School of Anthropology & Conservation

Excellence in diversity Global in reach

Dr Mike Poltorak

Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology

Visual anthropology; mental illness; medical anthropology; ethnopsychiatry; indigenous epistemologies and modernities.


profile image for Dr Mike Poltorak

School Roles and Responsibilities

Year Abroad Coordinator

Academic Background

My journey in social anthropology started with long term ethnographic fieldwork on mental illness and spirit possession in the South Pacific island group of Tonga from 1998-2000.  An apprenticeship to a local healer provided unique insights into how mental illness is experienced in the community before it is brought to the attention of medical services. Working with the only Tongan psychiatrist enabled me to track patients between systems, and to evaluate the efficacy of treatment, and the effects of diagnoses of mental illness or spirit involvement. A similar concern with epistemological dialogue led to policy-engaged research on resistance to vaccination in the UK and India. This prompted my wider interest in bringing anthropological insights to issues of public and policy concern.

In publications, I have attempted an ethnographically grounded form of brokerage across disciplinary boundaries on issues of contemporary concern. I have written on the need for interdisciplinarity in addressing rising rates of mental illness in Tonga, and advocated for greater understanding of the role and situations of traditional healers. As research fellow, I researched parental engagement with the MMR vaccination in Brighton and Hove (Sussex/IDS, 03-04), part of a project aimed to generate comparative insights into science-society relations in the context of current crises in vaccination research and delivery regimes in the UK and West Africa. The resulting highly-cited publication gave an ethnographically grounded explanation for the wider contexts of resistance to the MMR vaccination, that addressed popular media misrepresentations of misinformed or ignorant parents. Teaching and research positions at Sussex, Brunel, Manchester, UCL and Oxford Universities have allowed me to experiment with the use of multimedia to communicate anthropological ideas and to engage with multiple audiences. In 2014 I gained the 'Best Teacher' award organised by Kent Union.

My first documentary was produced collaboratively with the Tongan comedian Tevita Koloamatangi and completed in 2010.‘Fun(d)raising: The Secret of Tongan Comedy’ is an intervention into the cultural politics of representation of Tonga and Tongans, through looking at the motivations of comedians and the focus of their comedy. The film is often screened on Tongan television. It's origins lie in a desire for epistemologically and ethnographically-led filmmaking. I have developed these principles in relation to volunteerism in the Swedish intentional community of Angsbacka and in relation to the dance and movement form of contact improvisation (see documentary).

For me, participatory and collaborative research and media production, crossing and linking the concerns of social, medical and visual anthropology, offers an ideal launching point for a vibrant and grounded, public and engaged anthropology. I welcome students and collaboration in this vein.

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Also view these in the Kent Academic Repository

Poltorak, M. (2016). Anthropology, Brokerage and Collaboration in the development of a Tongan Public Psychiatry: Local Lessons for Global Mental Health. Transcultural Psychiatry [Online] 53:743-765. Available at:
Poltorak, M. (2013). The Efficacy and Self-Efficacy of Treatment: Ethnomedical Aspirations, Biomedical Inhibitions and Health Outcomes. Medical Anthropology Quarterly [Online] 27:272-291. Available at:
Poltorak, M. (2010). 'Traditional' Healers, Speaking and Motivation in Vava'u, Tonga: Explaining Syncretism and Addressing Health Policy. Oceania [Online] 80:1-23. Available at:
Book section
Poltorak, M. (2011). Comedy, Stigma and fakasesele: Contesting 'Mental Illness' in Vava'u. in: Steen, T., Drescher, N. and Daly, M. eds. Tonga: Land, Sea and People. Nuku'alofa, Tonga: Vava'u Press, pp. 217-234.
Visual media
Poltorak, M., Lynes, A. and Bruhlmann, S. (2014). Five Ways In. [Website]. Potolahi Productions. Available at:
Poltorak, M. (2013). The J-Spot. [Video].
Poltorak, M. (2013). One Week West of Molkom. [Video].
Poltorak, M. (2010). Fun(d)raising: The Secret of Tongan Comedy. [Website]. Potolahi Productions. Available at:
Showing 8 of 13 total publications in KAR. [See all in KAR]



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Mike Poltorak found his pedagogical vocation in Visual Anthropology, a specialism he enthusiastically embraced to integrate his research and teaching with a passion for an integrative, publically and policy engaged anthropology. He inspires students to use video to better understand their relationship to the contemporary world, and to have an impact on issues that mean something to them. Students voted him Best Teacher at the University of Kent in 2014, one stating:

"The best thing about Mike’s teaching is the creative, alternative way he approaches seminars ... imaginative and unique." (Undergraduate, 2014)

You can see the video of his acceptance speech here.

Collaborative working and peer-teaching, rooted in the literature of phenomenological anthropology, are central to his teaching, both as method and as a way into the subject matter. His interactive lectures and drama-based activities maximise creativity and discussion of the potential of a ‘shared anthropology’. He has organised public screenings and film events to inspire students and build their capacity to appreciate how media is received. The Film and Advocacy series in 2011 and 2012 encouraged discussion across the boundaries of anthropology, activism and filmmaking. In sharing his practice at Kent, nationally and internationally, he works to enable students to move and experience being creative and self-aware teachers.

"Each class felt like being introduced to colourful and inspirational new worlds. His friendly, artistic and creative approach ... made my time at Kent very enriching, heartening and certainly memorable." (Postgraduate, 2014)

All of his teaching is informed and underpinned by ethnographic and video-based research using principles of collaboration, co-creation and feedback. He integrates the insights gained from research on mental health in Tonga, on the dance form of contact improvisation, and as media volunteer with the community of Angsbacka in Sweden. Each generated an anthropological documentary which he has integrated into his teaching as a way to explore reflexive, critical and engaged filmmaking. Students in his SE555 Visual Anthropology Video Project course have created unique films that have also been selected for film festivals and won prizes, served to inspire small media businesses, increased their employability, and improved applications for postgraduate study. They are screened at an annual event celebrating student creativity and engagement. Most of the student films can be viewed on the UK Visual Anthropology blog in accounts of Resolations (2015), Inter-Reflexions (2014), Peopling Places (2013) and Self Spaces (2012)

He recently was awarded the Faculty of Social Sciences Teaching Prize for 2015 in recognition of teaching initiatives that were ‘very engaging for students and contribute strongly to overall student experience. The principles enabled student to develop valuable collaborative working and critical thinking skills.’ The UK Visual Anthropology website was commended for being ‘informative and interactive and had been designed to give students the ownership of their learning.'  

Teaching Recognition:
Fabulous Feedback (Kent Union) Shortlist 2013
Best Teacher University of Kent (Kent Union)  Winner  2014
Best Teacher University of Kent (Kent Union) .Shortlist  2015
University of Kent Nomination for National Teaching Fellowship 2015
Faculty of Social Sciences Teaching Prize (£5000)  Winner   2015

Convenor of: MA in Visual Anthropology

He teaches the following modules:


  • SE554: Visual Anthropology Theory (convenor)
  • SE555: Project in Visual Anthropology
  • SE308: Skills for Anthropology and Conservation (Convenor)


  • SE859: Visual Anthropology Theory
  • SE869: Video Project in Visual Anthropology
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Specialist Areas

Tonga, Oceania, New Zealand, Brighton and Hove, Rajasthan, India, visual anthropology, mental illness, medical anthropology, transnationalism, ethnopsychiatry, vaccination, applied medical anthropology, cultural politics, indigenous epistemologies and modernities, dance, contact improvisation.

Current Medical Anthropological Research

My current research (Psychiatry, Schizophrenia and Modernity: A Tongan Transnational History (1965-2006)) brings ethnographic insights in an accessible historical frame to contemporary concerns of rising rates of mental illness in the developing world, and associations of schizophrenia and modernity. It focuses on the lives and experiences of individuals involved in the transnational development of Tongan psychiatry from 1965 in relation to those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Through a focus on intersubjectivity and attention to the role of language ideologies, it answers the call for decentered studies of medical modernity. It also aims to show how schizophrenia has come to be experienced, communicated, defined and stigmatised in modernisation in a non-western context.

Current Visual Anthropological Research

I am currently developing two research projects driven by the production of collaborative anthropological documentaries. The first looks at representations of sharing in the intentional community of Angsbacka in Sweden. The second focuses on the contemporary practice of contact improvisation (see Documentaries).

Research History

My doctoral research (UCL, 96-02) focused on local 'spirit' healers' engagement with psychiatric modernisation in the South Pacific constitutional monarchy of Tonga. Detailed case studies - experienced over eighteen months of fieldwork with healers and health professionals - were central to my examination of the local diversity of healing practice, the association of ideas of tevolo ('spirits') and agency, culture-bound disorders, and the linguistic grounding of claims of efficacy and stigmatization surrounding mental illness. Strategies to bridge the epistemological divide between the framing of health policy and the insights of ethnography have involved the rendering of indigenous concepts as analytic tools, engagement with local literatures (e.g. Pacific Studies), the use of video as research tool, experimental writing strategies, problematising translation, ethnographically-led surveys, and the development of case-based presentation strategies for health professionals.  Postdoctoral research (Brunel University, 04-05) on Tongan mental illness in New Zealand and Tonga with policy makers, academics and practitioners sought an epistemological middleground on the question of stigmatisation. Research on the institutional contexts for poor vaccination uptake in Rajasthan, India (Said Business School, Oxford University, 07-08) has prompted an interest in applied medical anthropology and engagement in health policy, local health workers, NGO-led interventions, social mobilisation and wider debates in cultural politics and indigenous modernities.

I am particularly interested in supervising students in the important synthesis across the boundaries of social, medical and visual anthropology.

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Primary Supervisor

  • Lissa Davis (2015): Dancing Ethnicity: Indigeneity and Uncertainty in Totopara, North Bengal


  • Caroline Bennett (2015): To live amongst the dead: embodied and contested spaces of mass graves in Cambodia (second supervisor)
  • Laura Montesi (2012): Making sense of diabetes among the Huave indigenous people of San Dionisio del Mar, Oaxaca, Mexico.
  • Maria Paz Peirano-Olate (2015): Contemporary Chilean cinema: Film Practices and Narratives on National Cinema with the Chilean 'cinematographic community'.
  • Eda Elif Tibet (2013): Fairy Chimneys, Cave Dwellers and Pigeons: Tourism and Human- Environmental Relationships In Cappadocia, Turkey. MPhil (Social Anthropology).
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The J-Spot (2013) is a meditation on the volunteer experience at the No Mind festival in the intentional community of Ängsbacka, Sweden. Volunteers are key to the success of the week- long summer festival that attracts close to a thousand participants every year to many workshops and events celebrating personal growth. This experimental and collaborative documentary embraces the camera’s role in co-creating a shared visual anthropology. One cinematographic obstruction framed the desire for personal growth from a position of relative fixity. Most filming was from or featured The J Spot, the convivial central smoothie bar. The film also addresses questions of representation and reception of film by focusing on some of the individuals from the documentary ‘Three Miles North of Molkom’. This experimental documentary inspired the use of footage from the same event to create  ‘One Week West of Molkom’ (2014), a shorter and more narrative based documentary made in collaboration with the editor John Murphy and sound designer Maiken Hansen.

Contact ImprovisationFive Ways In (2015) is a co-created documentary based on the experiences of five people at the Freiburg International Contact Festival 2012. This is a long term project inspired by the challenges of communicating the experience and philosophy of Contact Improvisation in a video format. It is inspired by the medical anthropological attention to process and is edited according to principles of Contact Improvisation. Our crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter raised the money necessary to complete postproduction, build considerable support for the documentary and establish a research website on Contact Improvisation based on the film. The documentary is being screened in ethnographic film festivals, educational settings and through dedicated supporter organized events.

The Healer and the Psychiatrist is an ongoing documentary project developed out of ethnographic research and extensive archival footage since 1998 in the South Pacific Island of Tonga. It focuses on the similarities and differences between psychiatric and traditional treatment for mental illness. It is the result of research since 1998 and long term collaboration with the traditional healer, Emeline Lolohea, and the psychiatrist Dr Mapa Puloka. It develops in a visual form my published research (Poltorak, 2007, 2010, 2013) and self published thesis.  It seeks a reconciliation between psychiatric treatment and healers' treatment through demonstrating the degree of mutual inspiration and syncretism in their respective practices.

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Last Updated: 21/12/2016