universities are embedded in their communities. So I was delighted when a position became available at Victoria University of Wellington, which has such a strong level of public engagement.”

For her doctoral research, Dr Trundle spent 15 months in Florence examining how well-off American women there strengthened their social, economic and symbolic ties with Italy by fundraising and giving to charities, many of which aimed at helping poorer migrants from other countries.

“I was fascinated by how different migrant communities interact, and charity was a good way to explore those differences. Charity helps people forge a connection with a place, but it also brings up questions about whether it entrenches or even exacerbates inequality” she says.

In 2009, Dr Trundle began researching New Zealand and British military veterans’ claim for recognition and compensation for the ill health they attributed to radiation exposure. She developed the term ‘military citizenship’ to explore the ways veterans made claims on the state.

The project marked an increasing interest in how the processes of inclusion and exclusion can affect people’s mental and physical wellbeing.

For her latest research project, Dr Trundle is focusing on a particularly topical social issue: how the current housing crisis is affecting women in the Wellington region.

“Women often get left out of the public conversations about housing precarity, with the media often focusing on homeless men and children,” she says.

Working with organisations like the Wellington Women’s Boarding House, her research aims to find out the specific needs and barriers low income women in Wellington face in seeking, securing, maintaining and leaving housing.

“I’m particularly interested in finding out if there are different needs and experiences for younger and older women, and among Pakehā, Māori and Pasifika women.”

Dr Trundle says her research always focuses on questions that are meaningful to people’s lives. “Anthropologists form deep relationships with participants over time and ask questions from their perspective. Our aim is to focus on the voices that are missing from the debate.”

She sees many parallels between her women’s housing project and her research into military veterans, particularly in terms of how society addresses inequality.

“In all my projects, I’ve been confronted with the suffering and difficulties people face,” she says. “But at the same time I am always amazed by people’s resilience and creative ways in dealing with their situations. That’s something I find very inspiring.”

Alongside her passion for research is one for teaching. “Teaching sharpens my ideas. Building engaged citizens who want to contribute to New Zealand’s future is just as important as writing a public policy report,” she says.

“I think it’s important for students to know the people teaching them are actively involved in research and are at the forefront of research in their fields.”

Dr Trundle is particularly enjoying teaching a course in medical anthropology she introduced for third-year students. It’s a challenging course that covers “all sorts of prickly contemporary topics”, such as the way people regard their bodies and their emotions, how inequality can lead to illness, the politics of who gets to access different forms of healthcare, and issues about gender and sexuality.

Dr Trundle says the University has encouraged her to build and maintain an international network of colleagues. She also enjoys collaborating within the School of Social and Cultural Studies, which brings together the research and teaching strengths of lecturers in criminology, cultural anthropology, social policy and sociology.

“There is a very strong intellectual life in the team and we all support each other,” she says.

“We’ve had immense student growth in the past five years, so there’s a huge buzz. There are also lots of new emerging scholars who are breathing fresh life into their subjects. It’s a great place for a researcher to be.”