PhD Defence - Mikkel Bunkenborg

Mikkel Bunkenborg, Department of Anthropology, defends his PhD thesis:

"Porous Persons and Empty Disorders. Producing Healthy People in Rural North China"

Assessment Committee

Professor Judith Farquhar, University of Chicago
Professor Charles Stafford, London School of Economics
Associate Professor Tine Gammeltoft, University of Copenhagen

The thesis can be bought at 'Boghandelen', CSS, Main Building


The thesis is an ethnographic description of the way health is construed and pursued in a village in southern Hebei, and an attempt to conceptualize local understandings of the constitution of persons. Based on ten months of fieldwork, the ethnography explores the pursuit of health as a diverse practical activity that involves transactions in households, temples, offices, and clinics. Inspired by conversations with spirit mediums, who describe cases of possession as ‘empty disorders' where an interior emptiness allows supernatural agents to invade the victim, and with exorcists, who use acupuncture to treat such disorders, the thesis suggests that the idea of persons as porous entities subject to internal emptiness might have more general conceptual validity. Abstracting the twin tropes of porosity and emptiness from the domain of popular religion and folk healers, the thesis discusses whether a similar logic may be at work in other domains. Describing how food and medicine is used to adjust constitutions within households, how governmental concern with the low quality and poor health of the population give agents of the state a hand in the production of persons, and how the preoccupation with suboptimal health espoused by the medical establishment fuels engagements with new diagnostic technologies and pharmaceuticals, the thesis explores the implications of conceptualising persons as being potentially empty and porous in their relation to the social, supernatural, political, and material elements of the world they inhabit.