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Dr Helen Macdonald

Dr Helen Macdonald

BA, BCom, MA University of Otago, PhD SOAS, University of London


Research Fields

Belief, scepticism, anthropology of violence, narrative, witchcraft, academic identities in higher education institutes.

Research Interests and Teaching

I am a social anthropologist with a BA, BCom and MA from the University of Otago in my native New Zealand, and a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. My academic career was given an early start in 1992, when the Department of Anthropology at the University of Otago employed me as a Teaching Fellow to take responsibility for Prof. Peter J. Wilson’s undergraduate teaching following an unfortunate accident. I taught courses in Gender & Sexuality, and the Anthropology of Religion including findings from my Masters research on ‘Feminist Spirituality in New Zealand’.

I relocated to Cape Town permanently in February 2005 to start a family with my South African partner. For the past five years I have taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and supervised students’ research and theses at the Honour and Master levels for both the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape.

At the undergraduate level I teach two courses, one titled “Medical Anthropology” and the other, “Power and Wealth.” At the graduate level I teach a course in Ethnographic Research methods. Having completed a five-day residential course (2004), Professional Practice in Applied Multi-Disciplinary Research, (United Kingdom) combined with SOAS’s tradition of ethnographic fieldwork that privileges intensive fieldwork based on participant observation, in-depth regional and local knowledge, I have taught the post-graduate ethnographic research methods for a number of years. The value of such courses is not to be underestimated as there is evidence of a growing demand for engagement beyond the confines of the academy in concert with employers’ changing perceptions of social responsibility and risk. My goal is to better train our undergraduates to gain ethnographic research skills needed for employment outside the academy, so that anthropology’s comparative advantage lies both in critical engagement and ‘application’.

Currently I am engaged in a writing project consolidating material from my PhD research (2004) in Chhattisgarh, India. This built on earlier interests in comparative research on women’s spirituality, the anthropology of violence, intimate spaces of personal fear, witch accusations, memory & narrative, historical discourses of criminality and law and state-society relations in India. Upon completion in June 2004, I re-entered the field where I acted as an adviser to the State Government seeking to find solutions to the problem of witch-related violence and provided material for an educational documentary on witchcraft accusations.

In June 2006, I was appointed as the Principal Investigator to a piece of research funded by Prof. Martin Hall that examined notions of ‘safe space’ in relation to the transformation project, ‘Khuluma’. The final report was described by Prof. Hall as ‘a milestone in the UCT literature on transformation’. I have built upon these foundations by forming a research and writing group with Prof Jeff Jawitz (CHED) and Dr Ines Meyer (Organisational Psychology) around broad issues of academic identity and practice in higher education.

I have begun to develop new research interests about tuberculosis. What I call the South African TB research group was formed from medical anthropologists and faculty members of Public Health from the University of Cape Town, and local Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), all of whom have embarked on collaborative efforts to develop a more nuanced understanding of the social and political implications of TB in urban informal settlements and beyond. Over the course of 2010 until now, post graduate momentum around TB has merged with my own research interests around illness, misfortune and witchcraft to form a complementary, yet significantly differently, research project.

In 2012 I will be taking sabbatical to concentrate on a new research project.

Working Title: Valuing the people we feed: Understanding hunger and response-ability in TB patients in central India.


  • Macdonald, H. forthcoming. Believing sceptically: Illness and healing narratives, in Susan Levine’s (ed.) Medicine and Ways of Knowing. HSRC: South Africa.

  • Macdonald, Helen. (in press). Negotiating safe and unsafe space: Participation, discomfort and response-ability in Higher Education Institute transformation in South Africa. In Robert E. Rinehart, Karen N. Barbour, & Clive C. Pope (Eds.), Ethnographic worldviews: Transformations and social justice. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

  • Macdonald, H. 2009. Handled with discretion: Shaping policing practices through witch accusations, Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 43(2): 285–315.

  • Macdonald, H. 2009. A conversation: subaltern studies in South Asia and post-colonial anthropology in Africa, Anthropology Southern Africa, 2009, 32(1&2): 59-68.

  • Macdonald, H. 2005. ‘A voice in control?: narratives of accused witches in Chhattisgarh, India’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 28(3&4):108-114.

Other Works:

  • Macdonald, H. 2011 Tuberculosis is not only a ‘poor’ disease’, Cape Times, 24 March, p13.

  • What happened to the ‘aid’ in medical aid? Cape Times, 24 January 2008, p.9.

  • Macdonald, H., M. Gebhuza, S. Bologna & S. Morreira. 2006. Feeding Hungry Souls: An Ethnographic Study of a Climate Intervention Strategy at UCT, Department of Social Anthropology. Unpublished Report, UCT.