Arbel Griner, Ph.D., once dreamed of becoming a detective, but that was not in the cards – not exactly, anyway. Reflecting a penchant for mysteries and an insatiable curiosity, that childhood ambition fueled a scientific appreciation for the “investigative process.” At a young age, Arbel developed an inquisitive eye and an open mind, as well as a gift for storytelling. Collectively, those attributes inspired a relentless quest for knowledge, guiding her work and her life.
In this Spotlight, we explore Arbel’s journey, from Israel to the United States, and from journalism to academia. She shares insight into her multidisciplinary training and expertise in science and technology studies, along with her pioneering research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW).
Q. How did your upbringing – in both Israel and Brazil – affect your thoughts about public health?
A. I spent the first nine years of my childhood on a kibbutz, which influenced my ideas about family, education, health care and social space. I led a very communal life, where people worked to earn money and goods for the collective, and resources should be evenly distributed. In such a system, ideas of private property or private health insurance were alien. We had access to medical care, but people only sought doctors when they were really sick or in need, and then, were redirected to a hospital in an urban center.
After 15 years on the kibbutz, my parents moved our family back to their home country of Brazil. There I learned to rely most on my nuclear family and found out about the dynamics of a society where most things and services were privatized, from schools to childcare. Families strive for distinction and an ideal of attaining “the best.” And although in Brazil there is a constitutional right to health care, you come to understand that when many people have the material means, they tend to forego the universal health system in favor of private doctors.
Q. While global health has become a focus of your work, it was not your first interest. As an undergraduate, in Brazil, you studied communications and then began your career in journalism. What pulled you in that direction?
A. I always wanted to be an investigator but realized, early on, that detective work was a little too dangerous, at least for me! As an alternative, I studied journalism. By my second year of undergraduate school, I had an internship in the broadcasting industry and worked my way up to becoming a reporter for the daily news, but I did not appreciate the lack of time for understanding the reality I was reporting about. That led to a job writing scripts for a documentary television series. As part of my responsibilities, I viewed hours of footage, listened to interviews, and gathered additional materials. When the research team was busy, I did my own research – and began to discover what I really wanted to do.
Q. How did you transition from journalism to research?
A. I started working part time at a research and archival institute aimed at studying contemporary Brazilian thought and politics. In this role, I collected documents and audiovisual materials, such as photos and films, and interviewed dozens of people to construct oral histories. I had the opportunity to speak with politicians, judges, public personalities, and other prominent figures who had some relevant association to Brazil’s economic and political landscape. These conversations offered insight into the country’s institutions of democratic power and how they interconnected. I also interviewed filmmakers and social scientists, or people we would refer to as interpreters of Brazilian contemporary reality and history. All of this information contributed to a valuable, growing archive, which is accessible to the public.
When the research institute became a school, I was one of the first students to take a graduate course in documentary cinema. I also collaborated on a project with an anthropologist, who influenced my decision to earn a Master’s degree in sociology and anthropology while working at the institution.
Q. Tell us about your expanding role at the school and how that may have influenced the next chapter in your career.
A. I was at the school for 10 years, from 2007 through 2017. During that time, I worked on several big research projects, taught courses, and integrated an audiovisual component into the archive. In 2013, I joined the administration as Vice Dean and helped to shape the future of the institution, designing its way into the digital humanities.
Q. Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in collective health? Can you shed some light on the field as well as the subject of your dissertation?
A. I became curious about affective disorders, and how biomedicine participates in casting the ways we feel and relate to one another by labeling affects and behaviors as normal or pathological. I wanted to better understand how scientific and medical practices impact affectivity and our understanding of emotions over time. My dissertation investigates the medicalization of affects as an effort put together by different fields – such as neuroscientific theories, bioethical normativity and clinical interactions. In Brazilian public and private health clinics, affective issues are now diagnosed as medical conditions that are usually treated with the help of pharmaceuticals. Affects such as love and jealousy are treated as impulse-control disorders, or addictions. Through science and technology studies, I sought new understanding of this phenomenon.
As a field, collective health is aimed at updating social medicine and bringing it closer to local and historical problems, addressing the fluid nature of social determinants of health and disease. I was drawn to this specific program, within the Institute for Social Medicine of Rio de Janeiro, because of my interest in mental health and the Institute’s multidisciplinary methodological and thematic approach. I studied under professors working in both academia and the Brazilian public health care system, who taught students to work on intersecting spaces – bringing together anthropology, epistemological studies, psychology, and sociology to investigate how understandings of health and protocols of care are shaped.
Q. How did you find your way to Princeton, first as a visiting researcher in the Department of Anthropology and now as a CHW postdoctoral fellow? What have you valued most about your experience, so far?
A. I came to Princeton to study under Prof. João Biehl’s supervision for a year, as a part of my doctoral studies. I focused initially on taking advantage of the university’s amazing resources while discussing aspects of my work with professors, students and visiting speakers. I soon started collaborating as a teaching assistant, which spurred new dialogue while supporting my belief that creating knowledge is never singular; it’s plural. In my view, knowledge is produced through interactions and the interlocution of sources, experiences, and ideas. As a postdoc in the Global Health Program, I have the opportunity to not only prepare future generations of scholars and professionals, but to engage with students and learn from them as well. I love that.
Princeton is a wonderful place to research and gain critical perspective. I have valued these fascinating exchanges while becoming part of the Princeton community.
Q. Tell us about your postdoctoral research. What will you study over the next two years?
A. I’m deepening my dissertation research, looking at how scientific and clinical practices shape our understanding of illness and normalcy. I’ll be investigating the connects and disconnects between lab practices and clinical interactions. I want to better understand how diagnostic categories and treatment protocols are established, and how this process becomes even more complex when universal scientific and biomedical guidelines are implemented in different local settings. For instance, when studies about depression and anxiety are conducted in the lab, they tend to be isolated in the brain and disregard the broader context of people’s lives. Entering the clinic can be a great opportunity to identify which kind of problems really need treatment, and how suitable medical treatment is for them.
Q. Have you thought about your legacy – here at Princeton and beyond? How would you like to make a difference?
A. I hope that my research will have meaning beyond academia, that it will lead to new ways of helping humanity. It doesn’t have to change the entire world; I’ll be happy if my work impacts even a small group of people – for instance, by shedding light on how gender inequality is reinforced by diagnostic categories.
I would also love to help disseminate a culture of reading outside the anglophone canon – to promote students’ contact with perspectives on health coming from other parts of the world and people outside American academia. There is value in embracing a broader, more inclusive approach to learning through reflection and critical investigation. While theories and concepts are fantastic, they can also detach us from people’s lives. In my experience, you gain a lot more information by connecting the narratives and listening to the story – whether it pertains to health practice and policy or any other field.