Virginia Dickie: occupational therapist, cultural anthropologist

Virginia Dickie: occupational therapist, cultural anthropologist

Virginia Dickie: occupational therapist, cultural anthropologist


Throughout her career, Virginia Dickie found a strong relationship between the two academic disciplines she studied at Wayne State: occupational therapy and anthropology.

Dickie, who is a professor emeritus and former program director of the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, graduated with a master’s in occupational therapy in 1978 and a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1996 from WSU.

Occupational therapy is the “therapeutic use of everyday life activities with individuals to support participation, performance, and function in roles and situations in home, school, workplace, community, and other settings,” as defined by the American Occupational Therapy Association.

“Occupational therapy services are provided for habilitation, rehabilitation, and the promotion of health and wellness to those who have or are at risk for developing an illness, injury, disease, disorder, condition, impairment, disability, activity limitation, or participation restriction,” according to AOTA.

Dickie chose to study OT because the profession combined her interests in art with a career in healthcare. As she worked in the field of mental health for most of her clinical career, she returned to WSU to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology because, as an OT practitioner, she wanted to gain a better cultural understanding and the significance of how daily activities, or occupations, could help OT patients.

Her advice to undergraduate and graduate anthropology students is to explore the field as much as you can because it’s a degree that can open the door to a multitude of career paths.

“There are other fields, like occupational therapy, that there’s a real need for Ph.D. faculty and there are anthropologists without OT degrees working in occupational therapy departments,” she said. “There are also anthropologists who’ve gotten an OT degree later.”

For her dissertation, Dickie produced an ethnography on individuals who produced and sold art at craft fairs in Michigan’s tri-county area, who ultimately created their own significant economic system. Over the course of one year, she attended about 60 craft fair and conducted extensive interviews with about 20 people.

“I was basically looking at how mostly women—but also men—how they were able to set up a working operation in their homes, and the way they organized it, and who helps, and roughly the income they were making,” she said.

She discovered that the self-employed craftspeople formed their own unique network and culture, regardless of seeing each other only a few times a year. She discovered that some of the individuals were quite profitable and able to pay their mortgages with their income.

As an OT practitioner and anthropologist, Dickie also has produced an ethnography on quiltmakers. Her most memorable story from her research shows the significance of quilt making in one cancer survivor’s life, whom she met one night at a quilt symposium in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“That night she called me over to the room and showed me this quilt—she had stage-three cancer and had gone through treatment and she finished her chemotherapy and it had been horrendous,” Dickie said. “And when she was there seeing her doctor for the last time, after that, he suggested that she do another course of chemo, and it really, really got to her.

“But a nurse suggested she keep a diary, and instead of writing her diary on paper she wrote it on fabric and when she felt better she made a quilt that traced her recovery, from the diagnosis all the way through it.”

The pieces of fabric included lab results, sad and positive messages she’d written to herself, and breaks in her progress.

“What really struck me was the optimism in writing her diary on fabric and planning ahead to make a quilt out of it, that was just really neat,” she said.