Exploring experiences that psychiatry often labels as psychosis and schizophrenia: a Q&A with Anjana Bala

Dr Anjana Bala is a Fellow in the Department of Anthropology 

For me, anthropology is a kind of philosophy of the people and for ourselves. You can at once attempt to answer something about the world and confront something that rests within you.

Anjana Bala

Anjana Bala 747 x 560
Dr Anjana Bala 

What are you currently researching?

My research, based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, explores experiences that psychiatry often labels as psychosis and schizophrenia. In anthropology, we take narrative and life histories as evidence, and my research explores how experiences typically systemised as hallucination, delusion, or unreason actually offer insight about life – only if we listen carefully enough! 

Lately, I've also been exploring 'eco-anxiety' and 'solastalgia'—experiences of ecological distress and ecological trauma, drawing from ethnographic insights in both the UK and India.

Finally, I'm also a dance artist. I'm currently working on a dance film on the topic of "optics." I mention this as part of my research endeavors because the arts also demand a unique research approach, often ethnographic or auto-ethnographic in nature. My dance work allows me to answer and explore different kinds of research questions than I can in traditional academia due its more autonomous methodology. 

Why did you choose this area of study?

Anthropology is a discipline that can encompass a variety of inquiries, interests, and dispositions. This is what makes anthropology an exciting and fruitful place to me - that there can be many different kinds of anthropologies and anthropologists. 

For me, anthropology is a kind of philosophy of the people and for ourselves. You can at once attempt to answer something about the world and confront something that rests within you - which is probably what I am doing with my research on mental health.

Finally, as a discipline, anthropology can be a practice of uncertainty - that “not knowing” and “indecisiveness,” or “doubt” can be productively transformed into training ourselves to see multiple perspectives and rethink where and how we obtain knowledge. 

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

Anthropological methods can call into question the notion of “impact” in the first instance. For example, I work on mental health - there are thousands of research articles, specialised medicines, and enhanced therapies to treat and examine mental health, yet depression and anxiety rates continue to rise, while recovery and stability feel like elusive concepts. 

Schizophrenia still remains misunderstood by psychiatry and other scientific disciplines. An anthropological approach might question this tension, without necessarily having to produce all the answers or generate immediate change. We may offer new ways of asking questions, listening, and educating without having to immediately commodify or instrumentalise that knowledge. 

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

The highlight of my research was definitely my fieldwork in Chennai. I spent 18 months in India, observing clinics, hospitals, and therapy sessions. I also got certified in various therapy training courses and interviewed numerous individuals from all walks of life. Most researchers don't have the opportunity to return to the field after their initial period, so having that uninterrupted time was truly a gift.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Like most early career researchers and also as an individual wanting to resist the constant productivity demands of capitalism, I find myself caught between wanting to be slow and mindful and listening to the voice inside my head that tells me to publish more, present more, and teach more to be supposedly successful. This whiplash is definitely symptomatic of our times. 

What advice would you give to prospective students on the most effective way to approach research and keep stress levels down?

Find hobbies and interests that sit fully outside of your research work! Not only does it ultimately make you a better researcher because you aren’t myopic about your discipline/methods, but it is also a great way to build community and have a balanced life. 

In a few words, what is the best thing about studying at LSE?

The students here are amazing! I’ve hugely developed not only as a teacher, but also as a scholar thanks to my incredible students and their razor sharp insights.