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Science, Medicine, and Anthropology
Mis à jour : il y a 6 heures 55 min

Speculative Health by Matthew Wolf-Meyer

8 Mars 2017 - 8:17pm

The last thirty years have seen an intensification in ways of thinking about our health and disease in the future tense. Risk, precarity, subjunctivity — all three point to the ways that temporality shape human experience, subjectively, interpersonally, and institutionally. But what if we turn our attention away from the clinic and its therapeutic technologies — which focus on the unfolding everyday futures of therapy and the modest gains and losses experienced through aging, debilitation, and disease progression — and attend, instead, to the speculative futures of health and disease in science fiction, futurism, and other genres that creatively attempt to think through, conceptualize, and bring into being particular futures? These futures might operate at the level of the individual — different conceptions of the self and subjectivity — and they might operate at the level of society and its institutions, entailing new social orders as well as innovations in current institutions.

In this series we invite contributors to consider how speculation makes particular kinds of persons and social forms possible; to think though other models and modes of speculation about the body, health, and disease — in film, literature, and mass media; to consider how particular technologies and techniques create futures.

Possible topics might include:

–Fictional descriptions of novel social orders and institutions that produce new forms of health and wellness – or create new forms of disease, disability, and disorder

–Ethnographic engagement with emerging technologies of care, attending to the future-making of technologists, medical professionals, and the technology itself

–Historical descriptions of earlier forms of speculations, whether they be in the context of fiction in the strict sense or speculative policy making

–Considerations of how speculative genres come to influence the ways individuals conceptualize the future of health and disease

–Other explorations of how speculation operates, specifically in the contexts of health, wellness, disease, disability, and death

Contributions of 2,000-4,000 words are sought by June 1st, to begin publication by mid-June. Please send all contributions to the series editor, Matthew Wolf-Meyer, at


#SoComplicatedSyllabus – Check it out and please contribute! by Deborah Levine

7 Mars 2017 - 8:42pm

“I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject…Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” said Donald J. Trump on Monday, February 27, at a press conference. This was his answer to a question about the then-seemingly stalled, but as of now reinvigorated, plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care law that is—both derisively and affectionately, depending on your political affiliations—known as Obamacare.

Pundits and journalists weighed in quickly with snarky jokes; it seemed they couldn’t help themselves. “Nobody? Nobody! Of course, everybody knows that health care reform is complicated,” said Jordan Weissman at On Twitter, thousands tried their hands at memes and quips, many of which paired pictures of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders laughing next to Donald Trump’s quote. Others remarked that they themselves must be “nobodies,” since they knew well that health care was complicated.

Perhaps unintentionally, the President actually made a really important point. If you aren’t someone who spends much time thinking about or studying the U.S. health care system, it can be stunning just how complex every aspect of the system is. I trained as a historian of medicine, and I teach undergraduate courses on the workings of the American health care system in a policy program. My students are continually surprised by the contradictory inequalities and complexities of our so-called “system.” In the fall of 2015, after participating at a conference with an international audience of scholars in Dublin, Ireland, the overarching question I got over dinner, from a highly educated audience of peer academics, was one of incredulous dismay, and amounted to: Is this really how the health care system in the US works? And perhaps like many of you, every time I start a new research project, I am bewildered afresh by the nuances of the injustice and contorted logics of the system I thought I had already confronted.

Over the last few years, scholars have been taking to twitter to compile and disseminate important academic works with valuable contributions to make to our most pressing political, social, and cultural debates. I have been following the fantastic #ImmigrationSyllabus, which began as a collaborative syllabus project on twitter, and that I have been using for my own teaching and research over the last several months. The Ferguson Syllabus, organized by Sociologists for Justice, first introduced many of us to the power of collaborative syllabus design and is a phenomenal resource. The #PulseOrlandoSyllabus “compiled by librarians and teachers,” intends to be a “living document [which] exists as a resource to understand our pain and grief, sadness and healing in the wake of the shooting at Pulse Night Club on June 12, 2016.”

Following Trump’s remarks, and thinking of these efforts, I tweeted, “Colleagues, perhaps it is time for a #SoComplicatedSyllabus?”

We who study medicine and health care in the US from humanities or social science standpoints have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to expose and challenge the complexities of our health care system among wide audiences. We are more familiar than most with the deep problems that have plagued the American approach to health care since the first years of colonization and slavery.

Tracking the submissions on twitter has been inspiring, and exciting. Bloggers and editors from vitally important group blogs like Nursing Clio and Remedia contributed their favorites. Friends and colleagues from within the history of medicine and health policy added their own go-to authors and scholarships for working through the complexity of the US healthcare system, and a number of practitioners weighed in as well. The result is a growing list of works, ranging in subjects from across the social studies of medicine.

Some works have come up repeatedly, like Alondra Nelson’s brilliant 2013 book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, Seth Holmes’ 2013 Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States and Beatrix Hoffman’s excellent 2012 history, Health Care for Some: Rights and Rationing in the United States since 1930. Others, like Cornelia Dayton’s 1991 article, “Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth Century New England Village,” were only suggested once but with the note that they were particularly useful for reaching students and engaging with difficult but essential materials. Forthcoming works suggested by eager future readers, like Deirdre Cooper Owens’ Mothers of Gynecology: Slavery, Race, and the Birth of American Women’s Professional Medicine and Andrew Ruis’ Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States show that there is much good reading to look forward to on our #SoComplicatedSyllabus.

The list is growing thanks to dedicated contributors, but it is much too light in many areas—especially anthropology, drug policy, sociology, and literature—I hope you will contribute too.

Deborah Levine is a historian of medicine and assistant professor in the program on Health Policy and Management at Providence College. Her most recent article, “Mere Mortals: Over selling the Young Invincibles,” co-authored with Jessica Mulligan, is coming out next month in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.

Lenore Manderson, Elizabeth Cartwright and Anita Hardon’s The Routledge Handbook of Medical Anthropology by Casey Golomski

6 Mars 2017 - 5:06pm

The Routledge Handbook of Medical Anthropology

Edited by Lenore Manderson, Elizabeth Cartwright and Anita Hardon

Routledge, 2016, 393 pages.


This is not a run-of-the-mill medical anthropology reader. Thank Routledge, its editors, and contributors for it. As someone who regularly convenes intermediate-advanced courses in medical anthropology, I’m grateful for its readability, teachable qualities, and particular theoretical angles. I’m going to trace four areas where I think the new Routledge Handbook of Medical Anthropology is innovative among the current offerings of similar edited volumes on the market for our discipline.


Visual innovation :: contextualized photographic figures

Recently, there’s been hot and necessary discussion about the images used for anthropology book covers: Tunstall and Esperanza (2016) over at Savage Minds provide interesting practical guidelines for book cover image selection as a way to decolonize anthropology. Ethnographies of medicine, suffering, and war with nuanced photographic figures of belabored people arguably make these books more compelling and help them win awards (De Leòn with Wells 2015, Biehl with Eskerod 2007, 2013), and also raise ethical questions about the images we choose to give life to our writing. The Routledge Handbook contains 16 photographic figures, taken by both contributors and others selected from a global Internet-based call-for-submissions in 2015, each placed as a ‘prelude’ (xii) to its respective chapter. A thoughtful, roughly 150-175 word description by the photographer accompanies each figure, giving it fuller context beyond the usual one sentence caption.

I appreciate projects that aim to decolonize higher education, the academy and our respective discipline, and find Tunstall and Esperanza’s approach insightful. Some might criticize the Handbook for its use of a conventional anthropological image for the cover—it features a photograph by Cartwright of an indigenous Oaxacan mother and her daughters waiting to see an herbalist for a sore throat. Despite this, the volume as a whole embodies other critical approaches that align with the decolonizing project: its images’ lengthier descriptions help eschew would could be misread in a single caption; it uses images that exemplify health and life’s ‘mundanity’ (xii) for chapters that also discuss white populations in North America, Australia and Europe; and it includes an explanation of the overall process of image selection as one of knowledge production (xii-xiii). Figures that were illustrative in these regards were Mary Anne Funk’s image and description (Fig. 12, p. 260-261) of homeless Oregonians using a shelter’s mobile shower facility to open the Handbook’s chapter on “Global Quests for Care”; Jerome Crowder’s image and description (Fig. 10, p. 206-207) of medicines for sale like Vicks Formula 44 at the mercado negro (“black market”) in La Paz, Bolivia to open the chapter on “Marketing Medicine”; and Athena Madan’s image and description (Fig. 13, pp. 280-281) of an earnest, young professional woman named Fatimah leading a peace-building workshop in a well-lit office in Kabul, Afghanistan to open the chapter on “War, Violence and Social Repair.”


Organizational innovation :: an edited volume that is not quite an edited volume

By saying the Routledge Handbook is organizationally innovative, I mean that the textual structure and narrative delivery of the content is above par. This is an edited volume that is not quite an edited volume. Each chapter is co-authored by Manderson, Cartwright and Hardon, but each takes lead authorship on different chapters. In total, including the three main authors, there are 67 contributors. Each chapter contains between 3 and 5 case studies written by the other contributors, which are embedded in the main co-authors’ narrative to make up the chapter’s thematic whole. For example, chapter 5, with Hardon as the lead author, is titled “Stress in Everyday Life” and explores “the ways in which people live with and talk about stress in a variety of sociocultural and economic settings” and “the diverse ways people strive to manage or cope with stress” (94). As it moves through sub-sections on “Diverse Idioms of Distress”, “Managing Stress”, “Talking Therapy”, and “Escape”, the chapter slips narratively into embedded case studies on Japanese depression by Junko Kitanaka, Argentinean psychoanalysis by P. Sean Brotherton, and Indonesian promotions of smoking by Mark and Mimi Nichter. Still, the chapters function well even if one chooses to excise or focus on a single particular case study for classroom assignments.

The book as a whole is not limited to a chronological-historical linearity. The first half of the book focuses on phenomena related to the life course and kinship, and the second half on globalized movements of people, goods and institutions in the contemporary world as they affect health and quality of life, although these two themes are by no means hard or fast. It does not start with classic articles by W.H. Rivers or Irving Hallowell. It does end though with a future-oriented chapter titled “Vital Signs: Medical Anthropology in the Twenty-first Century” that points to topics for the discipline to start exploring anew or invest itself in further. These include: the epigenetics of structural violence; ecohealth, ecobiopolitics and ecorisk as concepts to describe relations amongst “humans, other living things, and the environment” (372); populations’ adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change; governmentality and the global environment; revisiting cultural competency models and practice; the reshaping of medical practice through big data; relations between humans, bodies, and microbial entities: “an Anthropology of Us” (374); and health and wellbeing for asylum seekers—this section uncannily references the rise of (then U.S. presidential-candidate and now president-elect) Donald Trump.

I also like the broadly accessible language of the Routledge Handbook. To me, chapters in comparable edited volumes like Wiley-Blackwell’s (2010) A Reader in Medical Anthropology have a gloss of prestige, are prosaic, and complex in theory, but are often too in-accessible to be instructional, not only to the majority of undergraduate students but colleagues in allied fields to whom we want to recommend demonstrable examples of our work. Singer and Erickson’s (2015) A Companion to Medical Anthropology, to me, is more usefully instructionally-oriented, or in the case of Inhorn and Wentzell’s (2012) Medical Anthropology at the Intersections, more practically-oriented. Both are heavy with works by familiar senior researchers. Perhaps this is an issue of sales and circulation—having likely already read and reread a recognizable canon of theory offered in other edited volumes like these, the reader kind of knows what he’s going to get when he buys it, and that’s low risk. There’s comfort in familiarity, and that itself is cultural (Mahler 2013). With the Routledge Handbook, I think readers can ably get outside of the canonical comfort zone for a while.


Intergenerational innovation :: fresh contact between junior and senior scholars

This comment about canonical versus new research represents one of the best things about the Routledge Handbook: it is intergenerationally innovative. It includes a substantial number of works by postdoctoral and doctoral fellows, assistant professors, and academics, who are working in fields of public health and development. The embedded, yet still independent form of the case studies produce a realistic conversation between current theory and current research projects unfolding the world over. This synergy is exciting compared to other volumes where only a small number of emerging researchers and their ethnographies make the cut. Graduate students who did not train with the handful of key theorists at particular institutions represented in other volumes should find the Routledge Handbook refreshing for this reason. When editors take chances on young research, there’s great intellectual payoff.

To be sure, there is still a good number of senior contributors, who I define as having (had) full Professorships: Redfield, Leibing, Adams, Georges, Nichter, McLaughlin, Obrist, Pool, Pols, Reis, Sleeboom-Faulkner, Davis-Floyd, Herr Harthorn, Boonmongkon, Desclaux, and Allen. Several of the younger researchers are associated with Manderson and Hardon’s research hubs at the University of the Witwatersrand and University of Amsterdam, respectively. Some of the young research really stood out and strengthened their particular chapters: Arianna Huhn’s ethnophysiological research in a small Mozambican town gives ethnographic weight to the often heard but rarely analyzed metaphor linking food and eating to sex. Rachel Carmen Ceasar’s account of mass grave exhumations related to twent;eth-century histories of political violence in Spain; and Roberta Raffaetà’s description of two women’s allergies in Verona, Italy using theories of ecological relationality. These and other contributors works evidence a wonderful intellectual “interplay” (5-6) between ideas and institutions across generations, a term I borrow from the authors’ description of conceptual frameworks that support the volume’s objectives and emphasize a multiplicity of forces that shape our understanding of health.


Theoretical innovation :: current approaches to un-conventional topics

Finally, I think the Routledge Handbook offers what I read as theoretical or topical innovations in the discipline, or at least as the discipline is depicted in comparable edited volumes or readers. HIV/AIDS, gender, globalization, and ecology all trend well and are foregrounded as topics meant to reshape the theories we construct to explain the phenomena we document ethnographically. This also goes into the authors’ account of the discipline in the introduction, tracing medical anthropology’s practical and conceptual history via the Alma Ata Declaration, French critical philosophies, Kleinman’s explanatory models, second wave feminism’s work on gender and health, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Boldly, they write, “it was HIV and its lethal consequence as AIDS, however, that most powerfully stimulated medical anthropology” (5) as a discipline in the late twentieth century.

Several chapters focus on somewhat unconventional topics for medical anthropology edited volumes, among them childhood, chronicities, and medical travel. On childhood, for example, rather than simply reproduction, the authors stress children and adolescents’ own experiences and perspectives on health and agency to underscore how these young people are active participants in their illnesses—taking them on “with insight and fear, humor and anger, and, ultimately, quite often, with grace” (18). They include this topic too as a way to make us question presumptions about research ethics with children and other “vulnerable populations.” The Handbook also takes interesting theoretical spins on conventional topics: cross-cultural accounts of the body are framed through theories of resistance, and the relationship between health and environment is considered through the lens of the Anthropocene. Chapter 3 specifically pairs sexuality with theoretical approaches using language and concepts of “technology” in a wide sense, ranging from contraceptives and surgeries to embodied and aesthetic practices. The growing literature on care and caregiving is discussed in chapter 8 on ways of caring through information-communication technologies, discussing patients and caregivers’ use of the Internet, smart phones, and web cams to address health and socio-emotional concerns. The specificity of the authors’ theoretical angles highlights the strength of a particular interpretive approach and allows instructors to compare it with others not as strongly represented in the chapter.

Lastly, the international scope of its authorship, both of editors and contributors, is something else that sets this book apart from others. It represents intellectual institutional homes in Western Europe, Australia, North America, and Southern Africa. Theories emanating from the University of Amsterdam and other Western European schools are well represented throughout, like Annemarie Mol’s writings on ontology and technology. Manderson’s vast professional archive on gender, health and the environment supports the volume as a whole, as does Hardon’s work on pharmaceuticals and HIV/AIDS and Cartwright’s on structural vulnerabilities, indigeneity, and immigration. Their far reaching geographic and disciplinary scope nicely embodies what medical anthropology can do and be as part of growing discussions of world anthropologies (see the now regular “World Anthropology” section of American Anthropologist), as well as how anthropology can further engage a rapidly changing world.


Biehl, João, with Torben Eskerod. 2007. Will to Live. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

—. 2013. Vita. Berkeley: University of California Press.

De Leòn, Jason, with Michael Wells. 2015. The Land of Open Graves. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Good, Byron, Michael M.J. Fischer, Sarah S. Willen, and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, eds. 2010. A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Inhorn, Marcia C. and Emily Wentzell, eds. 2012. Medical Anthropology at the Intersections: Histories, Activism, and Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mahler, Sarah J. 2013. Culture as Comfort. Boston: Pearson.

Singer, Merrill and Pamela I. Erickson, eds. 2015. A Companion to Medical Anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.


Casey Golomski is a cultural and medical anthropologist working in Southern Africa and an Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire. Find out more about his research and writings at his profile.

In the Journals: February 2017 by Christine Sargent

2 Mars 2017 - 3:13am

American Ethnologist

Good ramps, bad ramps: Centralized design standards and disability access in urban Russian infrastructure

Cassandra Hartblay

Accessible design seeks to reconfigure the social by restructuring the material. As the idea moves globally, it becomes entwined in local logics of moral obligations between citizens and the state. Wheelchair users in the city of Petrozavodsk, in northwestern Russia, talk about inaccessible infrastructure as being embedded in moral relationships. In their stories, hierarchies of expertise diffuse responsibility for outcomes and devalue user knowledge. When accessible design elements are installed to meet minimum standards, they are “just for the check mark” and often do not “work.” Wheelchair ramps produce value for businesses or governments by representing an idea of access that circulates as a commodity. Failed accessible design draws attention to a moral field governing the responsibilities of actors to produce a “good” built environment, imbricated in teleologies of progress. [disability, design, infrastructure, access, ramps, postsocialism, Russia]

Self-governance, psychotherapy, and the subject of managed care: Internal Family Systems therapy and the multiple self in a US eating-disorders treatment center

Rebecca J. Lester

“The self” has seen a surprising resurgence in recent anthropological theorizing, revitalizing interest in whether and how it can be studied ethnographically. These issues are brought to the fore by a newly popular psychotherapy technique, Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS), as practiced in a US eating-disorders clinic. There, clinicians and clients negotiate tensions between this model’s understanding of a multiple, refracted self and managed-care companies’ insistence on personal responsibility. In considering the moral and pragmatic work of IFS in the clinic, a new critical anthropology of selfhood illuminates the vectors through which economic and political commitments become imbricated in the self. They do so in ways that resist both psychologism and subjectivism while holding them in productive—albeit sometimes troubling—tension.

Psicoeducación in the land of magical thoughts: Culture and mental-health practice in a changing Oaxaca

Whitney L. Duncan

At a time of uncertainty and change in Oaxaca, Mexico, mental-health practice dovetails with political-economic projects to reflect and produce tensions around “culture.” Promoting mental health is linked to goals for economic development, and notions of culture and modernity are co-constructed in ways that cast culture as a barrier to mental health. “Psychological modernization” efforts therefore seek to flatten cultural difference in the interests of national advancement. Not only do psy-services in Oaxaca provide means of self-understanding and technologies for self-cultivation in the context of modernity, but they also actively seek to produce the psychological conditions for modernity. Yet many professionals attribute Mexico’s mental-health problems to the very processes of modernization, development, and globalization that their projects seek to facilitate.

Resonant worlds: Cultivating proximal encounters in planetary science

Lisa Messeri

Planetary scientists are adept at producing knowledge about objects that are far removed from their lived experience of place and time. Sometimes, they overcome this distance by positioning Earth as a planet that can stand for other worlds. Encountering Earth becomes an encounter with another planet. When scientists experience the Earthly as otherworldly, they sometimes feel an excitement here described as “resonance.” Fully felt resonance is rare, but scientists devote much time and effort to preparing for it so as not to miss its fleeting instances. Just as resonance affords scientists the possibility of experiencing the distant, it also describes moments when the anthropologist is in harmony with what had previously been strange. Thus, resonance is a mode of cognitive and affective reasoning that collapses distance and transforms the similar into the same.


Critical Public Health

Special Section: Anthropological Interrogations of Evidence-Based Global Health

In search of results: anthropological interrogations of evidence-based global health

Elsa L. Fan & Elanah Uretsky

This special section brings together a collection of papers that interrogate evidence itself as an object of inquiry and examines how different forms of evidence are produced, negotiated, and valued across a range of health contexts. In unpacking evidence and the practices implicated in its production, these papers explore the health interventions mobilized in global health from within the positivist methods that dominate its discourse, attending specifically to the blind spots that sometimes emerge from the limited purview of what is recognized as evidence. In particular, all the papers foreground the business rationalities, measurement technologies, funding structures, and regime of actors and agendas that distinguish global health from its predecessor international health (see Brown, Cueto, & Fee, 2006) and its counterpart public health, both of which are bound by national governance and financing. Our papers thus aim to unravel that ‘obscure object of global health’ (Fassin, 2012) that seems to be less about the spatial and geographic boundaries that determine health and more about the financial and political arrangements through which health practices (and inequalities) are configured. The primary concern is often who is setting the standards for measuring health and how these forms of knowledge circulate in ways that shape the health outcomes themselves.

“Guilty until proven innocent”: the contested use of maternal mortality indicators in global health open access

Katerini T. Storeng & Dominique P. Béhague

Making global health knowledge: documents, standards, and evidentiary sovereignty in HIV interventions in South India

Robert Lorway

Multiple accountabilities: development cooperation, transparency, and the politics of unknowing in Tanzania’s health sector

Noelle Sullivan

‘We can’t do that here’: negotiating evidence in HIV prevention campaigns in southwest China

Elanah Uretsky

Counting results: performance-based financing and HIV testing among MSM in China

Elsa L. Fan

Critical Public Health, Cont.:

University students’ drinking as a social practice and the challenge for public health

Sian Supski, Jo Lindsay & Claire Tanner

In this paper, we explore the relational dynamics of alcohol consumption by university students, drawing on qualitative interviews with fifty undergraduates in Victoria, Australia. We argue that university drinking is a social practice comprised of a bundle of activities that operate together to reinforce excessive consumption. Drawing on a distinct version of social practice theory, we conceptualise drinking as an organising principle of university social life with interacting elements – meanings, materials and competences. The meanings of drinking include cultural conventions, expectations and socially shared meanings that alcohol is central to student life. Materials of drinking include objects and infrastructures such as, beverage choice, drinking venues and mobile phones. Drinking competences include managing bodily effects of alcohol but also social relationships while consuming alcohol. The distinct social practice perspective we utilise can assist public health to address the interrelated dynamics of alcohol consumption as a social practice, with its own trajectory into which students are recruited and become carriers of the practice while at university.


Cultural Anthropology open access

Openings and Retrospectives – Speed: An Introduction

Vincent Duclos, Tomás Sánchez Criado, Vinh-Kim Nguyen

On every front, life is being mobilized. Connected and put in motion, activated and fast-forwarded, life is sped up in unprecedented ways. This Openings collection is premised on the conviction that the world is accelerating, and that anthropology needs to catch up. We do not make a claim for a faster anthropology, but rather for the crafting of concepts capable of creatively engaging with forces and intensities—technological, but also economic, political, and geological—that constitute and spoil the worlds we are attached to. We aim to open anthropological practice to temporalities that are immanent to both the congealment of life—for instance, of responsive capacities—and to potential deviations and overflows.

Speed Crash Course

Carlo Caduff

Inhabiting Media: An Anthropology of Life in Digital Speed

Vincent Duclos

Viral Speed: Infrastructure, Connectivity, Ontogeny; or, Notes on the Molecular Epidemiology of Epidemics

Vinh-Kim Nguyen

An Idiotic Catalyst: Accelerating the Slowing Down of Thinking and Action

Ignacio Farías

Cultural Anthropology, Cont.

Humanitarian Care and the Ends of Life: The Politics of Aging and Dying in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Ilana Feldman

What [does it mean] to live as a refugee over the long term? One thing that it can mean—and in the Palestinian case of decades of displacement, what it necessarily has meant for many people—is to die as a refugee. How do humanitarian actors respond to the inevitability of death? Ordinary deaths are not easily incorporated into a field of intervention whose primary purpose is to save lives: to stop people from dying from “stupid things” (Redfield 2013, 31). This aim helps delimit the activities within the scope of humanitarian concern. Humanitarianism is a “regime of life,” in the sense that Lisa Stevenson (2014, 68) describes, a system “in which keeping people alive has become the primary goal.” Practitioners do not, of course, imagine immortality for aid recipients, but their orientation toward life-saving has limited their attention to servicing dying. A second characteristic of most humanitarian work is that it is intended to be short-term: to respond to crisis and conclude when normal conditions reemerge. In the Palestinian case, and in many other instances around the globe, this intention cannot be realized. Instead, humanitarian work has been compelled to respond to chronic conditions and to confront people’s needs across the whole life cycle. Long-term refugee status means that not only life, but also the end of life must become a humanitarian concern.

Scenes of Commitment

Bharat Jayram Venkat

On a late spring morning in 2011, a middle-aged man with a respectable head of gray waited patiently in the hallway of a private clinic in Chennai, the capital city of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This man, whom I will call Vasudevan, had for many years been committed to therapy, unfailingly consuming the medications that made it possible for him to live with HIV.1 For many of the clinic’s staff, Vasudevan had been an ideal patient, in stark contrast to those who came to the hospital only in moments of desperation, long after their drug supplies had been exhausted. That morning, he had been among the first to arrive at the clinic, so he would be among the first to be seen by the doctors. His appointments tended to run like clockwork. On this particular morning, however, things did not go as expected. He no longer wished to take his medication. To the contrary, Vasudevan asked to die

To Revive an Abundant Life: Catholic Science and Neoextractivist Politics in Peru’s Mantaro Valley

Stefanie Graeter

I did not expect to see a scientific laboratory in the highland city of Huancayo, let alone at the offices of its archbishop. In the crisp morning air of a mid-September day in 2010, I awaited the sight of more desks, file cabinets, binders, and manila envelopes (the stuff of NGOs) as my guide deftly unfastened the three stiff locks of an iron-wrought door. Yet when the door swung open, the room revealed an entirely different menagerie of objects. In the entranceway lay bulky pieces of air-monitoring equipment, scattered among coolers chock-full of plastic bottles. On top of black countertops, boxed rubber gloves neighbored bottles of ethanol, their red nozzles poised at right angles awaiting surfaces to disinfect. In my line of sight stood a heat-sanitizing drying rack, a vacuum-hooded counter space, and the cascading pages of safety warnings fastened to the wall. In a corner, a few too many lab coats overwhelmed a standing hanger, unfit for its task. Although no one thing makes a lab a lab, at that moment I knew I knew a lab when I saw one. This article analyzes the integration of religious and scientific practitioners and practices within a Catholic knowledge-making project called El Proyecto Mantaro Revive (Revive the Mantaro Project).

Living the Laughscream: Human Technology and Affective Maneuvers in the Iraq War

Nomi Stone

Drawing on twenty-six months of ethnographic fieldwork in the extended Iraq warscape—from predeployment exercises in mock Middle Eastern villages across the United States to Iraqi refugee neighborhoods in Amman, Jordan—I examine the contours of the wartime work outsourced to populations I call human technologies: individuals construed by the U.S. military as embodied repositories of cultural/regional knowledge. These individuals act as local mediators, translators, advisors, and proxies for U.S. military personnel and produce soldiers as insiders in the war zone: they are hired to augment both U.S. military access within the war zone and soldiers’ understanding of the so-called human terrain. I examine in this article how an ironic disjuncture between military prescriptions for authenticity and role-players’ experiences of inauthenticity generates moments of charged incongruency for those hired to embody constricted versions of their cultures. I argue that a charged tension manifests itself in the training apparatus: on the epistemological level, even as they experience excess, role-players work to make the simulations “look good” to retain their jobs; meanwhile, that excess manifests affective overflow—in particular, one form that a role-player called “the laughscream.” I contend that such moments of affective excess create a momentary reprieve for role-players while typically not disturbing the military structure.


Current Anthropology

Animal Autonomy and Intermittent Coexistences: North Asian Modes of Herding

Charles Stépanoff, Charlotte Marchina, Camille Fossier, and Nicolas Bureau

Leading anthropological theories characterize pastoralism as a relation of protective domination in which humans drive, protect, and feed their livestock and dispose of its life. On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork performed among six different husbandry systems throughout North Asia, we challenge this interpretation by showing that indigenous techniques tend to rely preferentially on animal autonomy and a herd’s capacity to feed and protect itself. In defining five modes of herding, in each of which the proportions of human and animal agencies differ, we explore the issue of the stability of the herder-livestock bond in a nomadic context with loose human intervention. Our argument is that the shared nomadic landscape is the common ground that enables a balance between animal autonomy and human-animal engagement in cooperative activities. We propose the notion of intermittent coexistence to describe the particular kind of human-animal relationship built and maintained in North Asian husbandry systems.


International Journal of Social Psychiatry

Community Families: Bridging the gap between mental health services and civil society – A qualitative study from users’ perspective

Ulla Væggemose, Stina Lou, Michal Frumer, Nanna Limskov Stærk Christiansen, Jørgen Aagaard, Lisbeth Ørtenblad

Social interventions to support people with severe mental illness are important to improving the quality of life. The perspectives of users are essential in this process. This article explores users’ experiences, investments and concerns of a befriending programme.


Social Science and Medicine

Tinkering toward departure: The limits of improvisation in rural Ethiopian biomedical practices

Stephanie Rieder

This paper explores Ethiopian physicians’ responses to tensions produced by gaps between ideals of biomedicine and realities of clinical practice in two rural Ethiopian hospitals. Physicians engage in creativity and improvisation, including relying on informal networks and practices and tinkering within diagnoses and procedures, to overcome constraints of lack of resources and limited opportunities to engage in “good medicine.” These courageous, but often unsuccessful attempts to mitigate professional and personal conflicts within their medical practices represent improvisation in impossible circumstances. This paper results from ethnographic research conducted in 2013–2014 and includes participant observations and qualitative interviews in two hospitals within the same community. The inherent conflicts among globalized standards, unpredictable transnational medical networks, and innovative practices produce tenuous clinical spaces and practices that rely on a mosaic of techniques and ad hoc connections. Tinkering and improvisation often fail to mediate these conflicts, contributing to physician disenchantment and departure from the community.

Water insecurity in a syndemic context: Understanding the psycho-emotional stress of water insecurity in Lesotho, Africa

Cassandra L. Workman, Heather Ureksoy

This paper is a response to the call for a renewed focus on measuring the psycho-emotional and psychosocial effects of food insecurity and water insecurity. Using a mixed-method approach of qualitative interviews and quantitative assessment, including a household demographic, illness, and water insecurity scale, the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale, and the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist-25, this research explored the psycho-emotional effects of water insecurity, food insecurity, and household illness on women and men residing in three low-land districts in Lesotho (n = 75). Conducted between February and November of 2011, this exploratory study first examined the complicated interaction of water insecurity, food insecurity and illness to understand and quantify the relationship between these co-occurring stresses in the context of HIV/AIDS. Second, it sought to separate the role of water insecurity in predicting psycho-emotional stress from other factors, such as food insecurity and household illness. When asked directly about water, qualitative research revealed water availability, access, usage amount, and perceived water cleanliness as important dimensions of water insecurity, creating stress in respondents’ daily lives. Qualitative and quantitative data show that water insecurity, food insecurity and changing household demographics, likely resulting from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, are all associated with increased anxiety and depression, and support the conclusion that water insecurity is a critical syndemic dimension in Lesotho. Together, these data provide compelling evidence of the psycho-emotional burden of water insecurity.


Social Studies of Science

The problem of epistemic jurisdiction in global governance: The case of sustainability standards for biofuels

David E Winickoff, Matthieu Mondou

While there is ample scholarly work on regulatory science within the state, or single-sited global institutions, there is less on its operation within complex modes of global governance that are decentered, overlapping, multi-sectorial and multi-leveled. Using a co-productionist framework, this study identifies ‘epistemic jurisdiction’ – the power to produce or warrant technical knowledge for a given political community, topical arena or geographical territory – as a central problem for regulatory science in complex governance. We explore these dynamics in the arena of global sustainability standards for biofuels. We select three institutional fora as sites of inquiry: the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, and the International Organization for Standardization. These cases allow us to analyze how the co-production of sustainability science responds to problems of epistemic jurisdiction in the global regulatory order. First, different problems of epistemic jurisdiction beset different standard-setting bodies, and these problems shape both the content of regulatory science and the procedures designed to make it authoritative. Second, in order to produce global regulatory science, technical bodies must manage an array of conflicting imperatives – including scientific virtue, due process and the need to recruit adoptees to perpetuate the standard. At different levels of governance, standard drafters struggle to balance loyalties to country, to company or constituency and to the larger project of internationalization. Confronted with these sometimes conflicting pressures, actors across the standards system quite self-consciously maneuver to build or retain authority for their forum through a combination of scientific adjustment and political negotiation. Third, the evidentiary demands of regulatory science in global administrative spaces are deeply affected by 1) a market for standards, in which firms and states can choose the cheapest sustainability certification, and 2) the international trade regime, in which the long shadow of WTO law exerts a powerful disciplining function.

From academic laboratory to the market: Disclosed and undisclosed narratives of commercialization

Adi Sapir, Amalya L Oliver

This paper examines how the Weizmann Institute of Science has been telling the story of the successful commercialization of a scientific invention, through its corporate communication channels, from the early 1970s to today. The paper aims to shed light on the transformation processes by which intellectual-property-based commercialization activities have become widely institutionalized in universities all over the world, and on the complexities, ambiguities and tensions surrounding this transition. We look at the story of the scientific invention of Copolymer-1 at the Weizmann Institute of Science and its licensing to Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which subsequently developed the highly successful drug Copaxone for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. We argue that, in its tellings and retellings of the story of Copolymer-1, the Weizmann Institute has created narratives that serve to legitimize the institution of academic patenting in Israel.

Extra-terra incognita: Martian maps in the digital age

Lisa Messeri

Science and technology studies (STS) and critical cartography are both asking questions about the ontological fixity of maps and other scientific objects. This paper examines how a group of NASA computer scientists who call themselves The Mapmakers conceptualizes and creates maps in service of different commitments. The maps under construction are those of alien Mars, produced through partnerships that NASA has established with Google and Microsoft. With the goal of bringing an experience of Mars to as many people as possible, these maps influence how we imagine our neighbouring planet. This paper analyzes two attributes of the map, evident in both its representation and the attending cartographic practices: a sense of Mars as dynamic and a desire for a democratic experience of Mars in which up-to-date Mars data can be intuitively accessed not only by scientists but by lay users as well. Whereas a democratic Mars promises users the ability to decide how to interact with the map and understand Mars, dynamic Mars imposes a more singular sense of Mars as a target of continued robotic and maybe even human exploration. Because maps of Mars have a different (and arguably less complex) set of social and political commitments than those of Earth, they help us see how different goals contradict and complement each other in matters of exploration and state-craft relevant both to other worlds and our own.

The Anthropo-scene: A guide for the perplexed

Jamie Lorimer

The scientific proposal that the Earth has entered a new epoch as a result of human activities – the Anthropocene – has catalysed a flurry of intellectual activity. I introduce and review the rich, inchoate and multi-disciplinary diversity of this Anthropo-scene. I identify five ways in which the concept of the Anthropocene has been mobilized: scientific question, intellectual zeitgeist, ideological provocation, new ontologies and science fiction. This typology offers an analytical framework for parsing this diversity, for understanding the interactions between different ways of thinking in the Anthropo-scene, and thus for comprehending elements of its particular and peculiar sociabilities. Here I deploy this framework to situate Earth Systems Science within the Anthropo-scene, exploring both the status afforded science in discussions of this new epoch, and the various ways in which the other means of engaging with the concept come to shape the conduct, content and politics of this scientific enquiry. In conclusion the paper reflects on the potential of the Anthropocene for new modes of academic praxis.


Social Theory & Health

Diagnosing dementia: Ethnography, interactional ethics and everyday moral reasoning

Alexandra Hillman

This article highlights the contribution of ethnography and qualitative sociology to the ethical challenges that frame the diagnosis of dementia. To illustrate this contribution, the paper draws on an ethnographic study of UK memory clinics carried out between 2012 and 2014. The ethnographic data, set alongside other studies and sociological theory, contest the promotion of a traditional view of autonomy; the limiting of the point of ethical interest to a distinct moment of diagnosis disclosure; and the failure to recognise risk and uncertainty in the building of clinical ‘facts’ and their communication. In addressing these specific concerns, this article contributes to the wider debate over the relationship between sociology and bioethics (medical ethics). At the heart of these debates lies more fundamental questions: how can we best understand and shape moral decision-making and ethics that guide behaviour in medical practice, and what should be the guiding ideas, concepts and methods to inform ethics in the clinic? Using the case of dementia diagnosis, this article illustrates the benefits of an ethnographic approach, not just for understanding this ethical problem but also for exploring if and how a more empirically informed ethics can help shape healthcare practices for the better.


Sociology of Health & Illness

Special Issue: Ageing, dementia and the social mind: past, present and future perspectives

Paul Higgs, Chris Gilleard

Accompanying the ageing of contemporary ageing societies is an increase in age associated morbidity, with dementia having an important impact. Mental frailty in later life is a source of fear for many and a major policy concern to all those concerned with health and welfare services. This introduction to the special issue on ‘Ageing, dementia and the social mind’ situates the selected papers within the context of debates about dementia and its social relations. In particular it draws attention to the importance of the social imaginary of the fourth age and what this means for the issue of personhood, care, social representations of dementia and its social contextualisation. The papers illuminating these themes draw on a variety of disciplines and approaches; from the social sciences to the humanities and from the theoretical to the empirical in order to help orientate future researchers to the complexities of dementia and the social and cultural matrix in which it exists. This paper provides an introduction to the potential for a more extended sociology of dementia; one which could combine the insights from medical sociology with the concerns of social gerontology.

Relational citizenship: supporting embodied selfhood and relationality in dementia care

Pia Kontos, Karen-Lee Miller, Alexis P. Kontos

Shifting dementia discourses from deficit to active citizenship

Linda Birt, Fiona Poland, Emese Csipke, Georgina Charlesworth

Narrative collisions, sociocultural pressures and dementia: the relational basis of personhood reconsidered

Edward Tolhurst, Bernhard Weicht, Paul Kingston

Power, empowerment, and person-centred care: using ethnography to examine the everyday practice of unregistered dementia care staff

Kezia Scales, Simon Bailey, Joanne Middleton, Justine Schneider

Institutionalising senile dementia in 19th-century Britain

Emily Stella Andrews

Dichotomising dementia: is there another way?

Patricia McParland, Fiona Kelly, Anthea Innes

When walking becomes wandering: representing the fear of the fourth age

Katherine Brittain, Cathrine Degnen, Grant Gibson, Claire Dickinson, Louise Robinson


Transcultural Psychiatry

“It comes down to just how human someone can be”: A Qualitative study with young people from refugee backgrounds about their experiences of Australian mental health services

Madeline C. Valibhoy, Ida Kaplan, Joseg Szwarc

While much literature documents the mental health needs of young people from refugee backgrounds, and the barriers they face in accessing mental health services, researchers have yet to document the perspectives of service users from this population about their contacts with clinicians and services. We therefore individually interviewed 16 young people (aged 18–25 years) who were refugees about their experiences of seeing mental health professionals. Participants were born in 9 different countries and had lived in Australia for an average of 5.2 years. They placed most emphasis on in-session factors, and particularly on interpersonal considerations. Among the main themes identified via thematic analysis were the practitioner’s sensitivity to the young person’s cultural background and to the stressors affecting him or her, including traumatic refugee experiences, and the therapeutic relationship—especially the qualities of trust, understanding, respect, and a caring connection. The participants had diverse reactions to treatment strategies. They emphasised the role of their preconceptions around mental health services, and called for systematic mental health awareness-raising for young people from refugee backgrounds. Implications for research, policy, and practice are discussed with a focus on findings that may guide efforts to improve service acceptability, accessibility, and effectiveness. In particular, there is a need for practitioners to attend to their clients’ experiences of sessions, to adopt an attuned, contextualised, systemic approach, and especially to take a nuanced approach to cultural sensitivity.

Local terms and understandings of mental health problems in Burundi

Pacifique Irankunda, Laurie Heatherington, Jessica Fitts

A pilot study and two intensive studies were conducted to document the local vocabularies used by Burundians to describe mental health problems and their understandings about the causes. The pilot study—in which 14 different large groups of community members awaiting appointments at a village health clinic were engaged in open-ended discussions of the local terminology and causal beliefs about mental health problems—suggested three key syndromes: akabonge (a set of depression-like symptoms), guhahamuka (a set of trauma-related symptoms), and ibisigo (a set of psychosis-like symptoms). In Study 1 (N = 542), individual interviews or surveys presented participants with the names of these syndromes and asked what they considered to be the symptoms and causes of them. Study 2 (N = 143) cross-validated these terms with a different sample (also in individual interviews/surveys), by presenting the symptom clusters and asking what each would be called and about their causes. Findings of both studies validated this set of terms and yielded a rich body of data about causal beliefs. The influence of education level and gender on familiarity with these terms was also assessed. Implications for the development of mental health services and directions for future research are discussed.

Pastoral care of mental illness and the accommodation of African Christian beliefs and practices by UK clergy

Gerard Leavey Kate Loewenthal Michael King

Faith-based organisations, especially those related to specific ethnic or migrant groups, are increasingly viewed by secular Western government agencies as potential collaborators in community health and welfare programmes. Although clergy are often called upon to provide mental health pastoral care, their response to such problems remains relatively unexamined. This paper examines how clergy working in multiethnic settings do not always have the answers that people want, or perhaps need, to problems of misfortune and suffering. In the UK these barriers can be attributed, generally, to a lack of training on mental health problems and minimal collaboration with health services. The current paper attempts to highlight the dilemmas of the established churches’ involvement in mental health care in the context of diversity. We explore the inability of established churches to accommodate African and other spiritual beliefs and practices related to the etiology and treatment of mental health problems.

The lived experience of paroled offenders with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and comorbid psychiatric disorder

Caroline L. Tait Mansfield Mela Garth Boothman Melissa A. Stoops

This case study presents the life history and postincarceration experiences of two forensic psychiatric patients diagnosed with comorbid mental illness and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). The men first met in prison and a few years after their release became roommates at the suggestion of their community support worker and parole officer. With shared and coordinated clinical and mentorship supports, the men were able to establish stability in their lives and manage their mental illness. However, changes in support and gaps within the continuum of care contributed to a sudden breakdown in their stability. The life history and experiences of the two men illustrate the importance in establishing and maintaining positive social networks and coordinated supports for the postincarceration success of offenders living with FASD and comorbid mental illness. The findings highlight areas of patient and system vulnerability that should be addressed to reduce recidivism and strengthen the stability in the lives of these individuals.

Web Roundup: If it Ledes, it Bleeds by Emily Goldsher-Diamond

28 février 2017 - 3:13pm

This contemporary moment begs the question: what is a fact? And how do facts circulate? These questions are historical cornerstones in the study of the production of knowledge, and scaffold work in disciplines from philosophy to anthropology; however, in a post-truth climate asking after the genesis and dissemination of facts takes on a new and curious significance. The production and transmission of facts also engages new questions: where and how do people discover facts? What is the relationship between a fact and its reader? What is a fact’s effect?

The following will briefly think on the complexities of the fact as it has been thrown about in the past month, with special attention to the media (as a vector for transmission, a group of people and an object of study) that specializes in the production and dissemination of certain kinds of facts. These are stories about stories, about knowledge and power, and about the particular leakiness of information–if it ledes (a word for the opening text of an article) it is safe to say that it will likely bleed far from its initial and intended context. It is worth reflecting on what happens when a fact–a category already up for grabs–bleeds?

Harvard recently hosted an event entitled, “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era.” Earlier this month, the Harvard Gazette posted a comprehensive report on the meeting that convened reporters and thinkers from major outlets to weigh in on truth, facts and the media. The talks on “post-factualism” bridge the erosion of public trust in the media, what it means to be a reliable source, the notion of coastal elites and thinking carefully about language. Does being post-fact necessarily mean fake? At NPR, George Lakoff seems to be drawing some important distinctions while pointing out what is at stake when we say news is fake.  It is also worth asking, of course, whether the unity of the fact as a category is a human issue or a data issue. 

Some specific and likely dire consequences of the shakeup of facts and their circulation can be seen in the realm of ecology and health. If we are post-truth, the LA Times asks, what will happen to the environment? In her op-ed, Barnett writes: “Regardless of alternative facts, fake news or scientific censorship, nature tells the truth.”  The Atlantic has an illuminating interview with climate scientist Andrew Weaver on turning to politics. As a member of Canadian parliament, he has some choice words about the importance of bridging science and politics in the face of climate change. Weaver says, “in science, the person with the best evidence wins. I think the public is ready for a more bottom-up, evidence-based approach to decision-making.” If climate deniers are indeed here to stay, how will the future take shape? Maybe the Lake Oroville near-disaster is a case study in what happens “when we manage society for how things were, not how things are.”

Over at The Hill, writers explore some troubling reporting from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. What does it mean when a tangle of private and government interest and public health communication goes haywire? And how do our standards for truth in risk reporting take shape? What if our demand for a certain kind of factual narrative gets in the way of actual facts? At Vice, Leyla Mei cuts down the Patient Zero myth. Perhaps sounding the alarm isn’t always the best strategy either–what if a lede bleeds out? These are debates to watch. 

There are grave human costs to the shifting ontology of facts and truth that we must continue to track. Over at Savage Minds, Nadia El-Shaarawi breaks down some of what it means when we talk about “extreme vetting” and refugees. Her piece takes on the threatening figure of the refugee that continues to persist despite (or even because of) contradictory evidence.

More links of interest:

“What We’re Fighting For” – The New York Times

“Sara Hendren: The Body Adaptive” – Guernica

“3D-Printed Prosthetic Limbs: the Next Revolution in Medicine” – The Guardian

“Do Cyborgs Have Politics?” – PaxSolaria

“Engagements with Ethnographic Care” – AnthropologyNews

“The (Anthropological) Truth About Walls” – Scientific American

Biofinance: Speculation, Risk, Debt, and Value from Bios: A conference report by Danya Glabau

27 février 2017 - 5:00pm

How does the financialization of life itself figure as a new means of producing value in modern technoscience? That is the question that motivated Kirk Fiereck to convene the panel “Biofinance: Speculation, Risk, Debt, and Value from Bios” at the 2016 American Anthropological Association meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota this November. Fiereck, panelists Melina Sherman, Danya Glabau, and Emily Xi Lin, discussant Kristin Peterson, and chair David Pederson, offered new ways to think about how financialized life is a source of value, and what this means for the ethics and practice of biomedicine in sites throughout the globe.

In writing this conference report, Fiereck, Sherman, and Glabau each contributed short comments about their talks, which were edited together in the unified first half of this report. The second half includes further reflections that we have attributed to each scholar individually as a way to illustrate the diverse, possibly divergent, uses of “biofinance” as a concept.


The Papers

Melina Sherman opened the panel with, “Biofinancial Investments and Disinvestments: Examining the U.S. Opioid Epidemic,” which focused on the cultural and institutional construction of pharmaceutical markets – in particular, the market for prescription painkillers. Markets, especially those situated within the bioeconomy – an economic space in which capital is organized through life (bios) in its various forms – constitute the broader context in which biofinancial practices are situated. Her paper explored the ways in which the selective investments and divestments of federal regulators and opioid consumers condition the growth of this market. The market for prescription opioids is a good example of what Sherman calls an “addiction market” (see also Lovell, 2006), where addiction (understood as a destructive attachment – in this case, of a person to a prescription drug) is built-in to the cultural and economic processes that drive market formation and growth.

Biofinance plays a crucial role in shaping the dynamics of addiction markets – namely through the biofinancial practice of investing in domains where life is valued, manufactured, bought, and sold. The ongoing opioid epidemic, as Sherman showed, is framed by biofinancial investments. These include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s investment in new pharmaceutical technologies as a means of regulatory intervention and the risk-hedging practices of opioid consumers that continually reinforce their relationship to the prescription opioid market. These activities contribute to the expansion of the market for prescription opioids and condition the formation (and perhaps also the prolongation) of the ongoing opioid “epidemic.”

Danya Glabau’s talk, titled “Pricing the EpiPen: Financial Returns and the Care Thesis of Biomedicine,” offered an example of how pharmaceutical company pricing strategies support the valuation of pharmaceutical companies while potentially limiting access to necessary medications in the United States. In the third week of August this year, news broke in the American media that the EpiPen epinephrine auto-injector, branded and sold by Mylan Pharmaceuticals, had increased over 400% in price since 2007. Patients with insurance found themselves on the hook for growing out of pocket costs as insurers covered smaller portions of the cost and limited refills, and patients without insurance made do with fewer or no devices based on their budgets. The news brought long-simmering discontent in the food allergy community about the price of this device – considered a necessary, life-saving treatment by patients, caretakers, doctors, and policy makers alike – into the public eye. This episode is a crucial moment in what Glabau (2016) has called “the moral life of epinephrine”. It highlights the trade-offs people with food allergies must make between the moral obligation to do whatever is necessary to protect the at-risk lives of people with food allergies and the financially exploitive arrangements that govern who does and does not have access to biomedical care in the contemporary United States.

At stake in this controversy, as well as in other recent pricing controversies involving Turing Pharmaceuticals and Theranos, Inc., are questions about who deserves care, what counts as affordable care, and the possibilities for or limits of a pharmaceutical company’s responsibility to provide life-saving medications to its customers. The extending reach of financial actors, models, techniques, and practices – such as those that optimize pricing to optimize revenue – into the pharmaceutical industry have added new variables to the moral calculus of biomedical care.

Emily Xi Lin presented “Bio-financial Economy of Love and Risks: Examining Autism Care in China”, which opened up more intimate aspects of biofinance. Her paper demonstrated how the liberalization of the Chinese economy touches down in the lives of mothers raising autistic children. Paradoxically, as the economy booms, state investment in rural health services lags behind, requiring the mothers she observed to invest more time and affective labor into caring for their children. This dynamic of de- and hyper-investment appears to be part of a broader movement toward market-based healthcare, which individualizes health and sorts access to care infrastructures along the lines of gender, class, and region.

Kirk Fiereck closed the panel with his talk, titled “Pharmaceutical Derivatives: Hedging Risk, Producing Connectivity, Redistributing Debt.” He explored the curious kinships between two risk-hedging technologies: pharmaceutical prophylaxis and financial derivatives. These entities are not just commodities. Rather they are contract-commodities and are the most fundamental building blocks of emergent and increasingly dominant forms of circulation-based (as opposed to production-based) economies in late capitalist societies (on financial derivatives and capitalist cultures of circulation see, LiPuma and Lee 2004). Put more simply, these two special vehicles of exchange are similar to Marx’s commodity. Yet, as contract-commodities they radically differ from the commodity as they are a degree further abstracted from and abstracting of the social relations that commodities themselves express. Unlike commodities, which are produced through labor within cultures of capitalist production, these social forms are produced through calculations of abstract risk linked to certain commodities, not labor, within cultures of capitalist circulation.

To ground this exploration of pharmaceutical derivatives, Fiereck focused on the experiences and narratives of black gay South African men who were taking part in the Cape Town arm of a global clinical trial, which operated across four continents, six countries and eleven cities. The trial successfully determined the efficacy of repurposing HIV antiretroviral treatments as HIV prevention, which has become known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. He also compared the distributions of risk and health surpluses that have been produced in the wake of the PrEP rollouts that have resulted in uneven access through public health systems globally. Ultimately the analysis showed that biofinancial practices are much more widely distributed than previously imagined and that race and sexuality are being reinscribed as radically new forms of social difference in the context of biofinancial cultures. In particular, He traced the emergence of biofinancial logics were among some of the world’s most marginalized populations: namely black gay South African men who were taking part of the trial. This was compared to the racialized distribution of the PrEP intervention to affluent, and primarily white, populations through private health insurance schemes while the black gay men whose bodies authorized the efficacy data in South Africa still lacked access to PrEP in the national public health system.



Melina Sherman: Each of the presentations that made up this panel attended to the ways in which bio-capital undergirds and hails the domain of public health. As theorized by Kaushik Sunder Rajan, biocapital “asks the question of how life gets redefined through the contradictory processes of commodification” (2006: 47). As a commodity, life is reconstituted as something that can be manufactured, distributed, purchased and consumed. Thus, we are encouraged to ask, borrowing from Nikolas Rose (2007), what are the effects of such a transformation of “life itself?”

In my work, the creation of “addiction markets” is one consequence of life’s commoditization within the bioeconomy. These markets, which form the context of biofinance, also frame the ongoing “opioid epidemic” and provide a lens for understanding the forces at work behind the skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths in the United States. For Lin, the commoditization of life itself means that some human relations – in particular, relations of love and care – become tethered to economic practices and market dynamics. In the case of autism care in China, the financialization of care-giving practices goes hand-in-hand with the social policing of certain parents and families, in particular those who may not be as financially equipped to invest in China’s increasingly costly economy of care. For Kirk, the commoditization of life prompts a reconsideration of the meaning of preventive interventions for HIV/AIDS, drugs which now take on the quality of risk-hedging instruments rather than merely medical treatments for disease. And finally, for Danya, bio-capital is what undergirds many of the practices and logics of pharmaceutical executives and thereby conditions the process of pharmaceutical drug development. In this context, the financialization of life includes not only investing in health but also creating health surpluses such that companies’ long-term investments continually ensure returns and secure their biofinancial futures.

Danya Glabau: The work of this panel as a whole extends existing analysis and critique of the complicity between finance, the state, and the pharmaceutical industry, questions central to the work of medical anthropologists Adriana Petryna (2004, 2009) Joseph Dumit (2012), Stefan Ecks (2008), Sharon Kaufman (2015), and Kristin Peterson (2014), among many others in anthropology and in sociology, STS, and history. Collectively, this constitutes an emphatic case that a fuller ethnographic understanding of biomedicine today and in the near future demands that medical anthropologists attend to the Wall Street-style financial logics that increasingly power its productivity. This is, of course, no simple task. I believe it requires, as Janet Roitman (2014) asserts, self-reflection within our field about the kinds of expertise that anthropologists must acquire as part of our scholarly practice. We might all need to become investment bankers or CEOs or entrepreneurs for a time to be able to apprehend the full meaning of “risk” as a financial object, practice, and concept that shapes which medical interventions do or do not make it into clinical trials, what forces map out their lives as marketed products, and how they do or do not reinforce patterns of uneven access to care.

Since the panel, I have also been thinking about the three words scholars now have to describe closely related ways of understanding the relationship between capital and biotechnoscience: biocapital (Sunder Rajan 2006), bioeconomy (Cooper and Waldby 2014, Birch 2016), and, now, biofinance. Out of these three, biofinance is the most verb-y, as “finance” on its own is both a noun and a verb. That excites my ethnographic instincts because it suggests a focus on material-semiotic practices and techniques, rather than on idealized schematics and structures. If biofinance is something we can conceive of as always-in-practice and always-in-formation, up and down scales of space, volume, and complexity, it suggests to me that ethics and politics can remain central to the program. Where people do things, they also think about doing things and do things in relation with and to other actors. In action and relation are opportunities for the economies and dependencies of the bioeconomy, or of biocapital, to be reconfigured otherwise.

Understanding the investment practices of pharmaceutical companies, for example, might give better leverage on regulating the financial industry or on professional organizations’ codes of ethics. Detailed stories about the conflicts inherent in doing medical research at a university today make a strong case for beefing up public funding of medical research. The speculative practices of opioid users, mothers of autistic children, or “MSM” suggest better ways to arrange public health interventions. My hope for biofinance research, then, is the hope that it can be a platform for informed intervention in the ethics and practices of biotechnoscience where it affects the lives of real patients – a tall order indeed.

Kirk Fiereck: In organizing this panel, a primary goal was to juxtapose a diverse set of ethnographic dispatches that were documenting global trends in pharmaceutical prophylaxis in conceptually, materially, geographically, temporally and affectively far-flung locales. In retrospect, the richness of the ethnographic accounts were both fortuitous as well as formidable test cases for the elasticity of a paradigm I refer to as biofinance. Moreover, the papers demonstrated the irreducibility of biofinancial cultures to existing sociocultural paradigms of biocapital, which have been narrowly limited to contexts of industrial biocapital. When such analyses have focused on the financial aspects of biocaptial, they have limited their focus on elite actors, thus producing accounts of biofinancial cultures from only the most privileged of perspectives. What is more, these analyses have inadvertently fetishized biofinancial social forms of contract-commodity, property (risk profile), and value (risk data) as merely industrial social forms of commodity, property (in things, or rights to things), and value (capital).

The context of both Sherman’s “addiction markets” and my exploration of “pharmaceutical derivatives” departs from, yet compliments, existing sociocultural analyses of biocapital (Sunder Rajan 2006) and the bioeconomy (Cooper and Waldby 2014, Birch 2016). More to the point, our analyses, “question the relevance of placing the large, manufacturing firm at the center of analysis” (van der Zwan 2014: 120). It is clearly the aggregation of smaller scale, democratized, and decentralized social actors who are best thought of as human capital that have heretofore been ignored in the bioeconomy literature. Put simply, pharmaceutical derivatives are increasingly used like financial derivatives, by a vast range of actors across various social hierarchies (e.g., class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc), when they are used to treat abstract biomedical risks and not disease. Such democratization disrupts the traditional industrial (bio)capitalist antinomies of class that pit labor and capital against one another. Across all of the presentations, such polar distinctions implode when biofinancial subjects are clearly both, particularly given the figure of human capital that is a central subjective player in cultures of biofinance.


Works Cited

Birch, Kean. 2016. “Rethinking Value in the Bio-Economy: Finance, Assetization, and the Management of Value.” Science, Technology, & Human Values: 1–31. doi:10.1177/0162243916661633.

Cooper, Melinda, and Catherine Waldby. 2014. Clinical Labor: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Dumit, Joseph. 2012. Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ecks, Stefan. 2008. “Global Pharmaceutical Markets and Corporate Citizenship: The Case of Novartis’ Anti-Cancer Drug Glivec.” BioSocieties 3 (2): 165–181. doi:10.1017/S1745855208006091.

Glabau, Danya. 2016. “The Moral Life of Epinephrine in the United States.” Medicine Anthropology Theory 3 (3): 1–22.

Kaufman, Sharon. 2015. Ordinary Medicine: Extraordinary Treatments, Longer Lives, and Where to Draw the Line. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

LiPuma, Edward and Benjamin Lee. 2004. Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk. Durham and London: Duke University Press

Lovell, A. M. (2006). Addiction markets: The case of high-dose buprenorphine in France. In Global pharmaceuticals: Ethics, markets, practices (pp. 136–170). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Peterson, Kristin. 2014. Speculative Markets: Drug Circuits and Derivative Life in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2004. “Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations.” Osiris 19 (January): 250–65.

Petryna, Adriana. 2009. When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Roitman, Janet. 2014. Anti-Crisis. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Rose, Nikolas. 2006. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. 2006. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

van der Zwan. 2014. “Making Sense of Financialization.” Socio-Economic Review 12: 99-129.


Kirk Fiereck is a medical anthropologist specializing in economic and queer anthropology in South Africa. He is currently working on two ethnographic projects. The first is on “Ethnointimacies.” It explores the entwinement of ethnicity and sexuality when LGBTQ and gender nonconforming South Africans draw upon customary, constitutional, as well as biomedical sex/gender ideologies to enact hybrid forms of queer personhood. They do so by juxtaposing multiple sexual and gender identities across overlapping cultural contexts. The second project is on “Biofinance,” and explores how these experiences are largely effaced by biomedical interventions based on new sexual risk-hedging technologies, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), hormone therapies, and plan-B. These pharmaceuticals enable practices that mirror the trading of financial derivatives whereby subjects are compelled to speculatively treat (or hedge) risk instead of disease. This second project aims to understand how categories of social difference such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are being reinscribed in the face of changing forms of value production, property, wealth, and risk. It also concentrates on new global forms of sociality that are being produced through biofinancialized calculations of abstract risk in the context of global experimental apparatuses, such as the global clinical trial. These trials are supra-national and work to subsume and efface local cultural forms within the circulation of cosmopolitical categories such as “MSM” and “transgender.”

Melina Sherman is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She is currently writing her dissertation about the cultural and institutional conditions underpinning the ongoing ‘opioid epidemic’ in the United States. Her research areas of interest include medical anthropology, STS, biopolitics, risk, pharmaceutical markets, and the reciprocal relationship between culture and economics.

Danya Glabau is Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, where she teaches courses on STS and anthropology. She received her PhD in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and a B.A. in Biological Sciences from Cornell University. Her work on medicine in the United States blends STS and Medical Anthropology to investigate how morality, political economy, and patient experience influences what counts as “good” health care in the United States. Her dissertation and first book project examines these issues in the context of the politics of food allergy in the United States. She is now pursuing new research on the financialization of biomedical research and collaborating on PIP (Practically In Person), an exhibition that explores how women artists and feminist theory can shape the development of virtual reality technologies.

Book Forum — Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 by Todd Meyers

11 février 2017 - 12:00pm


Andrew Brandel has organized an extraordinary and diverse set of commentaries on Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 (Duke University Press, 2015). Each intervention is a path that moves outward from Mookherjee’s remarkable study, finding ways through the brambles of memory and history. We hope you enjoy. — Todd Meyers, Associate Editor


Introduction: The Violence of Life and Its Images
Andrew Brandel (editor)
Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna

Interiorities of Memory
Swayam Bagaria
Johns Hopkins University

Communicating Violence: Reviewing The Spectral Wound
Jennifer L. Culbert
Johns Hopkins University

The Performance of Public Secrets in The Spectral Wound
Amrita Ibrahim
Georgetown University

On Counting
Naveeda Khan
Johns Hopkins University 

Time of the Writing, the Hour of Reading
Naeem Mohaiemen
Columbia University

The Grains of Experience
Veena Das
Johns Hopkins University


The Spectral Wound and its fine grains of experiences: A Reply

Nayanika Mookherjee
Durham University 


For more, Nayanika Mookherjee recently talked with BBC Radio 4. The link can be found here

Download the PDF of this book forum:

Special Issues! The Publics of Public Health in Africa | Anthropological Interrogations of Evidence-Based Global Health by Anna Zogas

3 février 2017 - 3:00pm

I’d like to highlight a pair of Special Sections in the early 2017 issues of Critical Public Health. The first is “The Publics of Public Health in Africa,” guest edited by Ann H. Kelly, Hayley MacGregor, and Catherine M. Montgomery. The second is “Anthropological Interrogations of Evidence-Based Global Health,” guest edited by Elsa L. Fan and Elanah Uretsky. Here are the abstracts for the articles in both sections!


The Publics of Public Health in Africa 

The publics of public health in Africa (open access)
Ann H. Kelly, Hayley MacGregor & Catherine M. Montgomery

Excerpt: How do we understand the public character of public health in contemporary Africa? What are the parameters of community engagement in health care delivery, medical research and disease control programmes? To what extent is public health in Africa a project led by African Governments? Through what political processes and deliberative practices can African publics influence the priorities of research in health sciences and interventions which aim in broad terms to improve the health of such publics? Drawing insight from empirical research conducted with African scientists, nurses, community members, clinical trialists and policy-makers, this special section examines the multiple ways in which the publiccomes into being around public health provisioning and investigation in sub-Saharan Africa, its role and political reach. Collectively, these papers show how contestation and negotiation around different ideas about who the public is and what being public means can lead to the emergence of conflicting understandings, with implications for who and what is seen to represent the public interest, and for the acceptance of research and other interventions.

Communitarian societies and public engagement in public health
Morenike Oluwatoyin Folayan & Bridget Haire

For effective public health interventions in communitarian societies, public engagement must reflect cultural values that focus on preserving collectives, rather than individuals. The case of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is used to reflect on the drivers and consequences of failure to incorporate local knowledge, local leaders and local ethical values in the adaption of programmes from elsewhere.

Comparison of social resistance to Ebola response in Sierra Leone and Guinea suggests explanations lie in political configurations not culture (open access)
Annie Wilkinson & James Fairhead

Sierra Leone and Guinea share broadly similar cultural worlds, straddling the societies of the Upper Guinea Coast with Islamic West Africa. There was, however, a notable difference in their reactions to the Ebola epidemic. As the epidemic spread in Guinea, acts of violent or everyday resistance to outbreak control measures repeatedly followed, undermining public health attempts to contain the crisis. In Sierra Leone, defiant resistance was rarer. Instead of looking to ‘culture’ to explain patterns of social resistance (as was common in the media and in the discourse of responding public health authorities) a comparison between Sierra Leone and Guinea suggests that explanations lie in divergent political practice and lived experiences of the state. In particular the structures of state authority through which the national epidemic response were organised integrated very differently with trusted institutions in each country. Predicting and addressing social responses to epidemic control measures should assess such political-trust configurations when planning interventions.

Nurses’ perceptions of universal health coverage and its implications for the Kenyan health sector
Adam D. Koon, Lahra Smith, David Ndetei, Victoria Mutiso & Emily Mendenhall

Universal health coverage, comprehensive access to affordable and quality health services, is a key component of the newly adopted 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Prior to the UN resolution, several countries began incorporating elements of universal health coverage into their domestic policy arenas. In 2013, the newly elected President of Kenya announced initiatives aimed at moving towards universal health coverage, which have proven to be controversial. Little is known about how frontline workers, increasingly politically active and responsible for executing these mandates, view these changes. To understand more about how actors make sense of universal health coverage policies, we conducted an interpretive policy analysis using well-established methods from critical policy studies. This study utilized in-depth semi-structured interviews from a cross section of 60 nurses in three health facilities (public and private) in Kenya. Nurses were found to be largely unfamiliar with universal health coverage and interpreted it in myriad ways. One policy in particular, free maternal health care, was interpreted positively in theory and negatively in practice. Nurses often relied on symbolic language to express powerlessness in the wake of significant health systems reform. Study participants linked many of these frustrations to disorganization in the health sector as well as the changing political landscape in Kenya. These interpretations provide insight into charged policy positions held by frontline workers that threaten to interrupt service delivery and undermine the movement towards universal health coverage in Kenya.

‘$100 Is Not Much To You’: Open Science and neglected accessibilities for scientific research in Africa
Louise Bezuidenhout, Ann H. Kelly, Sabina Leonelli & Brian Rappert

The Open Science (OS) movement promises nothing less than a revolution in the availability of scientific knowledge around the globe. By removing barriers to online data and encouraging publication in Open Access formats and Open Data archives, OS seeks to expand the role, reach and value of research. The promises of OS imply a set of expectations about what different publics hope to gain from research, how accountability and participation can be enhanced, and what makes science public in the first place. This paper presents empirical material from fieldwork undertaken in (bio)chemistry laboratories in Kenya and South Africa to examine the extent to which these ideals can be realized in a sub-Saharan context. To analyse the challenges African researchers face in making use of freely available data, we draw from Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach. His theorisations of ‘conversion factors’ helps to understand how seemingly minor economic and social contingencies can hamper the production and (re-)use of online data. In contrast to initiatives that seek to make more data available, we suggest the need to facilitate a more egalitarian engagement with online data resources.

From ‘trial community’ to ‘experimental publics’: how clinical research shapes public participation
Catherine M. Montgomery & Robert Pool

In relation to clinical trials, it is far more usual to speak of the community (singular, static) than of publics (multiple, emergent). Rarely defined, the community is commonly taken to be the existing people in a given area, which the trial will engage, mobilise or sensitise to facilitate successful recruitment and retention. Communities are assumed to pre-exist the research, to be timeless, and to be a whole (sometimes consisting of different parts, referred to as stakeholder groups). In this paper, we suggest a conceptual shift from ‘trial community’ to ‘experimental publics’. Using an empirical case study of an HIV prevention trial in Zambia, we draw out the following key points: firstly, publics do not pre-exist research activities but are enacted in concert with them. Secondly, publics are dynamic and transient. And thirdly, experimental publics are situated at the intersection of various forms of inclusion and exclusion, both locally and globally. Our findings emphasise the need to create long-term forms of participation in science, which transcend both the instrumental goals and the individual timelines of specific trials.


Anthropological Interrogations of Evidence-Based Global Health

In search of results: anthropological interrogations of evidence-based global health (open access)
Elsa L. Fan & Elanah Uretsky

Excerpt: This special section brings together a collection of papers that interrogate evidence itself as an object of inquiry and examines how different forms of evidence are produced, negotiated, and valued across a range of health contexts. In unpacking evidence and the practices implicated in its production, these papers explore the health interventions mobilized in global health from within the positivist methods that dominate its discourse, attending specifically to the blind spots that sometimes emerge from the limited purview of what is recognized as evidence. In particular, all the papers foreground the business rationalities, measurement technologies, funding structures, and regime of actors and agendas that distinguish global health from its predecessor international health (see Brown, Cueto, & Fee, 2006) and its counterpart public health, both of which are bound by national governance and financing. Our papers thus aim to unravel that ‘obscure object of global health’ (Fassin, 2012) that seems to be less about the spatial and geographic boundaries that determine health and more about the financial and political arrangements through which health practices (and inequalities) are configured. The primary concern is often who is setting the standards for measuring health and how these forms of knowledge circulate in ways that shape the health outcomes themselves.

Our papers aim to interrogate the processes that guide this new practice of global health, thus highlighting the ‘perceptual deficits’ (Biehl & Petryna, 2013, p. 5) of paradigms that tend to occlude the complexities and contradictions of health issues in favor of standardized models that seek proof in the language of metrics. Collectively, these papers suggest that a view beyond the evidence reveals programs that struggle to reach their intended beneficiaries and goals, despite the fact that they find ways to demonstrate success.

“Guilty until proven innocent”: the contested use of maternal mortality indicators in global health (open access)
Katerini T. Storeng & Dominique P. Béhague

The MMR – maternal mortality ratio – has risen from obscurity to become a major global health indicator, even appearing as an indicator of progress towards the global Sustainable Development Goals. This has happened despite intractable challenges relating to the measurement of maternal mortality. Even after three decades of measurement innovation, maternal mortality data are widely presumed to be of poor quality, or, as one leading measurement expert has put it, ‘guilty until proven innocent’. This paper explores how and why leading epidemiologists, demographers and statisticians have devoted the better part of the last three decades to producing ever more sophisticated and expensive surveys and mathematical models of globally comparable MMR estimates. The development of better metrics is publicly justified by the need to know which interventions save lives and at what cost. We show, however, that measurement experts’ work has also been driven by the need to secure political priority for safe motherhood and by donors’ need to justify and monitor the results of investment flows. We explore the many effects and consequences of this measurement work, including the eclipsing of attention to strengthening much-needed national health information systems. We analyse this measurement work in relation to broader political and economic changes affecting the global health field, not least the incursion of neoliberal, business-oriented donors such as the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose institutional structures have introduced new forms of administrative oversight and accountability that depend on indicators.

Making global health knowledge: documents, standards, and evidentiary sovereignty in HIV interventions in South India
Robert Lorway

This paper explores how an array of HIV epidemic responders became embroiled in producing quantitative evidence for HIV interventions in India. Based upon extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Karnataka State, I examine the life history of the Gates-funded AIDS initiative in India known as Avahan as a case study to consider the social and political implications of large-scale, standardizing knowledge regimes enacted in the era of global health. Specifically, I analyze a sample of the key material artifacts that are implicated in the production of standardized knowledge in an attempt to illuminate the workings of what I refer to as ‘evidentiary sovereignty’. I argue that documents, forms, and other paperwork used to generate evidence in global health interventions neither merely reflect expert knowledge nor convey information about scientific standards but, rather, are integral to the re-instantiation of sovereignty. The effects of evidentiary sovereignty not only narrow the aperture of global health interventions to overlook the on-the-ground realities that shape health problems, but they also transform the very ground upon which communities responding to HIV epidemics conceive of and enact politics. As highly HIV-affected communities struggle with the bureaucratic demands of intensive form-filling and query agreed upon standards and systems of classification, a form of politicization of knowledge unfurls that pertains to the documents themselves.

Multiple accountabilities: development cooperation, transparency, and the politics of unknowing in Tanzania’s health sector
Noelle Sullivan

Accountability and transparency are considered best practices within development cooperation frameworks characteristic of global health practice today. In this article, I ask: How do accountability and transparency work, and for whom? I develop three main arguments. Drawing on Geissler’s concept ‘unknowing,’ I first demonstrate that global health actors are aware, yet strategically obscure, the instabilities and problematics of data and indicators in Tanzania. Second, I suggest that multiple and contradictory forms of accountability are pursued by global health actors, while this multiplicity is often unspoken in order to render accountability frameworks legitimate to sustain the existing development cooperation system. Third, I argue that foreign and Tanzanian actors within the health sector perpetuate accountability and development cooperation frameworks which are neither cooperative, nor accountable to citizens and purported beneficiaries of aid, because doing so allows actors to pursue interests often unrelated to formal policy goals.

‘We can’t do that here’: negotiating evidence in HIV prevention campaigns in southwest China
Elanah Uretsky

Disease prevention and health care delivery, areas traditionally governed by the nation state and local communities, are increasingly being inhabited by ‘mobile sovereigns’ who carry a global currency of prevention strategies and treatments grounded in the universal standards of scientific evidence. Drawing on ethnographic evidence from research conducted on HIV in southwest China, this paper examines the impact of evidence-based science on the effectiveness of global health programming. It interrogates the intentions of global health partnerships and how the balance of power waged between those with money, science, and technical expertise, and those seeking assistance and resources, influences global health programming. Ultimately, the paper demonstrates the disconnect between the demand for a system of universal standards developed on the basis of scientific evidence and an appreciation for the local context, which shapes the way these standards should be modified for effective implementation of global health programs.

Counting results: performance-based financing and HIV testing among MSM in China
Elsa L. Fan 

In this paper, I examine the use of performance-based financing to scale-up HIV testing in men who have sex with men, or MSM, by global health initiatives in China. This mechanism, which ties financing directly to the achievement of targets and indicators, assures that measurable results are produced from health interventions and accounts for financial spending. On the one hand, its adoption into HIV programming in China articulates with broader shifts in global health that place currency on particular forms of evidence. At the same time, performance-based financing reshapes how HIV interventions are carried out and what counts in these programmes. The suturing of financing to outputs directs what gets counted and how, and as a consequence leads to the production of measurable results as an end in and of themselves. Based on 22 months of ethnographic research carried out in China, I explore the effects of this mechanism and, in doing so, ask what gets left out in the pursuit of evidence. In particular, I demonstrate how the demand for outputs undermines HIV prevention in MSM, thus risking the very lives these interventions are intended to save.

Web Roundup: Water by Lily Shapiro

1 février 2017 - 12:19pm

Before I began graduate school, I worked in water-related public health, and have continued to follow the news around water. This month, some stories (mostly) about water.

Trump signed an order last week to “expedite” the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which jeopardizes the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and for many others who drink water from the Missouri River. Opponents of the pipeline are not surprised, and are gearing up for a fight. Although most of Silicon Valley has come out against Trump (though perhaps in somewhat tepid terms), particularly in light of his recent executive order on immigration, Peter Thiel has been tapped to help Trump pick someone to lead the FDA, with the goal of decreasing its regulations around drug approval process. Vox goes into detail about why that’s a bad idea. (And, before we move away from the topic of Trump’s horrifying first week in office, if you haven’t read CultAnth’s interview with prof of anthropology and lawyer Darryl Li on the travel ban, I recommend it).

California has recently gotten some much-needed rain (and snow) this month. Researchers and farmers there are experimenting with methods, which include flooding fields during the winter, to use this rain to recharge the depleted groundwater aquifers. Also, check out this time lapse of the California drought from 2011-present. The storms also toppled an iconic, if controversial, “drive-through” Sequoia tree, one of the last still standing in a public park.

Meanwhile, the state of Tamil Nadu, in South India, is experiencing its worst monsoon in nearly 150 years, a crisis worsened by the demonetization on November 9 (in which the Rupees 500 and 1000 notes were declared invalid), resulting in the deaths of numerous farmers and recent agitations by farmer’s groups. The state government has recently declared the state officially “drought-hit,” seeking assistance from the central government and offering aid to farmers, and compensation to the families of farmers who have died or committed suicide. Also off the coast of Tamil Nadu, two ships collided, causing an oil spill which is now washing up on Chennai’s Marina Beach.

A project out of Melbourne’s Monash University recently received USD 27 million in funding for a controlled trial testing innovative water infrastructure delivery in urban slum areas in Indonesia and Fiji. And The Guardian has an article about the complications of providing water to thousands of elephants in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, which has been hit by a drought.

Lead levels in water tested in Flint, Michigan, have now fallen below federal limits; however, because lead-tainted pipes have yet to be replaced, it is still not safe for residents to drink. 1700 residents have filed suit against the US Environmental Protection Agency for more than USD 722 million for its failure to protect residents from the toxic water. And, here’s an interesting, longish article about the unelected emergency managers who were running Flint at the time of the crisis, and how they contributed to it: Flint, Michigan’s water crisis: what the national media got wrong.

The NY Times has a piece on private equity firms taking over the water management of American municipalities, questioning the fairness in residents seeing their water rates rise while equity firms make returns. And yet, as the article also points out, the US water infrastructure is woefully in need of updating (something Trump has said he’ll address). Updates and improvements to infrastructure, along with other expenditures are to lead to an average increase of a substantial $49 over the next five years in monthly water bills in American households, according to new research out of Michigan State.

For some completely banal news, Vox has a piece on why La Croix sparkling water has suddenly became so trendy, which was probably only interesting for me, as a Wisconsinite who remembers my brother in California calling to excitedly tell me his grocery store now stocks it.

Speaking of Wisconsin, A2 milk (an older, supposedly healthier strain of milk which falls somewhere between health trend and health fad) will soon be available in the US. It is popular in Australia, and interestingly ties into debates and protests in Tamil Nadu about the recent ban (and its subsequent overturning) of a bull-taming sport called jallikattu, and its impact on indigenous cattle breeds.



Also check out this video by Tobias Gremmier “visualizing motion and music” with the London Symphony Orchestra, kind of like Fantasia for the 21st century.

The Internet is Mostly Bots – The Atlantic

The Moon May Be Covered With Oxygen Beamed From Earth – The Atlantic

A Lawyer Rewrote Instagram’s Privacy Policy in Plain English – Quartz

In the Journals – January 2017 by Anna Zogas

31 Janvier 2017 - 1:00pm

Welcome to a new year of Somatosphere’s In the Journals section! Here are some of the articles available in January 2017. Enjoy!

Medical Anthropology

Chronic Subjunctivity, or, How Physicians Use Diabetes and Insomnia to Manage Futures in the United States
Matthew Wolf-Meyer & Celina Callahan-Kapoor

Prognostication has become central to medical practice, offering clinicians and patients views of particular futures enabled by biomedical expertise and technologies. Drawing on research on diabetes care and sleep medicine in the United States, in this article we suggest that subjectivity is increasingly modeled on medical understandings of chronic illness. These chronic conceptions of the self and society instill in individuals an anxiety about future health outcomes that, in turn, motivate practices oriented at self-care to avoid negative health outcomes and particular medical futures. At its most extreme, these anxieties of self-care trouble conceptions of self and social belonging, particularly in the future tense, leading patients and clinicians to consider intergenerational and public health based on the threats that individual patients pose for others.

Decoding the Type 2 Diabetes Epidemic in Rural India (open access)
Matthew Little, Sally Humphries, Kirit Patel & Cate Dewey

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is an escalating public health problem in India, associated with genetic susceptibility, dietary shift, and rapid lifestyle changes. Historically a disease of the urban elite, quantitative studies have recently confirmed rising prevalence rates among marginalized populations in rural India. To analyze the role of cultural and sociopolitical factors in diabetes onset and management, we employed in-depth interviews and focus groups within a rural community of Tamil Nadu. The objectives of the study were to understand sources and extent of health knowledge, diabetes explanatory models, and the impact of illness on individual, social, and familial roles. Several cultural, socioeconomic, and political factors appear to contribute to diabetes in rural regions of India, highlighting the need to address structural inequities and empower individuals to pursue health and well-being on their own terms.

Indigenous Healing Knowledge and Infertility in Indonesia: Learning about Cultural Safety from Sasak Midwives
Linda Rae Bennett

In this article I demonstrate what can be learned from the indigenous healing knowledge and practices of traditional Sasak midwives on Lombok island in eastern Indonesia. I focus on the treatment of infertility, contrasting the differential experiences of Sasak women when they consult traditional midwives and biomedical doctors. Women’s and midwives’ perspectives provide critical insight into how cultural safety is both constituted and compromised in the context of reproductive health care. Core components of cultural safety embedded in the practices of traditional midwives include the treatment of women as embodied subjects rather than objectified bodies, and privileging physical contact as a healing modality. Cultural safety also encompasses respect for women’s privacy and bodily dignity, as well as two-way and narrative communication styles. Local understandings of cultural safety have great potential to improve the routine practices of doctors, particularly in relation to doctor–patient communication and protocols for conducting pelvic exams.

Local Biologies, Leaky Things, and the Chemical Infrastructure of Global Health
Alex M. Nading

This article examines how two chemical substances are woven into the infrastructure of global health as well as into the social lives of health workers in urban Nicaragua. One chemical is temephos, an organophosphate used to control mosquitoes. The other is chlorine-based products, which are used to disinfect surfaces and water. While global health projects tend to treat these substances as stable objects, there are three ways in which they might be understood as leaky things, implicated in fluid social interactions. First, global health chemicals are tracked through rigid accounting, but because of numerical leakages, they become vehicles for fashioning new forms of concern. Second, chemicals leak structurally: They can be dissolved and reproduced at a molecular level, although that dissolution is never absolute, and that reproduction is not everywhere the same. Third, chemicals leak in a sensory fashion. Sensory interactions with chemicals produce an entanglement of knowledge about bodies and environments.

Discourses on the Toxic Effects of Internal Chemical Contamination in Catalonia, Spain
Cristina Larrea-Killinger, Araceli Muñoz, Jaume Mascaró, Eva Zafra & Miquel Porta

Human exposure to and contamination by environmental toxic compounds generates discourses and practices that merit greater attention. In this article, we assess internal chemical contamination and the risk of toxic effects as an experience related to the production of meaning in everyday life. Drawing on the analysis of semantic networks of narratives from semi-structured interviews conducted with 43 informants in Catalonia, Spain, we consider participants’ perceptions of the health risks of toxic compounds, including social discourses on exposure, toxicity, and internal chemical contamination, and on responsibilities, consequences, and proposed strategies for controlling toxic compounds. Informants’ narratives on the relationships between nature and nurture suggest that they no longer perceive rigid boundaries separating the human body from the external environment and its chemical pollutants.

Blaming Machismo: How the Social Imaginary is Failing Men with HIV in Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Carina Heckert

Drawing from an ethnography of HIV care in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in this article I explore how the social imaginary surrounding gender relations shapes men’s experiences of seeking care for and living with HIV. Popular understandings of gender relations, which draw heavily on the machismo concept, intersect with a global health master narrative that frames women as victims in the AIDS epidemic in a way that generates a strong sentiment of blaming machismo within local HIV/AIDS-related services. Statements such as, “it’s because of machismo” are used to explain away epidemiological trends. Participant observation in the context of HIV care, coupled with illness narrative interviews, illuminate how blaming machismo shapes men’s experiences of care and the ways that they feel excluded from various forms of support. Thus, the illness experiences of men with HIV problematize the machismo concept and how it is drawn upon in the context of care.

There is also a themed section of Medical Anthropology titled “Between Biopolitical Governance and Care: Rethinking Health, Self, and Social Welfare in East Asia.” See the abstracts here.

Health and Place

Negotiating and valuing spaces: The discourse of space and ‘home’ in care homes
Andrea Kenkmann, Fiona Poland, Diane Burns, Paula Hyde, Anne Killett 

This paper examines how space in care homes is experienced and negotiated by people who live and work in them. The analysis of qualitative data of five in-depth case studies of care homes in England revealed three key ways in which space is negotiated: a) the way in which values affect interactions inside versus outside the care home environment, b) the negotiation of boundaries and domains within the homes, and c) the sense of being at ‘home’. The paper illuminates how the design of the buildings and organisational factors can reinforce or bridge dichotomies between inside and outside spaces. Residents’ abilities to re-negotiate boundaries, domains and communal spaces within homes are shown to be affected by organisational factors such as priorities of staff members. Despite ‘home’ being a common discourse, the spaces within care homes were often organised, ordered and experienced as two distinct, co-present worlds: the dwelling place of residents and the workplace of staff.

Managing mosquito spaces: Citizen self-governance of disease vectors in a desert landscape
Nicolena vonHedemann, Paul Robbins, Melinda K. Butterworth, Katheryn Landau, Cory W. Morin

Public health agencies’ strategies to control disease vectors have increasingly included “soft” mosquito management programs that depend on citizen education and changing homeowner behaviors. In an effort to understand public responses to such campaigns, this research assesses the case of Tucson, Arizona, where West Nile virus presents a serious health risk and where management efforts have focused on public responsibility for mosquito control. Using surveys, interviews, and focus groups, we conclude that citizens have internalized responsibilities for mosquito management but also expect public management of parks and waterways while tending to reject the state’s interference with privately owned parcels. Resident preferences for individualized mosquito management hinge on the belief that mosquito-borne diseases are not a large threat, a pervasive distrust of state management, and a fear of the assumed use of aerial pesticides by state managers. Opinions on who is responsible for mosquitoes hinge on both perceptions of mosquito ecology and territorial boundaries, with implications for future disease outbreaks.


The uses and implications of standards in general practice consultations (open access)
Maria Laura Lippert, Susanne Reventlow, Marius Brostrøm Kousgaard

Quality standards play an increasingly important role in primary care through their inscription in various technologies for improving professional practice. While ‘hard’ biomedical standards have been the most common and debated, current quality development initiatives increasingly seek to include standards for the ‘softer’ aspects of care. This article explores the consequences of both kinds of quality standards for chronic care consultations. The article presents findings from an explorative qualitative field study in Danish general practice where a standardized technology for quality development has been introduced. Data from semi-structured interviews and observations among 17 general practitioners were analysed using an iterative analytical approach, which served to identify important variations in the uses and impacts of the technology. The most pronounced impact of the technology was observed among general practitioners who strictly adhered to the procedural standards on the interactional aspects of care. Thus, when allowed to function as an overall frame for consultations, those standards supported adherence to general recommendations regarding which elements to be included in chronic disease consultations. However, at the same time, adherence to those standards was observed to narrow the focus of doctor–patient dialogues and to divert general practitioners’ attention from patients’ personal concerns. Similar consequences of quality standards have previously been framed as manifestations of an inherent conflict between principles of patient-centredness and formal biomedical quality standards. However, this study suggests that standards on the ‘softer’ aspects of care may just as well interfere with a clinical approach relying on situated and attentive interactions with patients.

Treating the binge or the (fat) body? Representations of fatness in a gold standard psychological treatment manual for binge eating disorder (open access)
Amy Brown-Bowers, Ashley Ward, Nicole Cormier

This article reports the results of a Foucauldian-informed discourse analysis exploring representations of fatness embedded within an empirically based psychological treatment manual for binge eating disorder, a condition characterized by overvaluation of weight and shape. Analyses indicate that the manual prioritizes weight loss with relatively less emphasis placed on treating the diagnostic symptoms and underlying mechanisms of binge eating disorder. We raise critical concerns about these observations and link our findings to mainstream psychology’s adoption of the medical framing of fatness as obesity within the “gold standard” approach to intervention. We recommend that psychology as a discipline abandons the weight loss imperative associated with binge eating disorder and fat bodies. We recommend that practitioners locate the problem of fat shame in society as opposed to the individual person’s body and provide individuals with tools to identify and resist fat stigma and oppression, rather than provide them with tools to reshape their bodies.

Understanding the health of lorry drivers in context: A critical discourse analysis (open access)
Nick Caddick, Veronica Varela-Mato, Myra A Nimmo, Stacey Clemes, Tom Yates, James A King

This article moves beyond previous attempts to understand health problems in the lives of professional lorry drivers by placing the study of drivers’ health in a wider social and cultural context. A combination of methods including focus groups, interviews and observations were used to collect data from a group of 24 lorry drivers working at a large transport company in the United Kingdom. Employing a critical discourse analysis, we identified the dominant discourses and subject positions shaping the formation of drivers’ health and lifestyle choices. This analysis was systematically combined with an exploration of the gendered ways in which an almost exclusively male workforce talked about health. Findings revealed that drivers were constituted within a neoliberal economic discourse, which is reflective of the broader social structure, and which partly restricted drivers’ opportunities for healthy living. Concurrently, drivers adopted the subject position of ‘average man’ as a way of defending their personal and masculine status in regards to health and to justify jettisoning approaches to healthy living that were deemed too extreme or irrational in the face of the constraints of their working lives. Suggestions for driver health promotion include refocusing on the social and cultural – rather than individual – underpinnings of driver health issues and a move away from moralistic approaches to health promotion.

Using liminality to understand mothers’ experiences of long-term breastfeeding: ‘Betwixt and between’, and ‘matter out of place’ (open access)
Sally Dowling, David Pontin

Breastmilk is widely considered as the optimum nutrition source for babies and an important factor in both improving public health and reducing health inequalities. Current international/national policy supports long-term breastfeeding. UK breastfeeding initiation rates are high but rapidly decline, and the numbers breastfeeding in the second year and beyond are unknown. This study used the concept of liminality to explore the experiences of a group of women breastfeeding long-term in the United Kingdom, building on Mahon-Daly and Andrews. Over 80 breastfeeding women were included within the study, which used micro-ethnographic methods (participant observation in breastfeeding support groups, face-to-face interviews and online asynchronous interviews via email). Findings about women’s experiences are congruent with the existing literature, although it is mostly dated and from outside the United Kingdom. Liminality was found to be useful in providing insight into women’s experiences of long-term breastfeeding in relation to both time and place. Understanding women’s experience of breastfeeding beyond current usual norms can be used to inform work with breastfeeding mothers and to encourage more women to breastfeed for longer.

What led health professionals to study and practise acupuncture in Spain? (open access)
Esther García-Escamilla, Beatriz Rodríguez-Martín Vicente Martínez-Vizcaíno

Acupuncture is the most widespread practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the Western world. This confers special relevance to the experiences and circumstances of life to explain the health-illness process. Recent research has reported an increasing interest of Western health professionals in its practice. The aim of this study was to map and understand the motivation of health professionals to study and practise acupuncture in Spain. A total of 27 in-depth interviews were conducted with Spanish health professionals trained in acupuncture. Participants were selected following a theoretical sampling. Grounded theory dimensional analysis guided this research in order to obtain a theoretical explanation of the motivations of health professionals to study and practise acupuncture. Their motivations were focused on six categories: humanisation of medicine, acquiring additional therapeutic resources, efficacy and far-reaching healing potential of acupuncture, attraction to acupuncture philosophy, external influences (other professionals and relevant sources of information) and work-related motivation. Our results show that health professionals were attracted to acupuncture because of the Traditional Chinese Medicine worldview (a philosophical approach) and therapeutic benefits of acupuncture (a practical approach). Acupuncture offers the possibility to improve the healthcare assistance by transcending the reification of human beings resulting from the pre-eminence of the biomedical paradigm and facilitating cooperation between disciplines. Participants consider acupuncture as a complete medicine, not merely as a technique, and highlight the importance of traditional Chinese concepts to practise it.

Critical Public Health 

Embodied, clinical and pharmaceutical uncertainty: people with HIV anticipate the feasibility of HIV treatment as prevention (TasP)
Peter Keogh

Evidence of the efficacy of HIV treatment as prevention (TasP) precipitated a highly optimistic global response and a radical redesign of HIV policy. Sociologists and others have framed TasP within promissory or enterprising discourses which require HIV prevention planners and people with HIV to engage in anticipatory assessments of risk and uncertainty. In 2013, I conducted focus groups with people with HIV in London, UK, to explore their understandings and anticipations of TasP. An environment of economic constraint obliged participants to triage clinical need and presentation, and they expressed scepticism about the sustainability of pharmaceutical investment in treatment innovation. These perceptions were informed by an embodied knowledge of HIV which implies a construction of health as a form of capital that is finite and must be conserved. This is contrasted with a biomedical construction of health as a form of capital that can be exponentially generated through investment. The imperative of conservation entailed by people with HIV’s anticipations contrasts with the speculative economy of biomedical production entailed in planners’ anticipations of TasP. Rather than researching ‘TasP acceptability’ and considering whether people with HIV’s behaviours constitute an obstacle to TasP’s effectiveness, we should recognise that people with HIV are already involved in shaping what TasP is, what it will be and ultimately how it ‘works’.

Young bisexual women’s perspectives on the relationship between bisexual stigma, mental health, and sexual health: a qualitative study
Corey E. Flanders, Cheryl Dobinson & Carmen Logie

Young bisexual women experience worse mental and sexual health outcomes in comparison to their heterosexual and lesbian peers. These disparities are associated with stigma and devaluation of bisexual identities. The current paper addresses a community-based focus group project in which participants discussed bisexual stigma in regard to bisexual erasure and other stereotypes. Specifically, participants detailed experiences of feeling pressured to provide evidence of their bisexual identity, modifying their relationship or sexual behavior to conform to these expectations, as well as feeling excluded from queer community. Further, participants discussed how these experiences were related to decreased mental and sexual health. Future research should further investigate the relationship between bisexual stigma, pressure to provide evidence of bisexual identity, and negative mental and sexual health outcomes.

‘I’m not sure if they speak to everyone about this option’: analyzing disparate access to and use of genetic health services in the US from the perspective of genetic counselors
Susan Markens

Much research has documented disparities in access to and uses of health care services in the US. With the rise of genomic medicine and its use of complex technology, some scholars are concerned that such inequalities of health care will not only continue but also grow. Drawing on 27 semi-structured interviews with front-line genetic workers – master’s-level genetic counselors – this qualitative study explores the factors they view as contributing to variable uptake of genetic health services among US population groups. Patient-centered factors such as attitudes, norms, and education were perceived by some genetic counselors as explanations for disparities in uptake of genetic services. However, genetic counselors more frequently discussed structural and institutional factors (e.g. cost, insurance, type and location of hospital/clinic, and/or staffing issues) when accounting for different rates of usage of genetic services among populations. The prominence of structural impediments to access found in genetic counselors’ narratives about population differences in the uptake of genetic services suggests that genetic medicine could exacerbate rather than ameliorate health disparities in the US.

A Feminist Quality Appraisal Tool: exposing gender bias and gender inequities in health research
Tessa Morgan, Lisa Ann Williams & Merryn Gott

Quality appraisal tools used in systematic reviews to evaluate health literature do not adequately address issues related to gender. This oversight is significant because disparities between genders have been identified as a major health equity concern, and systematic reviews are regarded as a powerful means for informing policy that could redress gender inequities. In this paper, we present our Feminist Quality Appraisal Tool that offers researchers a template to undertake a comprehensive gendered analysis of studies they review. Informed by a feminist perspective, the tool addresses issues of power, gender and inequity, thereby giving researchers the means to interrogate the scientific rigour of systematic reviews that focus on gender. Specifically, our tool outlines ways gender can be critically examined in terms of study design, data collection, analysis, discussion and recommendations. We argue that this tool has the potential to improve the provision of public health by providing solid understandings and critical reflections on the reasons why women continue to face barriers in their access to optimal health care.

Social Science & Medicine

Reconciling community-based Indigenous research and academic practices: Knowing principles is not always enough
Melody E. Morton Ninomiya, Nathaniel J. Pollock

Historically, Indigenous health research in Canada has failed to engage Indigenous peoples and communities as primary stakeholders of research evidence. Increasingly, research ethics and methodologies are being positioned as tools for Indigenous self-determination. In response, mainstream institutions have developed new ethical principles for research involving Indigenous people. While these transformations are necessary steps towards re-orienting research practices, they are not prescriptive. In this paper, we make visible three dilemmas from a case study in which Indigenous health research frameworks provided limited guidance or were unclear about how to balance community priorities with Indigenous research principles. We also discuss the strategies used to resolve each of these dilemmas. We draw examples from a project that examined the lived experiences of children and youth living with FASD and their caregivers. This project was conducted in collaboration with Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation, an Indigenous community in Labrador, Canada. In doing so, we argue that knowing the key guiding principles in Indigenous health research is not always enough, and that the ‘real-world’ context of practices and relationships can lead to conflicts that are not easily resolved with adherence to these principles.

Two approaches, one problem: Cultural constructions of type II diabetes in an indigenous community in Yucatán, Mexico
Sarah M. Frank, T. Elizabeth Durden

The emerging epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes in Mexico has recently propelled the nation into the public health spotlight. In the state of Yucatán, the experience of diabetes is greatly impacted by two cultural constructions of disease. In this setting, elements of Yucatec Mayan health practices as well as the biomedical model affect the approach to type II diabetes. Both frameworks offer unique understandings of the etiology of diabetes and recommend different ways to manage the condition. Based on in-depth and semi-structured interviews with both community members and clinicians, the present study seeks to understand how diabetes is understood and treated in indigenous settings in rural Yucatán. We explore the context in which community members navigate between locally available healthcare options, choose one over the other, or incorporate strategies from both into their diabetes care regimens. The tension between indigenous community members and their biomedical healthcare providers, the changing food environment of this community, and the persistence of traditional gender constructions affect the management of type II diabetes and its associated symptoms.

Public health and public trust: Survey evidence from the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic in Liberia
Robert A. Blair, Benjamin S. Morse, Lily L. Tsai

Trust in government has long been viewed as an important determinant of citizens’ compliance with public health policies, especially in times of crisis. Yet evidence on this relationship remains scarce, particularly in the developing world. We use results from a representative survey conducted during the 2014–15 Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in Monrovia, Liberia to assess the relationship between trust in government and compliance with EVD control interventions. We find that respondents who expressed low trust in government were much less likely to take precautions against EVD in their homes, or to abide by government-mandated social distancing mechanisms designed to contain the spread of the virus. They were also much less likely to support potentially contentious control policies, such as “safe burial” of EVD-infected bodies. Contrary to stereotypes, we find no evidence that respondents who distrusted government were any more or less likely to understand EVD’s symptoms and transmission pathways. While only correlational, these results suggest that respondents who refused to comply may have done so not because they failed to understand how EVD is transmitted, but rather because they did not trust the capacity or integrity of government institutions to recommend precautions and implement policies to slow EVD’s spread. We also find that respondents who experienced hardships during the epidemic expressed less trust in government than those who did not, suggesting the possibility of a vicious cycle between distrust, non-compliance, hardships and further distrust. Finally, we find that respondents who trusted international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were no more or less likely to support or comply with EVD control policies, suggesting that while INGOs can contribute in indispensable ways to crisis response, they cannot substitute for government institutions in the eyes of citizens. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for future public health crises.

Separating, replacing, intersecting: The influence of context on the construction of the medical-nursing boundary
Elisa Giulia Liberati

The distribution of work, knowledge, and responsibilities between doctors and nurses is a longstanding object of interest for medical sociologists. Whereas the strategies through which nurses and doctors construct their professional boundary have been thoroughly examined, little is known about why the regulation of the medical-nursing boundary varies across care settings. In the article, I argue that this gap in knowledge can be attributed to insufficient examination of the ‘negotiation context’, namely the features of the social and organisational environment that directly affect doctor-nurse boundary negotiations. Adopting a negotiated order perspective, and drawing data from a hospital ethnography, the article describes the different ways of constructing the medical-nursing boundary (separating, replacing, and intersecting) which were observed in three different care settings (a neurology ward, a neurosurgical ward, and an intensive care unit). Constant comparison of the observed interactional patterns led to the identification of three factors that significantly affected the construction of the medical-nursing boundary, specifically: patients’ state of awareness, the type of clinical approach adopted by nurses and doctors, and the level of acuity on the ward. The article advances our knowledge of the medical-nursing boundary by shedding light on its flexible and contextual nature and by adding further nuance to the boundary-blurring/boundary-reinforcing dichotomy. New features of the ‘negotiation context’ are identified that enable more convincing explanations of why the medical-nursing boundary varies across care settings. Finally, the study advances the negotiated order theory by offering a framework for considering the structural differences that shape local negotiations.

Gifts and influence: Conflict of interest policies and prescribing of psychotropic medications in the United States
Marissa King, Peter S. Bearman

The pharmaceutical industry spends roughly 15 billion dollars annually on detailing – providing gifts, information, samples, trips, honoraria and other inducements – to physicians in order to encourage them to prescribe their drugs. In response, several states in the United States adopted policies that restrict detailing. Some states banned gifts from pharmaceutical companies to doctors, other states simply required physicians to disclose the gifts they receive, while most states allowed unrestricted detailing. We exploit this geographic variation to examine the relationship between gift regulation and the diffusion of four newly marketed medications. Using a dataset that captures 189 million psychotropic prescriptions written between 2005 and 2009, we find that uptake of new costly medications was significantly lower in states with marketing regulation than in areas that allowed unrestricted pharmaceutical marketing. In states with gift bans, we observed reductions in market shares ranging from 39% to 83%. Policies banning or restricting gifts were associated with the largest reductions in uptake. Disclosure policies were associated with a significantly smaller reduction in prescribing than gift bans and gift restrictions. In states that ban gift-giving, peer influence substituted for pharmaceutical detailing when a relatively beneficial drug came to market and provided a less biased channel for physicians to learn about new medications. Our work suggests that policies banning or limiting gifts from pharmaceutical representatives to doctors are likely to be more effective than disclosure policies alone.

Requests for cesarean deliveries: The politics of labor pain and pain relief in Shanghai, China
Eileen Wang

Cesarean section rates have risen dramatically in China within the past 25 years, particularly driven by non-medical factors and maternal requests. One major reason women request cesareans is the fear of labor pain, in a country where a minority of women are given any form of pain relief during labor. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews with 26 postpartum women and 8 providers at a Shanghai district hospital in June and July of 2015, this article elucidates how perceptions of labor pain and the environment of pain relief constructs the cesarean on maternal request. In particular, many women feared labor pain and, in a context without effective pharmacological pain relief or social support during labor, they came to view cesarean sections as a way to negotiate their labor pain. In some cases, women would request cesarean sections during labor as an expression of their pain and a call for a response to their suffering. However, physicians, under recent state policy, deny such requests, particularly as they do not view pain as a reasonable indication for a cesarean birth. This disconnect leads to a mismatch in goals for the experience of birth. To reduce unnecessary C-sections, policy makers should instead address the lack of pain relief during childbirth and develop other means of improving the childbirth experience that may relieve maternal anxiety, such as allowing family members to support the laboring woman and integrating a midwifery model for low-risk births within China’s maternal-services system.

“Not there yet”: Examining community support from the perspective of people with dementia and their partners in care
R.V. Herron, M.W. Rosenberg

People with dementia can live meaningful and engaged lives with the appropriate social and physical supports in place. There has been relatively little research, however, on the experiences and desires of people with dementia themselves as they negotiate informal and formal support in rural and small town settings. In this article, we draw on semi-structured interviews with 46 community-dwelling people with dementia and 43 partners in care in rural Ontario, Canada to examine how people with dementia relate to and within their communities as well as their perceptions of community support services. We identify the continued contributions of people with dementia to their own care and the care of others as well as common social, cultural, and organizational factors related to delayed service use and refusal to use particular services. We argue that care is “not there yet” for people in the earlier stages of dementia and that more attention needs to be paid to what people with dementia can offer their communities as well as the role of culture and gender in developing support. Our findings make an important contribution to understanding the experience of dementia in rural and small town Canada, which is relevant to rural healthcare and community support in other industrialized countries.

Sociology of Health & Illness

Family social capital and health – a systematic review and redirection (open access)
Elena Carrillo Alvarez, Ichiro Kawachi, Jordi Riera Romani

The level (or scale) at which social capital can be conceptualised and measured ranges potentially from the macro-level (regional or country level), to the meso-level (neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools), down to the individual level. However, one glaring gap in the conceptualisation of social capital within the empirical literature has been the level of the family. Our aim in this review is to examine the family as the ‘missing level’ in studies on social capital and health. To do so, we conducted a systematic review on the use and measurement of this notion in the health literature, with the final intention of articulating a direction for future research in the field. Our findings are consistent with the notion that family social capital is multidimensional and that its components have distinct effects on health outcomes. Further investigation is needed to understand the mechanisms through which family social capital is related to health, as well as determining the most valid ways to measure family social capital.

Among friends: a qualitative exploration of the role of peers in young people’s alcohol use using Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital (open access)
Georgie J. MacArthur, Nina Jacob, Pandora Pound, Matthew Hickman, Rona Campbell

Drinking is viewed by young people as a predominantly social activity which provides an opportunity for entertainment and bonding with friends. Using Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital, this article explores young people’s attitudes and beliefs around alcohol use, influences on behaviour, and the role of peers, with a view to informing the development of preventive interventions. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 28 young people aged 18–20 in the south west of England. We describe how friends were integral in drinking experiences, and drinking with friends was equated with fun and enjoyment. In this way, the desire for social and symbolic capital appeared to be a key motivator for adolescent drinking. Critically, however, wider cultural norms played the predominant role in shaping behaviour, via the internalisation of widely accepted practice and the subsequent externalisation of norms through the habitus. Applying Bourdieu’s theory suggests that population-level interventions that regulate alcohol consumption, and thus disrupt the field, are likely to facilitate behaviour change among young people by driving a response in habitus.

Determinants of dietary compliance among Italian children: disentangling the effect of social origins using Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory (open access)
Filippo Oncini, Raffaele Guetto

Making use of Bourdieu’s threefold conceptualisation of cultural capital, this paper examines and disentangles the association between social origins and children’s food consumption. The aim of the work is twofold. Using data from the Multipurpose survey on daily life conducted by Istat (2009–2012), we first show that children’s compliance with dietary advice is indeed influenced by their social origins, but more so in terms of familial cultural resources than economic ones. All types of cultural capital enhance the quality of children’s nutrition. Second, we concentrate on the role of the school canteen as a child-centred investment strategy intended to reduce health inequalities by providing a wholesome lunch for all children. Although the school meal effectively improves the degree of dietary compliance, the results indicate that this public service is less often used by children from lower social origins. Moreover, we do not find any equalising effect of the school meal on the diets of disadvantaged children. These findings are discussed in light of future research on sociology of health stratification and health promotion programmes.

‘Good’ patient/‘bad’ patient: clinical learning and the entrenching of inequality (open access)
Eeva Sointu

This article develops sociological understanding of the reproduction of inequality in medicine. The material is drawn from a longitudinal study of student experiences of clinical learning that entailed 72 qualitative in-depth interviews with 27 medical students from five medical schools in the USA. To highlight the subtle, yet powerful, ways in which inequality gets entrenched, this article analyses ideas of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ patient. Bad patients question not only biomedical knowledge but also medical students’ commitment to helping people. Good patients engage with medical students in a manner that upholds biomedical knowledge and enables students to assume the role of the healer and the expert. At the same time, good patients possess cultural skills that align with those of medical practitioners. This alignment is, furthermore, central to definitions of the good patient. Distinctions drawn between good and bad patients thus both embody as well as enforce social inequality. The subtle reproduction of inequality is, however, difficult to discern because judgements about patients entwine with emotion.

The changing body work of abortion: a qualitative study of the experiences of health professionals (open access)
Carrie Purcell, Sharon Cameron, Julia Lawton, Anna Glasier, Jeni Harden

‘Body work’ has emerged at the nexus of sociologies of work and bodies as a means of conceptualising work focusing on the bodies of others. This article utilises this analytical tool in the context of contemporary abortion work. Abortion provision in Britain has seen significant change in the last 25 years, paralleling developments in medical methods, and the option for women under nine weeks’ gestation to complete the abortion at home. These shifts raise questions around how abortion work is experienced by those who do it. We apply the conceptual lens of body work to data drawn from in-depth interviews with 37 health professionals involved in abortion provision, to draw out the character, constraints and challenges of contemporary abortion work. We explore three key themes: the instrumental role of emotional labour in facilitating body work; the temporality of abortion work; and bodily proximity, co-presence and changes in provision. By drawing on the conceptual frame of body work, we illuminate the dynamics of contemporary abortion work in Britain and, by introducing the idea of ‘body work-by-proxy’, highlight ways in which this context can be used to expand the conceptual boundaries of body work.

Disentangling patient and public involvement in healthcare decisions: why the difference matters (open access)
Mio Fredriksson, Jonathan Q. Tritter

Patient and public involvement has become an integral aspect of many developed health systems and is judged to be an essential driver for reform. However, little attention has been paid to the distinctions between patients and the public, and the views of patients are often seen to encompass those of the general public. Using an ideal-type approach, we analyse crucial distinctions between patient involvement and public involvement using examples from Sweden and England. We highlight that patients have sectional interests as health service users in contrast to citizens who engage as a public policy agent reflecting societal interests. Patients draw on experiential knowledge and focus on output legitimacy and performance accountability, aim at typical representativeness, and a direct responsiveness to individual needs and preferences. In contrast, the public contributes with collective perspectives generated from diversity, centres on input legitimacy achieved through statistical representativeness, democratic accountability and indirect responsiveness to general citizen preferences. Thus, using patients as proxies for the public fails to achieve intended goals and benefits of involvement. We conclude that understanding and measuring the impact of patient and public involvement can only develop with the application of a clearer comprehension of the differences.

From medicalisation to riskisation: governing early childhood development (open access)
Fan-Tzu Tseng

This study investigates the transformation of the regime of governing child developmental conditions in Taiwan. With the shift from a medicalised regime of disabilities to a riskised regime of developmental delays, early childhood development has become the primary focus of governance. Drawing upon a multi-sited ethnography to follow the process by which the ideas and practices of early intervention are imported and adapted to local conditions, I elucidate how and why the new subject, that is, children with developmental risks and their families, emerged with the concomitant re-configuration of governance. By using three riskisation strategies, namely, the truth claim of prevalence rate of developmental delays, mass screening with standardised instruments, and identification of risky families, child development is problematised collectively and surveilled individually. Within this new regime, every young child is no longer considered either normal or disabled but is rather located within a developmental risk continuum and subject to relentless medical and social interventions. While ‘returning to normal’ becomes the predominant goal of early intervention for developmentally delayed children, disabilities are increasingly enacted negatively and considered embodying an undesirable state of being. These changing delimitations and subsequent interventions have profoundly reshaped our understanding of the child, normality and disability.

How differences matter: tracing diversity practices in obesity treatment and health promotion (open access)
Ulrike Felt, Kay Felder, Michael Penkler

Diversity has become a buzzword in medical care, denoting a re-evaluation of what it means to attend to differences among human bodies and lives. Questions about what types of differences matter and how they should be defined have become important normative and analytical challenges. Drawing on two case studies, we show how differences between patients and patient-collectives are not simply waiting to be recognised and addressed but also enacted within situated healthcare practices. Although concerns with diversity are present in both cases, they take different forms. In a Viennese health–promotion project for obese clients, care practices are both based on and reproduce large-scale categories that divide the population into distinct subgroups with specific needs. Conversely, in an outpatient clinic for bariatric surgery patients, a technical fix-oriented procedure leads to concerns over diversity becoming an add-on realised by tending to each patient’s idiosyncrasies and personal stories. By tracing the practices of diversity and the tensions they produce, we show how classifications and understandings of human difference are based on infrastructures that enable and constrain them. Furthermore, we discuss how they become consequential in healthcare, thereby indicating the importance of remaining reflexive about the political implications of diversity discourse and practice.

Stratified, precision or personalised medicine? Cancer services in the ‘real world’ of a London hospital (open access)
Sophie Day, R Charles Coombes, Louise McGrath-Lone, Claudia Schoenborn, Helen Ward

We conducted ethnographic research in collaboration with a large, research-intensive London breast cancer service in 2013–2014 so as to understand the practices and potential effects of stratified medicine. Stratified medicine is often seen as a synonym for both personalised and precision medicine but these three terms, we found, also related to distinct facets of treatment and care. Personalised medicine is the term adopted for the developing 2016 NHS England Strategy, in which breast cancer care is considered a prime example of improved biological precision and better patient outcomes. We asked how this biologically stratified medicine affected wider relations of care and treatment. We interviewed formally 33 patients and 23 of their carers, including healthcare workers; attended meetings associated with service improvements, medical decision-making, public engagement, and scientific developments as well as following patients through waiting rooms, clinical consultations and other settings. We found that the translation of new protocols based on biological research introduced further complications into an already-complex patient pathway. Combinations of new and historic forms of stratification had an impact on almost all patients, carers and staff, resulting in care that often felt less rather than more personal.

Theory, Culture and Society

Danger, Crime and Rights: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Jonathan Simon (open access)
Michel Foucault, Jonathan Simon, Stuart Elden

This article is a transcript of a conversation between Michel Foucault and Jonathan Simon in San Francisco in October 1983. It has never previously been published and is transcribed on the basis of a tape recording made at the time. Foucault and Simon begin with a discussion of Foucault’s 1977 lecture ‘About the Concept of the “Dangerous Individual” in 19th-Century Legal Psychiatry’, and move to a discussion of notions of danger, psychiatric expertise in the prosecution cases, crime, responsibility and rights in the US and French legal systems. The transcription is accompanied by a brief contextualizing introduction and a retrospective comment by Simon.

Biopolitics, Thanatopolitics and the Right to Life (open access)
Muhammad Ali Nasir

This article focuses on the interrelationship of law and life in human rights. It does this in order to theorize the normative status of contemporary biopower. To do this, the case law of Article 2 on the right to life of the European Convention on Human Rights is analysed. It argues that the juridical interpretation and application of the right to life produces a differentiated governmental management of life. It is established that: 1) Article 2 orients governmental techniques to lives in order to ensure that both deprivation and protection of lives is lawful; 2) A proper application of Article 2 grounds itself on a proper discrimination of lives which causes Article 2 to be applied universally but not uniformly to all juridical subjects; 3) The jurisprudence of Article 2 is theoretically appreciable only in a ‘politics of life’. Finally, the article ends with a plea to analyse other fundamental human rights in the context of ‘biopolitical governmentality’.

Social Justice has put together an open access collection of blogs-articles on the social justice impact of Trump, which includes a brief review of Trump’s health care agenda.

Trump’s Health Care Agenda (open access)
Thomas Bodenheimer

The nomination of Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services and of Seema Verma to run the Medicare and Medicaid programs ensures a major attack on health services for the people of the United States. On health care, there is agreement between the Steve Bannon/Tea Party faction of the Trump pre-administration and the Paul Ryan/traditional Republican faction: they both want to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This agreement will affect both the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion portions of the ACA. On the other major healthcare issue, the future of Medicare, the Trump factions disagree. The Paul Ryan faction and Tom Price hope to convert Medicaid into a privatized voucher system, whereas Trump’s pre-election statements—supported by much of his base—suggest that Trump wants to leave Medicare alone. This review of Trump’s health care agenda looks at the ACA’s individual mandate, the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and the future of Medicare.

Alice Street’s “Biomedicine in an Unstable Place: Infrastructure and Personhood in a Papua New Guinean Hospital” by Mackenzie Cramblit

30 Janvier 2017 - 12:00pm

Biomedicine in an Unstable Place: Infrastructure and Personhood in a Papua New Guinean Hospital

by Alice Street

Duke University Press, 2014, 204 pages

Social anthropologist Alice Street’s first book is an ambitious ethnography of personhood and recognition in Madang Hospital, an under-resourced provincial hospital in Papua New Guinea. The book shows how doctors, nurses, and patients endeavor to make themselves “visible” to others in order to initiate relations of care at multiple scales, while also emphasizing the uncertainties of diagnosis and treatment within an institution subject to perennial shortages of staff and supplies.

The book’s main section explores the treatment and experience of disease within the public ward of Madang Hospital. Street introduces the concept of “biomedical uncertainty” to describe how doctors must forego conclusive diagnosis and embrace a pragmatic approach to treating patients in an under-resourced setting. That this kitchen-sink method is the one best suited to the circumstances at Madang Hospital seems reasonable – after all, the doctors themselves say so. But Street’s optimistic claim that this “uncertainty…is another productive form that biomedical knowledge can take” and her apparent endorsement of what she terms “technologies of not knowing” feels out of step with the real ways doctors in this environment struggle to produce care amidst difficult constraints (111). What should be commended is the Madang doctors’ commitment to take action in spite of the prevailing biomedical uncertainty in their ward, not the uncertainty itself ­– the unenviable result of chronic resource shortages. It would seem essential to distinguish between this kind of uncertainty on the one hand and a positive strategy of diagnostic suppleness or nonclosure on the other. When, in other words, is biomedical uncertainty a stance that doctors actively choose, and when is it an unwelcome imposition?

The book is most compelling when it combines insights from the fields of New Melanesian Ethnography and medical anthropology to show how social inequalities present as differential possibilities of care within the hospital. The elusiveness of recovery in this space contributes to patients’ profound anxieties about being properly recognized and acted upon by other actors within and outside the hospital. In a Melanesian context, visibility prompts social action, and being properly “seen” by others is the basis of relational and physical wellbeing. Thus, patients at Madang Hospital are more concerned about making themselves the subjects of others’ care than they are about understanding the cause of their disease. Paradoxically, getting well in Madang Hospital presupposes the social viability it takes to make oneself appear as a person worth caring for. Street explains that patients attempt to “make themselves visible as socially viable and well persons” in order to initiate the relations of care (with doctors, nurses, and family members) through which they will actually be healed (118). Patients in the Madang public ward therefore suffer doubly: languishing in their beds due to inadequate attention and medical resources, while also blaming themselves for failing to appear deserving of care. If the doctors at Madang are often unsure how to diagnose patients because their symptoms are indeterminate, the patients actually appear to be doing much of this work themselves, though they often invoke so-called “cultural” explanations to rationalize their inability to get well rather than biomedical ones. It might have been interesting for Street to explore in greater depth how the burden of diagnosis in Madang Hospital is shared both between doctors and patients and across “cultural” and “biomedical” epistemologies.

The book’s final section further develops the theme of social recognition to show how institutional and collective entities – nurses’ unions, hospital administrators, clinicians, and researchers – engage strategies of visibility to attract the attention of other bodies and multiply the resources at their disposal. Street’s analysis of a partnership between Madang Hospital and an Australian research hospital shows how the production of reputable global health research depends on and reinforces an unequal geography of place. While Australian researchers need to use Madang Hospital to collect samples from the local population, they are not willing to use its unreliable lab facilities to analyze them. But instead of investing in the improvement of these facilities – one lasting way that local hospital staff and patients might benefit from international research agreements – the researchers elect to ship samples back to Australia for analysis. Local hospital staff grumble because they are not engaged meaningfully in the partnership, and the Australian team’s ceremonious gift of a single copy of a medical textbook feels tokenistic because it is incommensurate with the value generated by the research. These stories dramatize the inequalities that result when partnership is pursued without reciprocity. The question implicitly raised by these stories is a powerful one: What kind of exchange relationship is possible when one party is only a visitor within the transactional field?

Every anthropologist who has done fieldwork is familiar with the ethical concerns motivating this question, and Street is no exception. In the course of her research, she realizes that she has been drawn into the same world that she is studying, but that her powers have been inaccurately assessed. Patients believe she holds the key to unlocking white people’s medicine, evidently viewing her “as another ‘hospital technology’” they can leverage in the course of their treatment (32). Street (not a trained physician) notes with measured disappointment that she was unable to provide the care that patients sought from her, even if her attentiveness was soothing in other respects. But this problem of incommensurability, which is central not only to the modes of partnership and exchange that this book examines, but also to the enterprise of ethnography itself, deserves more expansive commentary from the author – indeed, from all of us. Is it enough for anthropologists to continually intone that “[g]ood description is not inert”? (33) Or do we also bear the responsibility of asking more precisely how the ethnographies we write participate in reality? I would suggest that our capacity to really see each other – that is, to attend to each other in real and lasting ways – depends on it.


Mackenzie Cramblit is a PhD Candidate at Duke University motivated by questions of intimacy, care and value in relation to rural places. She is interested in understanding what constitutes an “environment,” how environments are made livable, and how we become attached to each other in their midst. Her dissertation approaches these ideas through a study of a remote community and “wild” landscape on the West Coast of Scotland.

Special Issue! Between Biopolitical Governance and Care: Rethinking Health, Self, and Social Welfare in East Asia by Anna Zogas

30 Janvier 2017 - 6:01am

The first issue of Medical Anthropology in 2017 is a special issue, “Between Biopolitical Governance and Care: Rethinking Health, Self, and Social Welfare in East Asia.” Enjoy!

Between Biopolitical Governance and Care: Rethinking Health, Selfhood, and Social Welfare in East Asia (open access)
Amy Borovoy & Li Zhang

(There is a video abstract, too.)

In East Asia, health has historically been entwined with notions of morality and broader social ideals. But can the state and other institutions legitimate their involvement in everyday life habits that contribute to poor health outcomes? For example, food consumption, smoking, or cancer—issues that can be conceived as a matter of
‘individual choice’ and personal responsibility. In this issue, we explore the fine lines between exercises of social power that are repressive and controlling, and those that are productive, caring, or supportive. We examine intersections of individual desires and self-work with statism and the public good—for instance, drug addiction care and the use of psychological counseling in China, understanding cancer and stress in South Korea, and the containment of harmful behavior in Japan.

The Rise of Therapeutic Governing in Postsocialist China
Li Zhang

In this article, I explore how and why psychological intervention, often in the name of guanai (care), has gradually become a critical tool of managing the population and governing society in postsocialist China. Psychological counselors and experts are becoming a new form of authority, an indispensable part of creating and managing knowable, stable, and governable subjects for the military, the police, schools, and enterprises. ‘Therapeutic governing’ refers to the adoption of the therapeutic ethos, techniques, and care to improve the management of the work force and to help individuals cope with life in a rapidly changing society. I examine what drives local authorities to pursue this change, and how therapeutic governing takes on a different character and significance given China’s unique path. I suggest that incorporating psychotherapeutic intervention into postsocialist governing can simultaneously produce disciplining and nurturing, repressive and unfettering effects in everyday life.

Cancer, Stress, and Ironies of Cancer Understanding in South Korea
Laura C. Nelson

Cancer incidence has been rising in South Korea, coincident with industrialization and with increased longevity. This has opened the way to a presentation of cancer as a symptom of prosperity and social advancement. Cancer care for older South Koreans is marketed widely as a way of giving back to the older generation, and is often portrayed as an opportunity to mobilize technological achievement alongside family care work to honor aging parents. Because breast cancer tends to affect a younger cohort, however, breast cancer patients seek more specific explanations for their illness in order to prevent recurrence. Many breast cancer patients identify ‘stress’ as the cause of their cancer, reflecting endemic stress in the lives of ordinary South Korean women. While this implies a critique of society and, specifically, of gender constructs, the emphasis on interpersonal ‘stress’ situates cancer causality in family relationships rather than in social, political, or environmental contexts. Cancer management and stress explanations together mute inquiry into causality.

Japan’s Public Health Paradigm: Governmentality and the Containment of Harmful Behavior
Amy Borovoy

In this essay, I revisit the politics of social control in the context of contemporary public health discussions, touching on the management of obesity and chronic illness. Foucault’s cautionary observations regarding the infiltration of normative social values into the terrain of healing offer a productive framework for considering the politics of public health in the industrialized world. I explore Japan’s public health paradigm and its key features of bureaucratic reform and health interventions through screening, socialization, education, and aggressive lifestyle training, and I consider the close proximity between health and socio-cultural values in the management of chronic conditions in Japan.

Curating Employee Ethics: Self-Glory Amidst Slow Violence at The China Tobacco Museum
Matthew Kohrman

Seen through the prism of public health, the cigarette industry is an apparatus of death. To those who run it, however, it is something more prosaic: a workplace comprised of people whose morale is to be shepherded. Provisioning employees of the cigarette industry with psychic scaffolding to carry out effective daily work is a prime purpose of the China Tobacco Museum. This multistoried exhibition space in Shanghai is a technology of self, offering a carefully curated history of cigarette production thematized around tropes such as employee exaltation. Designed to anchor and vitalize the ethical outlook of those working for the world’s most prolific cigarette conglomerate, the museum is a striking illustration that industrial strongholds of ‘slow violence’ produce their own forms of self-care.

‘Spending My Own Money, Harming My Own Body’: Addiction Care in a Chinese Therapeutic Community
Sandra Teresa Hyde

In this article, I explore a Chinese residential therapeutic community I call Sunlight in order to understand its quotidian therapies, its fraught nature binding China’s past with its future, and the to care for the self under postsocialism. Reviewing Sunlight ethnographically allows for broader theoretical exploration into how China’s economic transition created tensions between capitalism, socialism, and communism; between individual and community, care and coercion, and discipline and freedom. Sunlight blended democratic, communal, and communist values that in several ways transition drug addicts into a market-socialist society. In focusing on the socialist transition to capitalism much work concentrates on the neoliberal transition as the only path out of communism rather than exploring its exceptions. In exploring China as an exception, I ask: What do the residents, peer-educators and administrators reveal in their stories and reactions to community-based therapeutics of care and what happens when their notions of care clash?

Technologies of the Self and Ethnographic Praxis
Paul Brodwin

The authors contributing to this special issue draw on Foucault’s notion of technologies of the self: the means by which people operate on their own bodies and souls in pursuit of self-transformation, always according to particular regimes of value. Foucault’s notion remains attractive to anthropology: the technologies are ethnographically visible, and they illustrate how power affects the intimate realms of social life. The authors in this issue take up three problems: (1) the process by which people craft new subjectivities, (2) the genealogy of the new technologies of the self now circulating in East Asia, and (3) the forms of governance and political rationality that they justify. The articles as a whole testify to the fruitful encounter between ethnographic praxis and Foucault’s philosophical project. They also show how transnational movement and hybrid cultural forms inflect the strategies of governance associated with modern technologies of the self, especially those allied with biomedicine.

Who Cares? A Discussion on Care from Edinburgh’s Centre for Medical Anthropology by Bridget Bradley

24 Janvier 2017 - 5:19pm

On 11th May 2016 the Students of Medical Anthropology (SoMA) at University of Edinburgh, the student group within Edinburgh’s Centre for Medical Anthropology (EdCMA) held their inaugural event, a symposium entitled ‘Who Cares?’

As early career scholars in medical anthropology working across a variety of health-related contexts, we (SoMA) realised that care as a theme was present in all our work. This prevalence pointed to the anthropological significance of the concept and spurred discussions about ‘how care is different’ within and across our fields. However, it also highlighted that the concept of ‘care’ seemed to lack clarity and definable parameters within larger anthropological discussions. These concerns inspired  SoMA’s first student-led symposium.  Reflecting on some ideas within the published debate on ‘Care in Practice,’ within this symposium, we similarly “…sought to ask a how-question: how is “care” being done? Which modes and modalities of “caring” may we trace in various practices? How can each of these, different as they are, shed light on and help to specify the others” (Mol 2010: 84). We sought to do this by focusing on fieldwork experiences and considering how people within our sites are using the term care, and importantly, how they are performing care and for which reasons.

But why should anthropologists care about care? What does the term offer? What do we really know about care and caregivers? In answer, these papers are presentations of our understandings of care within our fields and statements arguing for the importance of examining care.  They also aimed to instigate collective discussion about care as a concept and its role within society to “shed light on and help to specify” its parameters. In our papers and in the discussions that followed, this symposium addressed the role of care in social relationships: how care shapes power and dependency; the extent and limits of care; the relationship between harm, violence, and care; and the question of care and morality.

With support and resources supplied by the EdCMA, the aim for this event was to build on the experiences of students of medical anthropology and to launch SoMA as a group, while creating a fruitful discussion on care among EdCMA colleagues and guests. The SoMA event organisers and speakers were: Bridget Bradley, Sandalia Genus, Lilian Kennedy and Hannah Lesshafft . A roundtable discussion with EdCMA members Alex Nading, Stefan Ecks, Lucy Lowe, Koreen Reece and Alice Street, and chaired by Hannah Lesshafft, explored the ways that care might be a useful theme in medical anthropology and beyond. What follows here are abridged versions of these original presentations, a discussion paper by Alice Street, and a summary of the conversations that stemmed from the roundtable.


Care and Community in Experiences of Trichotillomania

Bridget Bradley

What Does Care Do? Reflections on Care in Medical Research

Sandalia Genus

Who is the ‘Who’ in ‘Who Cares?’: Finding the Person in Dementia

Lilian Kennedy

Care as Self-care: Healing Practices in a Brazilian Candomblé House

Hannah Lesshafft

Discussant Notes

Alice Street

Discussion: Why should we care?

Bridget Bradley and Lilian Kennedy


Co-organised by: Bridget Bradley, Sandalia Genus, Lilian Kennedy, Hannah Lesshafft and Alice Street


Who we are

Students of Medical Anthropology (SoMA) at Edinburgh’s Centre for Medical Anthropology (EdCMA)

As part of the Centre for Medical Anthropology at Edinburgh University, the research students of Medical Anthropology (SoMA) have established a group to organise student-led events and facilitate research collaboration. SoMA allows early-career scholars to develop their work in dialogue with fellow researchers in the growing field of medical anthropology.

Bridget Bradley is a third year PhD student of social anthropology at The University of Edinburgh. Her doctorate research focuses on the experiences of people living with body-focused repetitive behaviours (compulsive hair pulling and skin picking) in the United Kingdom and United States. Bridget is currently the student representative for SoMA, the Students of Medical Anthropology group associated with the Edinburgh Centre for Medical Anthropology (EdCMA).

Sandalia Genus is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.  From 2012 to 2015 she conducted 17 months of fieldwork among the various stakeholders of malaria control and malaria vaccine development in Tanzania and Belgium.  Her research examines the intersection of global health and international development, with a focus on medical research, medical technologies and global health interventions.

Lilian Kennedy is a social anthropologist PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her research investigates practices of care, kinship, memory, and subjectivity as they relate to dementia. Her research is based on fieldwork conducted in London, working with people with dementia and the family members who help care for them.

Hannah Lesshafft is a social anthropologist and medical doctor. Her PhD research on Candomblé healing practices is based on 12 months fieldwork in Northeast Brazil. She currently works as a research fellow and teaching fellow at the Edinburgh Medical School.

Alice Street is Senior Lecturer and Chancellors Fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the material politics of global health, with a focus on Papua New Guinea and South India. Her book, Biomedicine in an Unstable Place: Infrastructure and Personhood in a Papua New Guinean Hospital was published by Duke University Press in October, 2014.


Upcoming Events

MAYS/SoMA Collaborative Conference, 15 -16 June 2017: ‘Medical Anthropology Beyond Academic Borders’


Follow us – Twitter: @SoMA_EdCMA

Become a Member of EdCMA – Email:

Material as opposed to what? Three recent ethnographies of welfare, biological labor, and human dignity by Leo Coleman

21 Janvier 2017 - 2:05am

Catherine Fennell. Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Kalinda Vora. Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Gaymon Bennett. Technicians of Human Dignity: Bodies, Souls, and the Making of Human Dignity. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016

A new materialist studying housing projects, a feminist-Marxist postcolonialist, and a Foucauldian bioethicist—what do they have in common? This sounds like the start of a very bad academic joke. But a great deal of cultural anthropological research has in fact been motivated and disciplined—made readable as part of a common project—over the past fifteen or twenty years by such oddly overlapping interests in materiality or materialisms of diverse stripes, on the one hand, and reasoning about biology and the biological constitution of the human, on the other. Drawing on usefully heterogeneous philosophical and social-scientific currents, the discipline has turned to examine the physical effectiveness of things, networks, or infrastructures in shaping populations, and the medical and technical regulation of the biological life of these populations. World-spanning (and world-making) institutions and infrastructures have been opened to ethnographic investigation under the rubrics of technopolitics and biopower. This was no mere scholarly “turn” but was impelled by real forces that included an intense medical and institutional recrafting of humanity itself as a global biological reality (Rees 2014), and the disparate impact of novel machines, techniques, and infrastructures that worked to disaggregate governance, individualize the political subject and materially support new authority for corporate and private actors (e.g., Dumit 2012; Sunder Rajan 2015). Meanwhile new claims on life itself, as the common substance of biological being, and demands for its biological protection or material support (in highly particular ways) emerged and were granted attention as ethnographic and ethical sites for challenging these besetting realities (Petryna 2002; Biehl 2006; von Schnitzler 2013).

The three recent books under review here each open different, perhaps radically so, perspectives on the contemporary anthropology of technopolitics and the political uses of biology, or “life and infrastructure” (to coin a phrase). At first glance these books might not seem comparable: Catherine Fennel’s Last Project Standing is a local ethnography of “post-welfare” politics and the (material) reform of public housing in Chicago; Kalinda Vora’s Life Support is a partly ethnographic, partly literary-critical study of outsourcing, transnational surrogacy, and “biological labor” in India; and Gaymon Bennett’s Technicians of Human Dignity is an examination of a high-level discursive politics of “intrinsic worth” since World War II, revisiting debates over human rights and human dignity at the founding of the UN, at the Second Vatican Council, and in George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics. Yet read together, they offer distinctive insights not only into their particular fields but also into anthropology’s engagement with contemporary political life in the broadest sense, pushing beyond the now-standard models (the Deleuzian materialist, the feminist-Marxist, the Foucauldian) for examining biopolitics and the material and technical infrastructures that regulate (and relegate) populations and their vitality. Together, these books show us how ethnographers can craft new perspectives on biopolitics and its material processes, by examining the reflective processes through which people understand themselves and others as persons, subjects enmeshed not only in material relations but in structured sets of moral ones, too.

Catherine Fennel’s book begins amidst a technopolitical moment of the sort with which we might now think ourselves very familiar: in the context of neoliberal welfare reform in Chicago, in the early and mid 2000s the city’s public housing administration was reorganized to accord with new logics of community empowerment and market-discipline (as well as newly limited budgets), and mass demolitions of older housing projects were begun. What replaced Chicago’s projects, piecemeal, were individualized subsidies for poor people to rent apartments on the private market (vouchers which had been around for a long time), and new developments of “mixed-income” housing designed to integrate (some) former public housing residents into renovated neighborhoods that would also attract middle-class homeowners and private developers. Both reforms had the explicit goal of fostering whole new patterns of civility and everyday sociality—if not through homeownership for the poor, then by mimicking the spatial patterns and enforcing the social routines and diurnal patterns of middle-class neighborhoods. For the “New Urbanist” planners and charitable foundations that advocated for housing reform, the architectural design of the old public projects and their physical decay and social problems were two sides of the same coin, and could only be countered by new forms of self-management and collective concern to be catalyzed by the very design of new public housing on the model of private homes, and by the management discipline imposed by privatized charity.

Fennel argues, by contrast to New Urbanism’s focus on material lay-outs, that the success of the new developments—and of any civic future of mutual care—also really depended on sympathetic relations and imaginations that would enabled mutual recognition and civic cooperation among a broader urban citizenry. On this account, while the old projects had in fact provided some basis for mutual concern and forms of sympathy—often through the physical experience of breakdowns and dilapidation—the very materiality and temporality of the housing reforms militated against the formation of such bonds of attachment and care, at least in ways that would have made the housing reforms a success on their own terms (whether or not they were ever intended to succeed is another question altogether). Fennell is careful to show that the kinds of sympathy and attachment formed by the old public housing projects were not simple responses to the physical environment, and therefore were not amenable to reform by demolition and renovation. Moreover, such “old” attachments remain active forces within the new housing, durable as habitus and expectation, and continue to be recalled and articulated by relocated public-housing tenants as they forge their own understandings of, and way of life within, the new developments.

These claims are not presented as straightforward contradictions to the notions of organization and formal order, and materiality, integral to the efforts at reform that she studies. Rather, Fennell pins her analysis to a “materialist concept of sympathy” (p. 12) that helps her track how common concerns are provoked by interactions with others, within different material contexts and amidst fluctuating flows of resources. She describes her work as an account of the “physics” of social provision, the ways in which persons and spaces, goods and money, and communities of neighbors and strangers are all mutually constitutive. Through the analysis that these concepts empower, Fennell shows that the success of the new projects depended upon sympathetic participation by and adoption of new forms of sociability among not only former residents of public housing but also other citizens of diverse classes and races. But this was a kind of material participation which became harder to secure in the aftermath of the 2008 housing market collapse, and which easily declined in one direction into defensive protection of property (new forms of property and market-value being the whole point of reforms), and in the other into an empty sentimentality as the last material reminders of public obligation were demolished.

In the last chapter of the book, Fennell takes up this problem of the varying material sources for and depth and durability of sympathetic attachments, to push the limits of her own sophisticated framing of her project as a materialist account. She turns her attention to plans for a national museum of public housing in Chicago (as yet unrealized), related to campaigns for the preservation of a 1930s public housing project named after the 19th century activist and reformer Jane Addams. It is a significant fact that the “last project standing” is in fact from the 1930s, an earlier moment of social welfare than that which, after civil rights, produced the mass housing of African Americans in urban projects. Places like the Jane Addams houses have a distinct history, as (temporary) pedagogical spaces for (white, ethnic) immigrants who would emerge to build industrial Chicago and settle its suburbs. The barely-preserved materiality of the Addams Houses thus offers a site of civic memory which is frankly exclusionary of the very denizens of public housing who actually need to be rehoused after reform and demolition. Fennell takes care to point out that the planned museum includes the history of black Chicago only as part of a generalized “cultural heritage” (p. 235), and that facts of structural exclusion from homeownership and racial discrimination were generally elided in this planned museum of a mostly demolished material project.

If earlier chapters of Fennell’s book examine truly material, even biological, experiences in public housing—risks to bodily health, dilapidation—that formed the biopolitical ground beneath the legal and political marginalization of black Chicagoans (and the basis for sympathetic attachments and mobilizations for reform), in the last chapter she examines how still-pressing material realities and sympathies now evanesce in a fog of sentiment, not least through museum-ification and social-science reconsiderations of the supposed problems and pathologies of public housing. Sympathy is no longer cultivated in shared experiences, or given purpose by the real stakes of living together in a city, but instead is provoked by imagistic reminders and decayed remainders of a misunderstood past. This leaves Fennell at best ambivalent about whether material sympathies can still forge more inclusive urban relations, and indicates some sort of lesson—not fully spelled out here—about the durability of race in America as the sharp edge where sympathetic relations, in their very materiality, are cut across by other powerful forces that hierarchically order both affective identifications with, and material investments in, black America.

I strongly recommend Fennell’s concluding discussions for close attention by any reader seeking to be better armed against the forced sentiment so often enjoined by talk of decay and decline in the post-industrial Midwest, and wishing to challenge the narrow social and racial limits set on notions of “rust belt” suffering and anomie. The “rust belt” includes inner cities and public housing, too! But on the evidence of her last chapter, even deeply material sympathies and common bonds forged in shared spaces may be fatally compromised by other processes of identification. To be sure, we are now in an political impasse of mutual non-recognition that has become deeper than she could have predicted: we are caught between moralized and racialized narratives of public squalor and urban danger, and rosy images of a past of industrial solidarity under the penumbra of corporate beneficence (the latter image untroubled by acknowledgement of either biopolitical exclusion or demands for inclusion). These political imaginations both stand in relation to material realities of decay and disinvestment, which could be made the starting point for sympathy and common concern. But racial antipathy and nativist longing for an imagined past maintain stern separations between past and present, and between public and post-industrial forms of ruin. What can connect them up again—to each other, and to contemporary conditions—may not be a materialist concept of sympathy itself, but rather an act of reflection that only truly comparative engagement can provide. Fortunately, Fennell’s ethnography provides an internal example of just such reflection, across the temporal lines and material differences that divide old projects from new houses.

Fennell acknowledges often that there is no one outcome of reforms for all the residents of public housing, except for their physical removal from the projects that had stood as both the symbol of state-supported welfare and the crucible of its successes and its supposed pathologies. But in some ways that act of removal and distancing is the most important thing she examines: physical dissociation and distanciation from old flows of sympathy and resources provide Fennell’s informants with their most pointed understandings of the new housing as well as their most telling insights into the old. They talk not only about what they have lost, but at the same time also reflect on the social life that fills—or fails to—the spaces they now occupy. Fennell’s great achievement rests on her ability to capture those critiques of the new housing not as a nostalgia for the old—that kind of thing is the preserve of the social scientists and the museum-advocates in her narrative—but rather as a negotiation of the difference between sympathetic attachments and abstract, sentimentalized obligations to anonymous others. This negotiation between past and future, and reconfiguration of sympathy that it entails, is what grants her ethnography its point. In some respects, since this is an ethnography of post-reform housing, it is an ethnography of what Sarah Franklin (2013) has called in a different context “the after.” For Franklin and, implicitly, for Fennell, coming ethnographically after some thing that is in the process of being figured as an event (after reform here, after IVF for Franklin) necessarily involves a reflective process of historical comparison and moral contrast, for the ethnographer and her informants alike. Such reflection, I would argue, is always culturally richer, and ethnographically more revealing, than an account of the material effects of a technique or the costs and benefits of a political reform alone.

A kind of physics of life that operates within and through material infrastructures, and a complex moral process of reflection and understanding, are both also integral to Kalinda Vora’s critical reading of outsourcing, transnational surrogacy, and affective labor in globalized India. “Strange affinities,” she writes, bind the work of conducting customer service or back-office IT work in India for American businesses and customers, to the biological labor of bearing babies there for foreigners and non-resident Indians to take “home” to the West (p. 19). In both cases, according to Vora, “vital energy” is depleted in one place to provide critical “life support” to plans and projects unspooling elsewhere. She examines one side of these unequal exchanges only, focusing on the training, self-fashioning, and physical labor of birth demanded of and borne by bodies in India. Still, the transmission of vital energy, its reciprocal accumulation and depletion in different locations, provides her key analytic metaphor (p. 13), and her use of literary fiction and sociological vignettes allows her to juxtapose images of high-flying corporate elites and everyday American (debt-fueled) consumption practices against the straitened lives and yet equally vast imaginative horizons of service workers in India.

Vora’s analysis in terms of “vital energy” is given particularly force because of her choice to set labor of a very literally embodied sort—the biological labor of pregnancy, “commissioned” by intending parents from far away and compensated by a flat fee—alongside capital flows that are easier to mistake as simply financial and immaterial. Her comparison returns us sharply to the biological substance or embodied materiality of all labor (she builds especially on A. Aneesh’s important account of “virtual migration” as a labor-regime). To have critical purchase, however, beyond the argument that Indians are unfairly paid less for comparable work than people elsewhere might be, the comparison needs to pushed further than Vora takes it, to highlight the moral work at stake here—the work of comparison and judgment—which generates values that legitimate and license transfers of energy. Such values are integral to the cultural production that matters to her, in that they give some people free rein to move and to act while binding others in place and being, and allow both (and others) to reflect on their stations in life. Fortunately, materials exist in Vora’s ethnographic chapter on a surrogacy clinic in Delhi, where Indian surrogates interact with both biotechnologies and “commissioning parents,” that capture just such acts of reflective and reflexive comparison.

Vora introduces us to the surrogates’ own moral aspirations and understandings of the transfer they are engaged in, and with this introduces a critical contrast that buttresses her critique of transnational biocapital as an unequal exchange of vital energy. The surrogates, mostly recruited from rural villages, are shown to hope for and even plan for long-lasting exchanges with their “commissioning parents” (as the clinic calls the other parties to this labor relation). They model their work of surrogacy and the relations they hope to sustain with the commissioning parents on patron-client relationships with which they are familiar from their own quotidian lives of labor and subordination (pp. 130, 139). Transactions of a durability and quality that would sustain any such (still exploitative) moral economy of long-term relations between parents and surrogates are of course barred in advance by the contracts the surrogates sign and by the organization of the industry in which they perform their biological labor. Moreover, it is only a grim reminder of the legitimation work of globalization that the clinic where Vora worked encouraged the “commissioning parents” to think of the money they paid to their surrogates as charitable donations providing salvation from poverty, and even talked of providing the surrogate mothers with training in managing this payment as a kind of capital extracted from a gift-exchange, rather than a wage (see Coutin, Maurer, and Yngvesson 2002). Vora’s important and surprising observation is that clientage and patronage are real moral possibilities for the surrogates, albeit in ways that are systematically obscured from the commissioning parents. When they imagine long-term relations of clientage, these women also make explicit something that is equally present in the rest of Vora’s material: a yearning for some relational return on the work which consumes vital energy. An ethical response to these yearnings for socially-thicker relations might involve explicitly cultivating patronage roles for commissioning parents, insofar as such roles would demand mutual engagement by both commissioning parents and surrogates with the fact of material differences between them. Patronage, on these terms, could be a distinct and novel site of moral work and even offer terms for the reconstruction of bioethics beyond the contractual and the transactional.

In this regard, one might also note that the work of the surrogates is not only embodied biological labor but is itself enabled by a technological ensemble that is itself the subject of, and in part constituted by, intense and highly professionalized moral debate. These technologies are not just material, reproductive ones: they are also moral technologies. The cultivation of novel relations, interests, and aspirations through their deployment is a part of their very technical efficacy, for those who use them and those who are used by them—even when the realization of those relations may be otherwise blocked or barred. Rather than just a materialist reading of how they transfer “vital energy,” then, such technologies may require a different kind of critique, one that puts the conditions they materially instaurate  under the description of distinct and specific moral vocabularies. The point is general, and applies to the communications technologies of outsourcing as well as the reproductive technology of IVF, but it is perfectly exemplified by the way the moral imagination of the surrogates themselves, with their unsentimental understanding of patronage, allows us to consider moral possibilities that are opened by, but not reducible to, the configuration of the technology of IVF and its material and legal conditions.

Bennett’s book on dignity as way of figuring the human being, and its protection, since World War II, provides an extended study of just such a process of putting material and technical realities under a new description in order to create conditions for acting upon them. He examines processes of “articulating a logic of governance and care that could subsequently be turned into [the] infrastructures and practices” of humanitarian intervention and bioethical regulation (p. 8). Importantly, for him the “figuration” of human dignity in the course of defining distinct institutional and practical aims is what comes first, rather than a history of the concept or an account of its practical successes and failures. Thus, he examines throughout his book the “reflective practices undertaken by concerned actors to give articulation to what human dignity means, signifies, and requires” (p. 276).

Much of this is a story of micropolitical negotiations, and of cautious delimitations of legal and political authority. If dignity has won a central place in normative philosophy, Bennett shows just how far it remains from being the universal institutional principle that its advocates claim for it (and neither he nor I are entirely convinced by those claims). But that distance between the articulation of a norm, its immediate conditions, and its potential realization is in fact the point: as an “event in the history of truth and power” dignity is worth studying anthropologically not because it allows us to answer material questions of justice or inclusion, but precisely because it offers a moral principle, an object of ratiocination rather than rationalization, around which a surprising array of actors and actions have gathered, often in response to modernity’s most terrible extensions of power over life. As Bennett argues in conclusion, “if talk of human dignity is not identical to the real-world apparatuses that have developed in connection to that talk, one needs to take care not to disregard such talk as utopian” (p. 284).

In Bennett’s terms, the task is not to describe epochal shifts in the bases of truth or power in the modern West, or to identify the origins and trajectory of an “age” of dignity. Rather, Bennett shows us dignity as a concept in formation in response to perceived breakdowns in care for human beings and their life, in the wake of and in response to state violence, secularism, or biotechnologies. This focus on breakdown and remediation is what makes his book seem relevant to the vastly different projects and concerns of Fennell and Vora. In both of those works, too, a breakdown is at stake, a failure to sustain life materially—whether because of the neglect and decay of public housing, or because of global inequalities that justify lower compensation for equivalent labor to some kinds of workers—and ethnographer and subjects alike find themselves dealing with the consequences of what only belatedly and through reflection emerge as critical events with significant moral consequences.

All three of these writers seek to provide the basis for a critical reconstruction of values and mutual obligations in the present. Fennell and Vora turn explicitly to the recent materialisms of affect, infrastructure, and biological life to do so. This is very different from the analysis of reason that Bennett undertakes. The first two projects both build upon broad critical challenges to liberal fictions such as “equality” that have long been pursued by materialisms of various stripes. Both working in contexts that have already been overwritten by ideological (contractual or constitutional) claims of equality, their critical labor brings material structures of inequality into view. Bennett turns the lens around, to see how a liberal fiction of universal dignity retains its form as a “constitutional object” in very different projects of institutionalization. The questions that impose themselves in the context of this reading, however, are these: is Bennett only studying a binding abstraction, a discourse, a figuration (as he explicitly says he is); and does this necessarily conflict with a more “materialist” attention to how that discourse is assembled into a larger, more besetting reality, or with a subsequent account of the unanticipated possibilities of action and relation that the new material configuration allows?

Of course, these alternatives are already unduly polarized. But sometimes an overstated dualism is necessary to clarify the shape and limits of an overweening monism. While “materiality” is certainly one way of designating historical processes, and thinking about the forcefulness of bodies and physical energy within them, it is important to remember that as a critical term, a point of intervention which justifies a certain way of organizing data, it has more than one genealogy and meaning. Not so long ago, in a very different critical moment, materiality itself designated the starting point of an uncontrollable proliferation of meaning, while also being a way of shifting the ground under other critical accounts of fixity and certainty. The literary-critical practice of deconstruction once situated “the materiality of the letter” as a marker of the final impossibility of fixing sign to signified, of sense to substance; in this regard, Mark Greif (2015) has recently noted how important it is to recall that deconstruction was itself part of a long reaction against reparative attempts to secure some essence for “Man,” some kernel of life and reason that would not be corrigible under the impact of overawing technical and political forces. New materialisms gain many of their important insights from this lineage in which deconstruction stands at the branching point of, precisely, a newly materialist challenge to technical determination and fixity. They too use materiality to mark the starting point for a proliferation of possibility, and make—like the whole philosophical and political movement of which deconstruction was a part—a virtue of indeterminacy and anti-essentialism. In this earlier moment, however, Stanley Cavell asked his critical colleagues to reconsider this move of playing indeterminacy against determination. If indeterminacy promised to free readers from illusions of essential meaning and humanistic finality, Cavell noted, we might first wish to be sure that the politics of this promise were “based on a true knowledge of what our illusions are” (Cavell 1982: 178).

Our illusions today have little to do with the essential qualities of “Man” or even of some group of people—against which indeterminacy would be a useful weapon—and even less to do with formal promises of liberal equality, in which case another materialism would be just the critical tool we might need. What illusions we have, I would wager, have to do with the potential and power of life itself (or sympathy, or affect—whatever it is, it is bodily and non-intellectual) to transform given conditions. Such potentials are said to emerge from and repair the material fixity of besetting material institutions and infrastructures. But Fennell, Vora, and Bennett indicate, by contrast, that the really significant unknown, one ever-obscured by false confidence in our knowledge equipment, is about what differently located and constituted persons actually understand to be the substance of their happiness, and how they orient their action toward that goal within and through material and technical conditions (“the substance of their happiness,” remember, is what Malinowski said the true object of ethnography ought to be). The people at issue in any given ethnography these days might include theologians, or defenders of universal human rights, or subalterns in the contemporary empire of science and technology, or the subjects of neoliberal programs of control. But what remains important is that their self-understandings are responsive to existing moral accounts of the relations that are possible, desirable, and materially sustainable for the kind of person they happen to be in the world in which they live. This self-understanding is built up over time through negotiations with the material realities of life and the judgments and assessments of others, and the moral accounts on which such people draw are in turn always under revision, or subject or repudiation. But figures of justice, morality, and solidarity—which these ethnographies show us are indeed given point and purpose by material experiences and structures of exploitation—do not stand opposed to materiality, or as the exhausted alternative to potential, but rather are the very resources with which persons can arrive at some common understanding, and set to work anew on the material conditions they inevitably share.


Leo Coleman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York. His book A Moral Technology: Electrification as Political Ritual in New Delhi is forthcoming from Cornell University Press.



Aneesh, A. 2006. Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cavell, Stanley. 1982. Politics as Opposed to What? Critical Inquiry 9(1): 157-178.

Coutin, Susan, Bill Maurer, and Barbara Yngvesson. 2002. In the Mirror: The Legitimation Work of Globalization. Law and Social Inquiry 27(4): 801-843.

Dumit, Joseph. 2012. Prescription Maximization and The Accumulation of Surplus Health in the Pharmaceutical Industry: The Biomarx Experiment. In Lively Capital: Biotechnology, Ethics, and Governance in Global Markets. Kaushik Sunder Rajan, ed. Pp. 45-92. Durham: Duke University Press.

Franklin, Sarah. 2013. Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship. Durham: Duke University Press.

Greif, Mark. 2015. The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1977. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sunder Rajan, Kaushik. 2015. Courting Innovation: The Constitution(s) of Indian Biomedicine. In Science and Democracy: Making Knowledge and Making Power in the Biosciences and Beyond. Stephen Hilgartner, Clark A. Miller, and Rob Hagendijk, eds. Pp. 56-73. New York: Routledge.

Biehl, Joao. 2007. Will to Life: AIDS Therapies and the Politics of Survival. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Von Schnitzler, Antina. 2013. Traveling Technologies: Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa. Cultural Anthropology 28(4): 670-693.

Rees, Tobias. 2014. Humanity/Plan; or, On the “Stateless” Today (Also Being an Anthropology of Global Health). Cultural Anthropology 29(3): 457–478.

“Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” and Donald Trump by Veronica Davidov

16 Janvier 2017 - 12:00pm

Shortly after the election, I taught “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” to my Anthropological Theory class, as I always do, at that point in the semester. By then we had covered “old ideas” – anthropologists who saw societies as bodies that successfully regulated themselves into homeostasis, cultures as cauldrons that take all that is natural and transform it into all that is social. Then, in the timeline of the history of anthropological thought, we consider the idea of culture as a manuscript, a palimpsest of layered stories, endlessly rich in meaning – stories that work both like horcruxes, where the soul of the culture is encoded, and as mirrors, reflecting how life is lived back to the ones that live it.

“The Balinese Cockfight” is, as every anthropologist knows, a classic article written in 1972 by Clifford Geertz, who observed cockfighting during his fieldwork in Indonesia. The cockfights are illegal but widespread, with cocks – roosters – serving as proxies for powerful men and their status competition. Geertz wrote that “the cockfight is the story the Balinese tell themselves about themselves.” When I teach this article, I always start the class by saying out loud what I’ve learned students are wondering and giggling about – I tell them, “yes, the whole article is basically one protracted dirty joke. Yes, he writes about cocks exactly for the reason you think. He even notes that the wordplay where a cock is both a rooster and a penis exists in Balinese just as it does in English.”

Intellectuals have an interesting critical relationship with archetypes, especially when they appear as instances of synecdoche – they are such concentrated semiotic clusters that when they are intentionally deployed in fiction, we are taught to read them as allegory. When an archetype is virtually merged with that which it signifies, to the point of word slippage around a homonym, we have critical skills training to acknowledge that a point is being made, and symbolically exaggerated, for effect. I am afraid that critical perspective, where our eye is trained to see exaggeration for symbolic purpose, spills over into “reading” (the way Geertz, who thought of culture as a manuscript that had to be “read”) real culture, real life – when the cesspool from which the ugliest archetypal values arise is rendered legible and transparent, we don’t register that it’s not exaggerated representation for effect, that it’s not a literary device.

If the narrative of this election were written as a short story, with actual events and quotes worked into the plot, an English class somewhere would analyze it as a feminist commentary – where the sexism of mainstream society is made visible through ongoing instances of explicit phallocentrism. They would write five-paragraph essays and, as the three examples, required by the five-paragraph essay format, they would point to Trump bragging about the size of his penis, the accusation so many women, myself included, experienced that we were voting “with our vaginas,” and the fact that at the last, crucial moment before the election, it was Anthony Weiner’s, pardon my technical term, dick pics, that triggered Comey’s announcement about the re-opening of the investigation. The man could not have been more appropriately named if we were in a medieval morality play (and at times it felt like we were). They would write in the conclusion that through these explicit, and perhaps hyperbolic examples, the author aims to make visible the underlying sexism of our political discourse and praxis.

Except this is not a short story. This is not hyperbole. This is what actually happened in this election. Each of those three examples is real – it does not “stand” for anything, it *is* – we simply just experienced an election where the sexist and literally phallocentric subtext of American politics finally manifested as text, with Jungian synchronicity providing a man named Weiner as the proximate trigger for the final denouement of the character trashing of Hillary Clinton. The cocks are both symbolic and real. This election is the story America told itself about itself.

Ironically, given my application here, Geertz’s article has been critiqued, for example by William Roseberry in his article “Balinese Cockfights and the Seduction of Anthropology” for its interpretive neglect of the role of women in his story about the Balinese society. The women are there, in his footnotes (and in the traditional markets appended to the cockfights), but their omission itself is obfuscated, as Geertz’s famous generalization jumps scale to a universalizing scope. A story that the Balinese men tell themselves about themselves becomes the story of and by “the Balinese” in general. In our election, the woman made it into the competition ring, and yet the interpretive frameworks that I see circulating are already de-centering gender, instead centering the issue of the working class, represented in the media through figures located in domains that are usually gendered as “male” – automotive workers, coal miners. So, the election then becomes not just a story America told itself about itself – but also a story about how America tells itself stories about itself, which lenses it reaches for, which interpretive framework it relegates to the footnotes.

In another classic essay, “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” Claude Levi-Strauss explores the power resultant from the merging of a substance and a symbol. In ritualistic moments of such synthesis, magical power can be deployed. One could write a separate essay on Trump’s occult online supporters who believe that “meme magic” got him elected, or on Marina Abramovic’s “spirit cooking” art project that, due to the public’s inability to differentiate between literal vs. metaphorical framing, precipitated Pizzagate and a widespread belief that the DNC was involved in Satanic dinners, and that Hillary Clinton ran a child pornography ring, as hyperbolic apex moments of the symbolic wars that constituted this election. But it also behooves us to think about the consequences in the material reality of such alignment between substance and symbol, cock and cock, man and ideology, Trump and the patriarchy. The effectiveness of symbols is not only for the kind of shamanic healing Levi-Strauss describes – it is also for undoing the material infrastructure and fabric of reality, particularly its fraught and contested patches. Americans told this story to themselves about themselves – but suddenly it is no longer a story. On the second day of Congress reconvening, two weeks out from the inauguration, Republican lawmakers have already initiated a push to defund Planned Parenthood. Women’s body sovereignty is under increased threat in a number of states. State Department employees are fearful that they are being targeted for work on gender related staffing, programming, and funding. “Grab’em by the pussy” T-shirts are available from online retailers in a number of designs and colors. Just like in the Balinese cockfight, symbolic, or at least proxy fighting, has real-world consequences in terms of financial stakes and recognition of status. The election has illuminated our cultural pecking order. A man who admits to and brags about sexual assault is about to be inaugurated instead of a woman widely considered the most qualified presidential candidate in history. Now that the symbolic hierarchy has been re-affirmed in the arena, the material, legal, epistemological consequences follow, both as a massive attack on women’s rights, and the obscuring of gender as an analytical framework in explanatory discourses about an election characterized by misogyny more than anything else.



Geertz, Clifford. “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” Daedalus (1972): 1-37.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural anthropology. Vol. 1. Basic Books, 1963.

Roseberry, William. “Balinese cockfights and the seduction of anthropology.” Social Research (1982): 1013-1028.


Dr. Veronica Davidov is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Monmouth University. Her research focuses on human-nature relations, with a specific emphasis on how natural resources are constructed and contested. She has conducted fieldwork in Ecuador and Northern Russia. She co-edits the journal Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, and co-directs the Ecology and Culture University Seminar at Columbia University.

Book Forum –– Nancy Rose Hunt’s A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo by Todd Meyers

6 Janvier 2017 - 12:00pm


When Nancy Rose Hunt suggests that her book “joins the ferment” of colonial aggressions and uncertainties “while taking up harm and pleasure in a shrunken colonial milieu and in postcolonial historiography too” (4), an uninitiated reader might mistake Hunt’s appraisal of her project as attempting the impossible labor of largeness of scope and precision of subject. After spending time with A Nervous State:Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Duke University Press, 2016), it becomes obvious that Hunt’s words verge on understatement. A Nervous State weaves the medical and administrative anxieties of infertility through violences and joys of life (lives worn thin, lives rich and dense) through songs and words, as a pursuit of futures.  Hunt’s archive is immense, and she places it on offer in writing both lyrical and complex. It’s no wonder that the book was awarded the 2016 Martin A. Klein Book Prize in African History from the American Historical Association. The commentaries that follow give diverse readings of Hunt’s remarkable book. We hope you enjoy.


Beyond Catastrophe: The Pasts and Futures of Kinship in Colonial Congo
Jessica Robbins-Ruszkowski
Wayne State University

Tensions of Empire Redux?
Richard Keller and Emer Lucey
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Music and Infertility in the Nervous State
Joe Trapido
School of Oriental and African Studies

Enclaves and States in (Post)colonial Congo: Spatial Logics and Epidemiological Metaphors
Joshua Walker
Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER)

Scholarly Synaesthesia
Lys Alcayna-Stevens
Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, Collège de France


A Reply

Nancy Rose Hunt
University of Florida


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Web Roundup: Moving forward in the face of uncertainty and debatable facts by Jane Roberts

2 Janvier 2017 - 1:07am

And so ends 2016 – a year many have regarded as pretty topsy-turvy and trying at times. The focus of this month’s web roundup relates to how we operate when faced with uncertainty. The last twelve months have certainly shed light on how it is within our nature to crave and create structure and meaning for ourselves, and what happens when we are confronted with disruptions to our sense of what is fact, what is a result of our own belief systems, and where the two intersect.

One fact that we can all agree on is that we now live in a time of unprecedented access to information, with seemingly limitless ways to find out what we want to hear, precisely when we want to hear it. This article addresses the question of why so many are afraid of so much, with the authors suggesting that fears themselves create a new risk for our health and well-being that need to be addressed. Perhaps when it comes to anxiety in relation to the unknown, it is sometimes better for us to be pessimistic from the start rather than suddenly thrown into the realm of uncertainty. The illusion of hope is more anxiety-inducing that the certainty of failure, and sometimes we are more adversely affected by not knowing if a result is going to be positive or negative than we are by expecting a negative result, as suggested here. Misperceiving certain risks may actually be more significant, and hazardous, than any one individual risk, however this is very much culturally based.

With risk comes uncertainty, something that can be seen in the proliferation of stories on the web related to how we arrive at our beliefs. In social psychology, there is the idea that the more uncertainty that exists in a person, the more a space is created for influence. There has been a lot of talk in the last few months about truth, fact, and the consequences of having so much information available to us. Psychological mechanisms such as confirmation bias, in which we seek to confirm or validate what we already know, are one reason the notion of “echo chambers” have taken hold in explaining the increasing polarization taking shape on a global scale. It is our own relationship to the unknown that steers how and what we choose to believe, something taken up in an interview with Jerome Ravetz, a “pioneer of post-normal science and a leading advocate of citizen science” discussing why it might be time to move beyond the doctrine of scientific certainty. The idea of democratizing science in an age of uncertainty positions specialized expert knowledge as not always being adequate to solve problems with multiple solutions. Whether it is lay knowledge, leaked documents, or other non-traditional sources of information, the extended peer community, or “citizen scientists” are crucial to emerging debates.

Addressing the question of scientific certainty and fact is no doubt central to the times we’re living in, and this growing wariness/skepticism around the idea of expert knowledge contributes to an unsettling sense of not knowing where to turn for the facts, and indeed what exactly constitutes a fact in the first place. This level of uncertainty fuels the spread of fake news (another talking point of 2016) as well as a lack of trust toward previously “established” sources of credible information (even scientific joke papers, once a lighthearted and funny addition to some peer reviewed journal publication years are now having a moment of reflection regarding how funny such pieces are in an age when just about anything can be adopted and perpetuated as factual ). The importance of lay knowledge in contributing to advances in, for example, service user led mental health movements has been a great boon to the decreasing stigma surrounding mental illness. But what about when competing, often contrary, lay knowledges drive the debates, as with climate change or links between vaccines and Autism. Our beliefs shape the core of our identity (one reason why its so hard to change someone else’s political beliefs, for example) leading any questioning to feel like a personal attack for many. This article in Nature profiles Hans Rosling in his quest to dispel outdated beliefs. He argues that experts can’t seek to solve major challenges if they are not operating on facts, however erasing long held beliefs and preconceived ideas is a challenge in and of itself. Facts, uncertainty, and belief are sure to be at the center of more and more discussion and debates in the social science in the years ahead, as social media becomes even more prevalent, and mechanisms for communication more sophisticated.

This post began with mention of the anxiety stemming from not knowing who or what to believe. Perhaps one small way to help alleviate this is in the form of a reminder of ways in which we are all connected. I didn’t want to end 2016 on a note of uncertainty, so I encourage you to have a look at this very cool website Radio Garden which allows you to listen to radio stations from even the most remote corners of the world.. Not directly related to anything else in this post, but perhaps a reminder of both the vastness and smallness of this world we share, and a reminder that amidst all of the uncertainty and questioning, we can still reflect on the beauty of human communication across borders.

Best wishes for a happy 2017.

In the Journals – December 2016, Part II by Anna Zogas

31 Décembre 2016 - 1:42am

Here is the second part of our article roundup for December (find the first set of articles here). Happy reading, and happy new year!

New Genetics and Society

Redrawing the boundary of medical expertise: medically assisted reproduction and the debate on Italian bioconstitutionalism
Volha Parfenchyk

In 2004, the Italian Parliament passed a controversial law on medically assisted reproduction (Law 40/2004). The Law obliged clinicians to create a maximum of three embryos during one in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle and transfer them simultaneously into the patient’s uterus. With this “three embryo” standard, the Parliament sought to secure the realization of rights of IVF embryos. Drawing on the concepts of boundary-work and bioconstitutionalism, this article explores the role that the constitutional obligations of the Italian State towards its citizens, including IVF embryos as its new “citizen subjects,” played in how it envisaged and demarcated the professional boundaries of medical expertise. It argues that the latter depended upon how it balanced its commitments to protect the rights of IVF embryos and those of adult citizens. As such, the demarcation of the jurisdictional boundaries of medical expertise, and the definition of constitutional rights, formed two sides of the same governing project.

Traveling questions: uncertainty and nonknowledge as vehicles of translation in genetic research participation
Klaus Hoeyer

In this paper, I argue that uncertainty and nonknowledge, and not just research results, can be important vehicles of translation through which genetic research participation comes to affect the lives of research participants. Based on interviews with participants in a genetic research project, I outline epistemic, emotional, relational and moral implications of research participation. Many of them resemble what the literature has described as the social implications of genetic counseling, but here they stem from interaction with knowledge-in-the-making or what I simply call nonknowledge. While policies aimed at stimulating translation from bench to bedside tend to build on the assumption that research only works when knowledge translates into technological ability and creates utility, I suggest acknowledging that research has implications long before any clinical applications are at hand. Research questions, and not just results, may serve as a generative form of knowledge that can travel as fast as any answer.

Voluntary DNA-based information exchange and contact services following donor conception: an analysis of service users’ needs
Marilyn Crawshaw, Lucy Frith, Olga van den Akker & Eric Blyth

Medical science has enabled the creation of families through the use of donor conception but some lifelong policy and practice implications are only recently being recognized. Research and practice have shown that donor conception can, for some, carry substantial long-term consequences. In this paper we present findings from a questionnaire-based study that sought to shed light on donor-conceived adults’ and gamete donors’ views on service and support needs when searching for genetic relatives with the aid of DNA testing. The findings demonstrate the complexity and sensitivity of providing services in this newly emerging area of need. Such provision requires collaboration between very different disciplines and agencies (scientific and psychosocial), introduces the potential for blurring of lines of accountability and responsibility, and highlights the challenges of identifying appropriate funding streams. In addition, the findings demonstrate the opportunities and limitations afforded by the use of DNA in identifying unknown genetic relatives.

In search of lost time: age and the promise of induced pluripotent stem cell models of the brain
Richard Milne

This paper explores the promise of induced pluripotent stem cells as a model system for the study of neurodegenerative diseases of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases of the aging brain. Research in these areas, as in neuroscience more broadly, has struggled with the imperfect mapping between human and animal brains. The paper argues that the contemporary promise of induced pluripotent stem cells for research is established through their potential to resolve problems of translation, bridging laboratory and clinical contexts by acting as a model of “real” patient bodies. However, the paper shows how this promise is contested and renewed through a rearticulation of the relationship between neurodegeneration, aging and the qualities of “young” and “aged” bodies. This not only results in the introduction of new qualities and attributes to the model system, but also a re-imagining of how aging features within both late and early-onset neurological diseases.

Social Science & Medicine 

Social media as a space for support: Young adults’ perspectives on producing and consuming user-generated content about diabetes and mental health (open access) 
Gillian Fergie, Kate Hunt, Shona Hilton 

Social media offer opportunities to both produce and consume content related to health experiences. However, people’s social media practices are likely to be influenced by a range of individual, social and environmental factors. The aim of this qualitative study was to explore how engagement with user-generated content can support people with long-term health conditions, and what limits users’ adoption of these technologies in the everyday experience of their health condition. Forty semi-structured interviews were conducted with young adults, aged between 18 and 30 years, with experience of diabetes or a common mental health disorder (CMHD). We found that the online activities of these young adults were diverse; they ranged from regular production and consumption (‘prosumption’) of health-related user-generated content to no engagement with such content. Our analysis suggested three main types of users: ‘prosumers’; ‘tacit consumers’ and ‘non-engagers’. A key determinant of participants’ engagement with resources related to diabetes and CMHDs in the online environment was their offline experiences of support. Barriers to young adults’ participation in online interaction, and sharing of content related to their health experiences, included concerns about compromising their presentation of identity and adherence to conventions about what content is most appropriate for specific social media spaces. Based on our analysis, we suggest that social media do not provide an unproblematic environment for engagement with health content and the generation of supportive networks. Rather, producing and consuming user-generated content is an activity embedded within individuals’ specific health experiences and is impacted by offline contexts, as well as their daily engagement with, and expectations, of different social media platforms.

Social networks, social participation, and health among youth living in extreme poverty in rural Malawi
Amelia Rock, Clare Barrington, Sara Abdoulayib, Maxton Tsoka, Peter Mvula, Sudhanshu Handa

Extensive research documents that social network characteristics affect health, but knowledge of peer networks of youth in Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa is limited. We examine the networks and social participation of youth living in extreme poverty in rural Malawi, using in-depth interviews with 32 youth and caregivers. We describe youth’s peer networks and assess how gender and the context of extreme poverty influence their networks and participation, and how their networks influence health. In-school youth had larger, more interactive, and more supportive networks than out-of-school youth, and girls described less social participation and more isolation than boys. Youth exchanged social support and influence within their networks that helped cope with poverty-induced stress and sadness, and encouraged protective sexual health practices. However, poverty hampered their involvement in school, religious schools, and community organizations, directly by denying them required material means, and indirectly by reducing time and emotional resources and creating shame and stigma. Poverty alleviation policy holds promise for improving youth’s social wellbeing and mental and physical health by increasing their opportunities to form networks, receive social support, and experience positive influence.

The Quality and Outcomes Framework: Body commodification in UK general practice
Armando H. Norman, Andrew J. Russell, Claudia Merli

The UK’s Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) is the largest pay-for-performance scheme in the world. This ethnographic study explored how QOF’s monetary logic influences the approach to healthcare in UK general practice. From August 2013 to April 2014, we researched two UK general practice surgeries and one general practice training programme. These environments provided the opportunity for studying various spaces such as QOF meetings, consultation rooms, QOF recoding sessions, and the collection of computer-screen images depicting how patients’ biomarkers are evaluated and costed through software systems. QOF as a biomedical technology has led to the commodification of patients and their bodies. This complex phenomenon breaks down into three main themes: commodification of patients, QOF as currency, and valuing commodities. Despite the ostensible aim of QOF being to improve healthcare in general practice, it is accompanied by a body commodification process. The interface between patients and care providers has been commodified, with QOF’s pricing mechanism and fragmentation of care provision performing an important role in animating the UK economy.

Everyday tactics in local moral worlds: E-cigarette practices in a working-class area of the UK (open access) 
Frances Thirlway

Research into e-cigarette use has largely focused on their health effects and efficacy for smoking cessation, with little attention given to their potential effect on health inequalities. Drawing on three years of ethnographic research between 2012 and 2015, I investigate the emerging e-cigarette practices of adult smokers and quitters in a working-class area of the UK. I first use de Certeau’s notion of ‘tactics’ to describe the informal economy of local e-cigarette use. Low-priced products were purchased through personal networks and informal sources for financial reasons, but also as a solution to the moral problems of addiction and expenditure on the self, particularly for older smokers. E-cigarette practices were produced in local moral worlds where smoking and cessation had a complex status mediated through norms of age and gender. For younger men, smoking cessation conflicted with an ethic of working-class hedonism but e-cigarette use allowed cessation to be incorporated into male sociality. Continued addiction had moral implications which older men addressed by constructing e-cigarette use as functional rather than pleasurable, drawing on a narrative of family responsibility. The low priority which older women with a relational sense of identity gave to their own health led to a lower tolerance for e-cigarette unreliability. I draw on Kleinman’s local moral worlds to make sense of these findings, arguing that smoking cessation can be a risk to moral identity in violating local norms of age and gender performance. I conclude that e-cigarettes did have some potential to overcome normative barriers to smoking cessation and therefore to reduce health inequalities, at least in relation to male smoking. Further research which attends to local meanings of cessation in relation to age and gender will establish whether e-cigarettes have similar potential elsewhere.

Realities of environmental toxicity and their ramifications for community engagement
Justin T. Clapp, Jody A. Roberts, Britt Dahlberg, Lee Sullivan Berry, Lisa M. Jacobs, Edward A. Emmett, Frances K. Barg

Research on community responses to environmental toxicity has richly described the struggles of citizens to identify unrecognized toxins, collect their own environmental health facts, and use them to lobby authorities for recognition and remediation. Much of this literature is based on an empiricist premise: it is concerned with exploring differences in how laypeople and experts perceive what is presumed to be a singular toxic reality that preexists these varying perspectives. Here, we seek to reexamine this topic by shifting the focus from facts to facticity—that is, by exploring the many types of knowledge that communities develop about toxicity and how these knowledges articulate with the ideas of scientific and governmental authorities about what kinds of information are valid bases for policymaking. In making this shift, we are influenced by work in semiotic anthropology and science and technology studies (STS), which emphasizes that lived experience generates distinct realities rather than different perceptions of the same underlying state. Using this framework, we present an analysis of oral history interviews conducted in 2013–14 in the small American town of Ambler, Pennsylvania. Part of Ambler’s legacy as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century center of asbestos manufacture is that it is home to two massive asbestos-containing waste sites, one of which was being remediated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the time of this study. Our interviews demonstrate that even asbestos, a toxin with a well-established public narrative, is a fundamentally different object for different members of the Ambler community. For many of these individuals, the epistemology and practices of the EPA are incongruent with or tangential to their toxicity-related experiences and their consequent concerns for the future. As such, our findings suggest caution in framing the community engagement efforts of environmental health agencies primarily as facilitations of citizen science; this approach does not acknowledge the multiplicity of toxic realities.

Suffering and medicalization at the end of life: The case of physician-assisted dying (open access)
Hadi Karsoho, Jennifer R. Fishman, David Kenneth Wright, Mary Ellen Macdonald

‘Suffering’ is a central discursive trope for the right-to-die movement. In this article, we ask how proponents of physician-assisted dying (PAD) articulate suffering with the role of medicine at the end of life within the context of a decriminalization and legalization debate. We draw upon empirical data from our study of Carter v. Canada, the landmark court case that decriminalized PAD in Canada in 2015. We conducted in-depth interviews with 42 key participants of the case and collected over 4000 pages of legal documents generated by the case. In our analysis of the data, we show the different ways proponents construct relationships between suffering, mainstream curative medicine, palliative care, and assisted dying. Proponents see curative medicine as complicit in the production of suffering at the end of life; they lament a cultural context wherein life-prolongation is the moral imperative of physicians who are paternalistic and death-denying. Proponents further limit palliative care’s ability to alleviate suffering at the end of life and even go so far as to claim that in some instances, palliative care produces suffering. Proponents’ articulation of suffering with both mainstream medicine and palliative care might suggest an outright rejection of a place for medicine at the end of life. We further find, however, that proponents insist on the involvement of physicians in assisted dying. Proponents emphasize how a request for PAD can set in motion an interactive therapeutic process that alleviates suffering at the end of life. We argue that the proponents’ articulation of suffering with the role of medicine at the end of life should be understood as a discourse through which one configuration of end-of-life care comes to be accepted and another rejected, a discourse that ultimately does not challenge, but makes productive use of the larger framework of the medicalization of dying.

How food insecurity contributes to poor HIV health outcomes: Qualitative evidence from the San Francisco Bay Area
Henry J. Whittle, Kartika Palar, Hilary K. Seligman, Tessa Napoles, Edward A. Frongillo, Sheri D. Weiser

Rationale: Food-insecure people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV) consistently exhibit worse clinical outcomes than their food-secure counterparts. This relationship is mediated in part through non-adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART), sub-optimal engagement in HIV care, and poor mental health. An in-depth understanding of how these pathways operate in resource-rich settings, however, remains elusive.

Objective: We aimed to understand the relationship between food insecurity and HIV health among low-income individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area using qualitative methods.

Methods: Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 34 low-income PLHIV receiving food assistance from a non-profit organization. Interviews explored experiences with food insecurity and its perceived effects on HIV-related health, mental health, and health behaviors including taking ART and attending clinics. Thematic content analysis of transcripts followed an integrative inductive-deductive approach.

Results: Food insecurity was reported to contribute to poor ART adherence and missing scheduled clinic visits through various mechanisms, including exacerbated ART side effects in the absence of food, physical feelings of hunger and fatigue, and HIV stigma at public free-meal sites. Food insecurity led to depressive symptoms among participants by producing physical feelings of hunger, aggravating pre-existing struggles with depression, and nurturing a chronic self-perception of social failure. Participants further explained how food insecurity, depression, and ART non-adherence could reinforce each other in complex interactions.

Conclusion: Our study demonstrates how food insecurity detrimentally shapes HIV health behavior and outcomes through complex and interacting mechanisms, acting via multiple socio-ecological levels of influence in this setting. The findings emphasize the need for broad, multisectoral approaches to tackling food insecurity among urban poor PLHIV in the United States.

Culture: The missing link in health research
M. Kagawa Singer, W. Dressler, S. George, The NIH Expert Panel

Culture is essential for humans to exist. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to identifying how culture works or developing standards to guide the application of this concept in health research. This paper describes a multidisciplinary effort to find consensus on essential elements of a definition of culture to guide researchers in studying how cultural processes influence health and health behaviors. We first highlight the lack of progress made in the health sciences to explain differences between population groups, and then identify 10 key barriers in research impeding progress in more effectively and rapidly realizing equity in health outcomes. Second, we highlight the primarily mono-cultural lens through which health behavior is currently conceptualized, third, we present a consensus definition of culture as an integrating framework, and last, we provide guidelines to more effectively operationalize the concept of culture for health research. We hope this effort will be useful to researchers, reviewers, and funders alike.

First depressed, then discriminated against?
Stijn Baert, Sarah De Visschere, Koen Schoors, Désirée Vandenberghe, Eddy Omey

Each year a substantial share of the European population suffers from major depression. This mental illness may affect individuals’ later life outcomes indirectly by the stigma it inflicts. The present study assesses hiring discrimination based on disclosed depression. To this end, between May 2015 and July 2015, we sent out 288 trios of job applications from fictitious candidates to real vacancies in Belgium. Within each trio, one candidate claimed to have become unemployed only recently, whereas the other two candidates revealed former depression or no reason at all for their unemployment during a full year. Disclosing a year of inactivity due to former depression decreases the probability of getting a job interview invitation by about 34% when compared with candidates who just became unemployed, but the stigma effect of a year of depression is not significantly higher than the stigma effect of a year of unexplained unemployment. In addition, we found that these stigmas of depression and unemployment were driven by our male trios of fictitious candidates. As a consequence, our results are in favour of further research on gender heterogeneity in the stigma of depression and other health impairments.

Standardizing psycho-medical torture during the War on Terror: Why it happened, how it happened, and why it didn’t work
Myles Balfe

After 9/11/2001 the United States launched a global War on Terror. As part of this War, terrorism suspects were detained by the U.S. military and by the C.I.A. It is now widely recognized that the United States tortured a number of these detainees in the context of its ‘enhanced interrogation’ programme. This article examines how and why U.S. organizations developed standards that allowed healthcare professionals to become involved in torture; why the standards developed by U.S. security institutions failed to control the actions of enhanced interrogation personnel on the ground; and what the role of standards were in stopping the enhanced interrogation initiative. The article concludes by discussing the general lessons that the enhanced interrogation programme has for social science research on standards, namely that individuals can experience ambivalence when caught between competing organizational and professional standards and that it might be inherently difficult to successfully enact certain protocols when these relate to deviant or destructive acts.

Increased drug use and the timing of social assistance receipt among people who use illicit drugs
Emanuel Krebs, Linwei Wang, Michelle Olding, Kora DeBeck, Kanna Hayashi, M.-J. Milloy, Evan Wood, Bohdan Nosyk, Lindsey Richardson

Background: The monthly disbursement of social assistance (SA) payments to people who use illicit drugs (PWUD) has been temporally associated with increases in drug-related harm. Yet, whether SA receipt changes drug use intensity compared to levels of use at other times in the month has not been established. We therefore examined this relationship among PWUD in Vancouver, Canada (2005–2013).

Methods: Data were derived from prospective cohorts of HIV-positive and HIV-negative PWUD. Every six months, participants were asked about their illicit drug use during the last 180 days and the past week. We determined whether SA receipt occurred within the assessment’s one-week recall period. We employed generalized estimating equations controlling for confounders to examine the relationship between SA receipt and the change in drug use intensity, defined as a 100% increase in the average times per day a given drug was used in the last week compared to the previous 6 months. We tested the robustness of this relationship by stratifying analyses by whether individuals primarily used stimulants, illicit opioids or engaged in polydrug use and examining the timing of SA receipt relative to date of assessment.

Results: Our study included 2661 individuals (median age 36, 32% female) with 1415 (53.2%) reporting SA receipt occurring within the one-week recall period of the assessment at least once. SA receipt was independently associated with intensified drug use (Adjusted Odds Ratio [AOR]: 1.79; 95% Confidence Interval [CI]: 1.53, 2.09), and remained significant when stratified by primary use of stimulants (AOR: 1.87; 95% CI: 1.54, 2.26), opioids (AOR: 1.96; 95% CI: 1.23, 3.13) and polydrug use (AOR: 1.53; 95% CI: 1.11, 2.10).

Conclusion: We found a temporal association between SA receipt and drug use intensification. While the health and social benefits of SA are significant, these findings suggest that alternative disbursement strategies, such as staggered or smaller and more frequent SA payments may be able to mitigate drug-related harm. Alternatives should be tested rigorously.

Social Studies of Science

A home for science: The life and times of Tropical and Polar field stations (open access) 
P Wenzel Geissler, Ann H Kelly 

A ‘halfway house’ between the generic, purified space of the laboratory and the varied and particular spaces of the field, the field station is a controlled yet uncontained setting from which nature can be accessed and anchored. As living quarters for visiting scientists, field stations are also enmeshed in the routine and rhythms of everyday domestic life, and in longer cycles of habitation, wear, and repair. This introduction considers the empirical and conceptual significance of Polar and Tropical field stations as homes for scientific work and scientific lives. The field station’s extra-territorial yet intimate character affects the credibility and circulation of knowledge along science’s frontiers. The challenge of making a home in the (non-temperate) field and the mundane experiences of expatriation and appropriation establish particular political dynamics of knowledge-making in these locations. They bring into focus the imaginaries of nature and science that drive transnational research and put into relief the aesthetic and affective dimensions of work and life in these distant homes for science. All these themes are pursued and amplified in a different medium by the artists who contributed to our research and are also featured in this special issue.

Habituating field scientists (open access) 
Lys Alcayna-Stevens

This article explores the sensory dimensions of scientific field research in the only region in the world where free-ranging bonobos (Pan paniscus) can be studied in their natural environment; the equatorial rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. If, as sensory anthropologists have argued, the senses are developed, grown and honed in a given cultural and environmental milieu, how is it that field scientists come to dwell among familiarity in a world which is, at first, unfamiliar? This article builds upon previous anthropological and philosophical engagements with habituation that have critically examined primatologists’ attempts to become ‘neutral objects in the environment’ in order to habituate wild apes to their presence. It does so by tracing the somatic modes of attention developed by European and North American researchers as they follow bonobos in these forests. The argument is that as environments, beings and their elements become familiar, they do not become ‘neutral’, but rather, suffused with meaning.

Field station as stage: Re-enacting scientific work and life in Amani, Tanzania (open access)
P Wenzel Geissler, Ann H Kelly

Located high in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains, Amani Hill Station has been a site of progressive scientific endeavours for over a century, pushing the boundaries of botanical, zoological and medical knowledge, and providing expertise for imperial expansion, colonial welfare, national progress and international development efforts. The station’s heyday was from the 1950s to the 1970s, a period of global disease eradication campaigns and the ‘Africanization’ of science. Today, Amani lies in a state of suspended motion. Officially part of a national network of medical research stations, its buildings and vegetation are only minimally maintained, and although some staff report for duty, scientific work has ceased. Neither ruin nor time capsule, Amani has become a quiet site of remains and material traces. This article examines the methodological potentials of re-enactment – on-site performances of past research practices – to engage ethnographically with the distinct temporalities and affective registers of life at the station. The heuristic power of re-enactment resides in its anachronicity, the tensions it introduces between immediacy and theatricality, authenticity and artifice, fidelity and futility. We suggest that re-enacting early post-colonial science as events unfolding in the present disrupts straightforward narratives about the promises and shortfalls of scientific progress, raising provocative questions about the sentiments and stakes of research in ‘the tropics’.

The hospital and the hospital: Infrastructure, human tissue, labour and the scientific production of relational value (open access)
Alice Street

How does science make a home for itself in a public hospital? This article explores how scientists working in ‘resource poor’ contexts of global health negotiate relationships with their hosts, in this case the doctors, nurses and patients who already inhabit a provincial-level hospital. Taking its lead from recent works on science, ethics and development, this article seeks to ‘provincialize the laboratory’ by focussing on the scientific tropics as a space of productive encounter and engagement. A view from the hospital reveals the tenuous process of ‘setting up’ a place for science, in a world that does not immediately recognize its value. The article examines the material exchanges of infrastructure, bodily tissues and labour that enable one young scientist to establish a scientific life for himself. The success of those transactions, it argues, ultimately derives from their objectification of scientific vulnerability and their enactment of relationships of mutual recognition. As opposed to asking how scientific knowledge is produced in the tropics, the view from the hospital challenges us to focus on the establishment of relationships between scientists and their hosts as a productive endeavour in its own right.

Science, ethnography, art (open access) 

Excerpt from the introduction by P Wenzel Geissler and Ann H Kelly: The conference ‘A Home for Science’ from which this special issue originated, and the larger project of which the conference was part, sought to combine anthropological and historical studies of science, and contemporary artists’ engagements with scientific practice, to jointly interrogate scientific work in marginal places (Geissler et al., 2016). Collaborations between ethnography and conceptual art have evolved in recent decades, drawing on older convergences between anthropology and art practice (Gell, 1998). Conceptual artists entered into broadly ethnographic terrains and found inspiration in ethnographic methods, while social and cultural anthropologists and archaeologists pursued experimental methods beyond social scientific realism, gesturing towards or learning from conceptual art – variously contriving social situations and observing their unfolding, studying the social by way of material objects and forms, or emphasizing performative and playful dimensions of fieldwork, seeking poesis and surprise rather than ‘data’ (Marcus, 2010; Pearson, 2004; Schneider and Wright, 2013; Ssorin-Chaikov, 2013) … What follows are samples of the art presented at the ‘A Home for Science’ conference, along with excerpts from the statements that artists made about their work.

In the Journals – December 2016, Part I by Livia Garofalo

29 Décembre 2016 - 11:57pm

Here is the first part of our December article roundup. Three journals have special issues this month (abstracts in the post below):

Enjoy reading (and what’s left of the holidays)!

American Anthropologist

The Contingency of Humanitarianism: Moral Authority in an African HIV Clinic

Betsey Behr Brada

One consequence of the recent expansion of anthropological interest in humanitarianism is the seeming obviousness and conceptual stability of “humanitarianism” itself. In this article, I argue that, rather than being a stable concept and easily recognizable phenomenon, humanitarianism only becomes apparent in relation to other categories. In short, humanitarianism is contingent: it depends on circumstance and varies from one context to another. Furthermore, its perceptibility rests on individuals’ capacity to mobilize categorical similarities and distinctions. One cannot call a thing or person “humanitarian” without denying the humanitarian character of someone or something else. Drawing on research conducted in clinical spaces where Botswana’s national HIV treatment program and private US institutions overlapped, I examine the processes by which individuals claimed people, spaces, and practices as humanitarian, the contrasts they drew to make these claims, and the moral positions they attempted to occupy in the process. More than questions of mere terminology, these processes of categorization and contradistinction serve as crucibles for the larger struggles over sovereignty, inequality, and the legacies of colonialism that haunt US-driven global health interventions.

Scripting Dissent: US Abortion Laws, State Power, and the Politics of Scripted Speech

Mara Buchbinder

Abortion laws offer a point of entry for “the state” to intervene in intimate clinical matters. In this article, I explore the various uses of scripts and scripting in state-mandated abortion counseling following the implementation of North Carolina’s (2011) Woman’s “Right to Know” Act. The law mandates that women receive counseling with specific, state-prescribed information at least 24 hours prior to an abortion. Drawing on interviews with abortion providers in North Carolina, I analyze how the meaning of scripting shifts across different clinical and bureaucratic contexts and show that abortion providers perceived themselves to be scripted by “the state” even though their words were not explicitly chosen by lawmakers. Thus, rather than viewing the law merely as a product of North Carolina legislative activity, I argue that abortion providers also help to create the law, and its social and moral power, by interpreting and enacting it. However, abortion providers also revealed creative strategies for “scripting dissent” from the law—that is, rejecting, challenging, or otherwise subverting the state’s ideological message. This demonstrates that the linguistic force of the script stretches beyond its textual meaning to encompass the way it is performed within a particular context and how it is sometimes used for unexpected ends.

Between Electricity and Spirit: Paranormal Investigation and the Creation of Doubt in England

Michele Hanks

In contemporary England, amateur paranormal investigators actively seek empirical evidence of the paranormal. These investigators are self-fashioned experts who aim to balance scientific and spiritual perspectives in hopes of researching the existence of ghosts from an objective perspective. Despite actively seeking out ghosts and amassing firsthand paranormal experiences, investigators remain deeply doubtful about the nature of their evidence and the existence of the paranormal. Here, I explore the production and experience of doubt by examining paranormal investigators’ struggles to define and quantify the paranormal. Competing ideas about the substance or nature of ghosts lie at the heart of this struggle. Paranormal investigators agree that collecting and analyzing electromagnetic energy offers the most promising pathway for establishing empirical evidence of the paranormal. However, there is analytic uncertainty regarding the meaning of electromagnetic energy: it might indicate a spiritual or natural presence. Here, I argue that these two competing frames of interpretation engender and sustain states of doubt among investigators; however, paradoxically, these very states of doubt allow them to maintain and sustain embodied encounters with the very paranormal forces they doubt.


The hybrid bioeconomy of umbilical cord blood banking: Re-examining the narrative of opposition between public and private services

Christine Hauskeller and Lorenzo Beltrame

Umbilical cord blood (UCB) is an important source for stem cells used in clinical treatments. For this purpose, UCB has to be collected at birth and stored in biobanks. The discourse about UCB biobanking practices commonly holds that it occurs in two opposite economies, the public sector and a competing private one. They correspond with moral economies of gift-giving in a redistributive economy versus private ownership of cord blood in a market economy. Our analysis of UCB banking in Europe shows that this opposition narrative is both empirically and analytically unsatisfactory. Using the analytic concepts of entanglement (Callon) and biomedical platforms (Keating and Cambrosio), we demonstrate how the network of actors, objects, interests and practices in biobanking creates different kinds of value and shared issues across public and private services. Our case study illustrates how the interrelation between technical, ethical, economic and logistical considerations plays out and generates a field of practices where redistributive and market economies coexist, are co-dependent and hybridize each other. The narrative of opposition therefore can inform STS studies regarding the normative values written into the public facing side of biobanking, but bioeconomic analyses benefit from building on concepts that enable the examination of the complex interrelations between the wider network of heterogeneous elements on which UCB banking relies.

How to fix a broken heart: Cardiac disease and the ‘multiverse’ of stem cell research in Canada 

Annette Leibing, Virginie Tournay, Rachel Aisengart Menezes, and Rafaela Zorzanelli

This article focuses on Canadian stem cell researchers working on therapeutic applications of autologous stem cells for heart disease. Building on the concept of ‘multiverse’ – coined by William James and then further developed by Ernst Bloch – we are interested in the simultaneity of the certain and uncertain, sometimes contradictory arguments articulated by these scientists. In the first part of the article we illustrate some of the factors that provide certainty for researchers and clinicians. The second part analyzes the ways in which uncertain elements become integrated into a discourse of certainty. What we would like to show, using the concept of multiverse, is that a relatively new bio-technology such as stem cell treatments generally relies on both certain and uncertain reasoning. However, uncertainty has to give way to a platform of partial certainty, if crucial action is to be taken on issues as diverse as treatments and grant applications. The principle mechanisms we found that can make this kind of transformation possible target future developments (what we call ‘if only arguments’), including past encouraging results in need of further research.

Placental economies: Care, anticipation and vital matters in the placenta stem cell lab in Korea

Jieun Lee

Thinking with the vital materiality of placentas as it is evinced in a placental stem cell research lab in Korea, this article explores the relations and practices of care that are essential to the circulation of biological matters as infrastructure of tissue economies. I attend to the flows of care that sustain tissue economies with the notion of ‘placental economies’. Shifting attention from donor subjects and tissue objects to practices and relations of care as an infrastructure for the circulation of tissues, I explore how the vitality of biological matters is an achievement made and sustained through the relations and practices of care that animate the placenta in different forms. On the basis of an ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Korea, this article focuses on two different forms of care (lab workers’ care of cells, and pregnant women’s care of fetuses) that enable the (re)production and circulation of placenta-derived stem cells possible. I argue that the flows of tissues and vitality are indeed the flows of care, as an anticipatory as well as responsive practices, without which the vitality cannot exist in its current form. Furthermore, I suggest that relations and practices of care are a kind of infrastructure of promissory biotechnological enterprises.

You can go your own way: State regulation of oocyte donation in California and New York 

Erin Heidt-Forsythe

State regulation of oocyte donation in the context of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research has increased since California’s landmark passage of Proposition 71 and the establishment of the first state-funded stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Scholarship has largely focused on California’s regulation of stem cell research as a patchwork of private sector and state regulations, reflecting major debates about the social contract for science. Given California’s political exceptionalism, how does examining alternative state histories, political structures, and institutions at the state level illuminate the ways that bio-innovation is being regulated in a federal regulatory vacuum? Examining state management of oocyte donation in the context of hESC research, this article considers New York and California as comparative sites of stem cell science regulation, which enriches our understanding of how regulation of stem cell science arises out of an engagement with representative politics and the private sector in the United States. Employing a process tracing of policy development in New York and California, this article highlights alternative democratic pathways to the management of oocyte donation in research contexts: given differences in direct democratic action, legislative representation, executive leadership, and publicly funded state stem cell research institutions, distinct regulatory outcomes occur with important bioethical implications for publics and participants in stem cell science at the state level.

Changing cells: An analysis of the concept of plasticity in the context of cellular differentiation

Alison Kraft and Beatrix P. Rubin

This paper analyses the changing conceptualisation of cellular differentiation during the twentieth century. This involved a move away from a view of this process as irreversible to an understanding of it as contingent. We examine the import of this shift for the transformation of stem cell biology, including the therapeutic promise attributed to this field, and how it came to challenge historical conceptions of both the cell and stem cell. We take as our starting point the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine awarded jointly to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. In the view of the Nobel Committee, their work delineates a paradigm shift in the understanding of cellular differentiation, one that incorporates the concept of ‘plasticity’. We explore the emergence, uses and meanings of this concept within this specific biological context, examining and emphasising its role as an epistemological tool. In this setting, ‘plasticity’ was introduced by cell biologist Helen Blau in the course of research undertaken in the 1980s into the genetics of cell differentiation. We argue that Blau’s experimental and theoretical contributions were seminal to a reconceptualisation of this process and provide a crucial link between the work of Gurdon and Yamanaka. Overall, the paper highlights the contested process of conceptual change within the biomedical sciences. It also draws attention to the dynamic and reciprocal relationship between conceptual and technical change, exemplified here in the changing conceptions of cell differentiation following from the analysis of gene expression using new cell fusion and cloning techniques. More broadly, the paper also affords a window onto the shifting priorities, goals and values within late twentieth-century biomedical research.

Body & Society

Special Issue: The New Biologies: Epigenetics, the Microbiome and Immunities

Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History

Hannah Landecker

Beginning in the 1940s, mass production of antibiotics involved the industrial-scale growth of microorganisms to harvest their metabolic products. Unfortunately, the use of antibiotics selects for resistance at answering scale. The turn to the study of antibiotic resistance in microbiology and medicine is examined, focusing on the realization that individual therapies targeted at single pathogens in individual bodies are environmental events affecting bacterial evolution far beyond bodies. In turning to biological manifestations of antibiotic use, sciences fathom material outcomes of their own previous concepts. Archival work with stored soil and clinical samples produces a record described here as ‘the biology of history’: the physical registration of human history in bacterial life. This account thus foregrounds the importance of understanding both the materiality of history and the historicity of matter in theories and concepts of life today.

Epigenetics and Obesity: The Reproduction of Habitus through Intracellular and Social Environments

Megan Warin, Vivienne Moore, Michael Davies, and Stanley Ulijaszek

Bourdieu suggested that the habitus contains the ‘genetic information’ which both allows and disposes successive generations to reproduce the world they inherit from their parents’ generation. While his writings on habitus are concerned with embodied dispositions, biological processes are not a feature of the practical reason of habitus. Recent critiques of the separate worlds of biology and culture, and the rise in epigenetics, provide new opportunities for expanding theoretical concepts like habitus. Using obesity science as a case study we attempt to conceptualise the enfolding of biological and social processes (via a Deleuzian metaphor) to develop a concept of biohabitus – reconfiguring how social and biological environments interact across the life course, and may be transmitted and transformed intergenerationally. In conclusion we suggest that the enfolding and reproduction of social life that Bourdieu articulated as habitus is a useful theoretical frame that can be enhanced to critically develop epigenetic understandings of obesity, and vice versa.

Fetal–Maternal Intra-action: Politics of New Placental Biologies 

Rebecca Scott Yoshizawa

Extensively employed in reproductive science, the term fetal–maternal interface describes how maternal and fetal tissues interact in the womb to produce the transient placenta, purporting a theory of pregnancy where ‘mother’, ‘fetus’, and ‘placenta’ are already-separate entities. However, considerable scientific evidence supports a different theory, which is also elaborated in feminist and new materialist literatures. Informed by interviews with placenta scientists as well as secondary sources on placental immunology and the developmental origins of health and disease, I explore evidence not of interfacing during pregnancy, but of intra-action, or the mutual emergence of entities in simultaneous practices of differentiation and connection. I argue that attending to evidence that can be figured as intra-action enables us to recognize, account for, and attend to diffuse responsibilities for fetal–maternal outcomes that extend beyond mothers to the biosocial milieus of pregnancy. In reimaging the intra-action of placentas, a new understanding of what constitutes a ‘healthy pregnancy’ becomes possible.

The Politics of Immunity: Reading Cohen through Canguilhem and New Materialism

Michelle Jamieson

The issue of what is proper to nature, or life itself, is central to critical accounts of biomedicine and its complex interrelations with social, political and economic forces. These engagements, namely biopolitical accounts of medical practices and ethical-political critiques of biomedical discourse, grapple with the indistinction between the political and biological that biomedicine enacts. Making a significant contribution to both literatures, Ed Cohen’s A Body Worth Defending argues that the emergence of the concept of biological immunity signals the entry of politics into life itself and, as such, constitutes a concrete example of biopolitics. This article examines Cohen’s account of how the political becomes biological, and the view of life it assumes. Seeking to open up the question of biology, it draws on the work of Georges Canguilhem, and New Materialist accounts of matter–meaning entanglement, to offer a reading of knowledge and life, or politics and biology, as ontologically entangled.

Immunity, Biopolitics and Pandemics: Public and Individual Responses to the Threat to Life

Mark Davis, Paul Flowers, Davina Lohm, Emily Waller, and Niamh Stephenson

This article examines discourse on immunity in general public engagements with pandemic influenza in light of critical theory on immuno-politics and bodily integrity. Interview and focus group discussions on influenza with members of the general public reveal that, despite endorsement of government advice on how to avoid infection, influenza is seen as, ultimately, unavoidable. In place of prevention, members of the general public speak of immunity as the means of coping with influenza infection. Such talk on corporeal life under microbial threat is informed by self/not-self, network and ‘choice’ immunity, and therefore makes considerable allowance for cosmopolitan traffic with others, microbes, ‘dirt’ and immune-boosting consumer products. The immuno-political orientation of members of the general public, therefore, appears to trend towards a productive cosmopolitanism that contrasts with more orthodox bioscientific and governmental approaches to pandemic influenza. We reflect on the implications of the immuno-cosmopolitanism of everyday life for the advent of global public health emergency and for biopolitical rule in general.

The MRSA Epidemic and/as Fluid Biopolitics

Joshua I Newman, Rachel Shields, and Christopher M McLeod

This article offers a series of critical theorizations on the biopolitical dimensions of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), with specific attention to what has recently been referred to in the United States as the ‘MRSA Epidemic’. In particular, we reflect on the proliferation of biomedical discourses around the ‘spread’, and the pathogenic potentialities, of community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). We turn to the work of Roberto Esposito and Jean-Luc Nancy to better make sense of how, during this immunological crisis, the individualized fleshy and fluid body is articulated to dimensions of community and corporeal proximity; the body is thus conceived in popular biopolitical framings as a site of transmission, inoculation, and isolation – as a living ecological and pathological vessel. We give emphasis to the spatial relations of flesh, namely in how biomedical ‘experts’ have sought to (bio-)technologize spaces of heightened communal bodily contact (such as playgrounds or gymnasia).

Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

A Transcultural Model of the Centrality of “Thinking a Lot” in Psychopathologies Across the Globe and the Process of Localization: A Cambodian Refugee Example

Devon E. Hinton, David H. Barlow, Ria Reis, and Joop de Jong

We present a general model of why “thinking a lot” is a key presentation of distress in many cultures and examine how “thinking a lot” plays out in the Cambodian cultural context. We argue that the complaint of “thinking a lot” indicates the presence of a certain causal network of psychopathology that is found across cultures, but that this causal network is localized in profound ways. We show, using a Cambodian example, that examining “thinking a lot” in a cultural context is a key way of investigating the local bio-cultural ontology of psychopathology. Among Cambodian refugees, a typical episode of “thinking a lot” begins with ruminative-type negative cognitions, in particular worry and depressive thoughts. Next these negative cognitions may induce mental symptoms (e.g., poor concentration, forgetfulness, and “zoning out”) and somatic symptoms (e.g., migraine headache, migraine-like blurry vision such as scintillating scotomas, dizziness, palpitations). Subsequently the very fact of “thinking a lot” and the induced symptoms may give rise to multiple catastrophic cognitions. Soon, as distress escalates, in a kind of looping, other negative cognitions such as trauma memories may be triggered. All these processes are highly shaped by the Cambodian socio-cultural context. The article shows that Cambodian trauma survivors have a locally specific illness reality that centers on dynamic episodes of “thinking a lot,” or on what might be called the “thinking a lot” causal network.

When Care is a “Systematic Route of Torture”: Conceptualizing the Violence of Medical Negligence in Resource-Poor Settings 

Carina Heckert

Descriptions of patient mistreatment fill ethnographic accounts of healthcare in resource-poor settings. Often, anthropologists point to structural factors and the ways that the global political economy produces substandard care. This approach makes it difficult to hold parties accountable when there is blatant disregard for human life on the part of individuals providing care. In this article, I draw on the illness narrative of Magaly Chacón, the first HIV positive individual in Bolivia to file charges of medical negligence after failing to receive care to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Magaly’s narrative demonstrates how structural conditions are often used to explain away poor patient outcomes, shifting attention away from and normalizing the symbolic violence that also perpetuates substandard care of marginalized patients. I use Magaly’s accusations to interrogate how defining acts of mistreatment as medical negligence can be a productive exercise, even when it is difficult to disentangle structural constraints from blatant acts of negligence. Defining who is negligent in resource-poor settings is not easy, as Magaly’s case demonstrates. However, Magaly’s case also demonstrates that accusations of negligence themselves can demand accountability and force changes within the local structures that contribute to the systematic mistreatment of marginalized patients.

Utilization of Standardized Mental Health Assessments in Anthropological Research: Possibilities and Pitfalls

Emily Mendenhall, Kristin Yarris, and Brandon A. Kohrt

In the past decade anthropologists working the boundary of culture, medicine, and psychiatry have drawn from ethnographic and epidemiological methods to interdigitate data and provide more depth in understanding critical health problems. But rarely do these studies incorporate psychiatric inventories with ethnographic analysis. This article shows how triangulation of research methods strengthens scholars’ ability (1) to draw conclusions from smaller data sets and facilitate comparisons of what suffering means across contexts; (2) to unpack the complexities of ethnographic and narrative data by way of interdigitating narratives with standardized evaluations of psychological distress; and (3) to enhance the translatability of narrative data to interventionists and to make anthropological research more accessible to policymakers. The crux of this argument is based on two discrete case studies, one community sample of Nicaraguan grandmothers in urban Nicaragua, and another clinic-based study of Mexican immigrant women in urban United States, which represent different populations, methodologies, and instruments. Yet, both authors critically examine narrative data and then use the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale to further unpack meaning of psychological suffering by analyzing symptomatology. Such integrative methodologies illustrate how incorporating results from standardized mental health assessments can corroborate meaning-making in anthropology while advancing anthropological contributions to mental health treatment and policy.

Letting the Air Out: Aire as an Empty Signifier in Oaxacan Understandings of Illness

Toomas Gross

“Air (aire, also aigre) in the body” is a frequent explanation of illness according to the traditional medical beliefs in Mexico. Anthropologists have generally scrutinized aire in the context of other common folk illnesses treated by traditional healers (curanderas). However, drawing on my research in the communities of Northern Oaxaca I suggest that aire occupies a more distinct position in the folk medical cosmology than it has usually been credited with. This distinction rests on the notion’s exceptional ambivalence and openness to multiple interpretations. “Air” is recurred to as the cause of illness mainly in situations where every other explanation, either “traditional” or “biomedical,” seems to be inadequate. The physical properties of air—its transparency, invisibility, apparent immateriality, near omnipresence, and virtual “nothingness”—render it a suitable explanation of the last resort. Local understandings of what aire “is” are often vague and elusive, and in many respects the term functions in folk medical discourse as an “empty signifier.”

Emplotting Hikikomori: Japanese Parents’ Narratives of Social Withdrawal

Ellen Rubinstein

Hikikomori, often glossed as “social withdrawal,” emerged as a sociomedical condition among Japanese youth at the end of the twentieth century, and it continues to fascinate and concern the public. Explanatory frameworks for hikikomori abound, with different stakeholders attributing it to individual psychopathology, poor parenting, and/or a lack of social support structures. This article takes an interpretive approach to hikikomori by exploring parents’ narrative constructions of hikikomori children in support group meetings and in-depth interviews. I argue that some parents were able to find hope in hikikomori by ‘emplotting’ their children’s experiences into a larger narrative about onset, withdrawal, and recovery, which helped them remain invested in the present by maintaining a sense of possibility about the future. Contrary to literature that examines hikikomori as an epidemic of isolated individuals, I demonstrate how parents play a key role in hikikomori through meaning-making activities that have the potential to shape their children’s experiences of withdrawal.

The War on Drugs That Wasn’t: Wasted Whiteness, “Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse

Julie Netherland and Helena B. Hansen

The past decade in the U.S. has been marked by a media fascination with the white prescription opioid cum heroin user. In this paper, we contrast media coverage of white non-medical opioid users with that of black and brown heroin users to show how divergent representations lead to different public and policy responses. A content analysis of 100 popular press articles from 2001 and 2011 in which half describe heroin users and half describe prescription opioid users revealed a consistent contrast between criminalized urban black and Latino heroin injectors with sympathetic portrayals of suburban white prescription opioid users. Media coverage of the suburban and rural opioid “epidemic” of the 2000s helped draw a symbolic, and then legal, distinction between (urban) heroin addiction and (suburban and rural) prescription opioid addiction that is reminiscent of the legal distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine of the 1980s and 1990s. This distinction reinforces the racialized deployment of the War on Drugs and is sustained by the lack of explicit discussion of race in the service of “color blind ideology.” We suggest potential correctives to these racially divergent patterns, in the form of socially responsible media practices and of clinical engagement with public policy.

Remembering Collective Violence: Broadening the Notion of Traumatic Memory in Post-Conflict Rehabilitation

Ruth Kevers, Peter Rober, Ilse Derluyn and Lucia De Haene

In the aftermath of war and armed conflict, individuals and communities face the challenge of dealing with recollections of violence and atrocity. This article aims to contribute to a better understanding of processes of remembering and forgetting histories of violence in post-conflict communities and to reflect on related implications for trauma rehabilitation in post-conflict settings. Starting from the observation that memory operates at the core of PTSD symptomatology, we more closely explore how this notion of traumatic memory is conceptualized within PTSD-centered research and interventions. Subsequently, we aim to broaden this understanding of traumatic memory and post-trauma care by connecting to findings from social memory studies and transcultural trauma research. Drawing on an analysis of scholarly literature, this analysis develops into a perspective on memory that moves beyond a symptomatic framing toward an understanding of memory that emphasizes its relational, political, moral, and cultural nature. Post-conflict memory is presented as inextricably embedded in communal relations, involving ongoing trade-offs between individual and collective responses to trauma and a complex negotiation of speech and silence. In a concluding discussion, we develop implications of this broadened understanding for post-conflict trauma-focused rehabilitation.

East Asian Science, Technology, & Society

Population Control and Reproductive Politics in Cold War Asia

Biopolitical Knowledge in the Making: Population Politics and Fertility Studies in Early Cold War Taiwan

Yu-Ling Huang

Like many developing countries in the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan experienced a social process of constructing and controlling population that relied on demography and fertility studies as essential governing tools. This article investigates population politics and biopolitical knowledge production in postwar Taiwan through synthesizing three bodies of literature that have just begun to comment on one another: histories of postwar population control, analyses of the technoscientific turn in Cold War history, and forensics into the production of social-scientific knowledge via science-study approaches. Along with the complexities of Asian biopolitics, three main social elements affecting the production of biopolitical knowledge at the time are discussed: (a) the historical backstage on which the Cold War and the civil war met, (b) the acting group of Taiwanese and US agencies and individuals who took part in the process, and (c) the three types of fertility studies and the data from them that ultimately expanded the focus of the process of population control from the population in general to the reproductive behavior of women. The complexities of Asia biopolitics are also discussed.

Between the West and Asia: “Humanistic” Japanese Family Planning in the Cold War (open access)

Aya Homei

This article studies the formation of Japanese ventures in family planning deployed in various villages in Asia from the 1960s onward in the name of development aid. By critically examining how Asia became the priority area for Japan’s international cooperation in family planning and by analyzing how the adjective humanistic was used to underscore the originality of Japan’s family planning program overseas, the article shows that visions of Japanese actors were directly informed by Japan’s delicate position in Cold War geopolitics, between the imagined West represented by the United States and “underdeveloped” Asia, at a time when Japan was striving to (re)establish its position in world politics and economics. Additionally, by highlighting subjectivities and intra-Asian networks centered on Japanese actors, the article also aims to destabilize the current historiography on population control, which has hitherto focused either on Western actors in the transnational population control movement or on non-Western “acceptors” subjected to the population control programs.


Special Issue: Anthropology and Psychoanalysis

From Filial Piety to Forgiveness: Managing Ambivalent Feelings in a Beijing House-Church

Susanne Bregnbæk

This article is based on fieldwork in a Chinese Protestant house-church in Beijing—more specifically, it focuses on a form of group therapy, which took place in the vicinity of the church. It combines two phenomena usually studied separately, namely the popularity of Chinese underground churches and China’s so-called “psycho-boom.” Drawing on attachment theory, I focus on the psychic conflicts that draw certain people, in this case a young woman, Lin, to this kind of therapeutic/ritual context. Filial piety, the moral value that children should respect and honor their parents, who have sacrificed so much for them, remains a strong social norm in Chinese society. I argue that forbidden feelings such as anger directed at parents found expression in this Chinese house-church. The ritual and therapeutic context can be understood as a cultural defense mechanism, which celebrates an inversion of dominant societal norms.

Silence as a Response to Everyday Violence: Understanding Domination and Distress Through the Lens of Fantasy

Tine M. Gammeltoft

Across the world, existing research indicates that many women respond with silence to marital abuse. This article offers an ethnographic investigation of the social and psychic forces behind Vietnamese women’s silencing of violence and a theoretical exploration of how the psychoanalytic concept of fantasy—understood as unconscious or subconscious mental processes—may contribute to the analysis of everyday violence and psychic distress. Distinguishing between what I term deliberate and subconscious silence, I explore the role that fantasy plays when Vietnamese women silently endure intimate partner violence. Closer ethnographic attention to the fantasy-constructions that sustain day-to-day lives can, I argue, strengthen the capacity of anthropology to comprehend how systems of everyday violence are upheld and rendered socially invisible.

Unthinkable Solitude: Successful Aging in Denmark Through the Lacanian Real

Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen

As states across the world develop strategies for administering their aging populations, different assumptions and anxieties regarding the condition of old age and how they haunt people are disclosed, across national-cultural settings. Within recent years, loneliness has been identified as one of the key threats to the well-being of the elderly in the Danish welfare society, and the tendency to view solitary seniors in terms of “loneliness” and “social isolation”—along with the attempts to reintegrate these solitary seniors into society—reveals how solitude is being tied to detrimental states of existence. Based on an ethnographic fieldwork among healthcare workers and solitary elderly men in the rural area of southern Sealand, Denmark, this article lays out the Danish configuration of what has been called the paradigm of “successful aging.” However, not only is the attention to loneliness among Danish eldercare professionals a sign of an inherent fear; at the same time, I will argue, it reveals an inherent inability to conceptualize “solitude” as other than “loneliness.” By employing the concept of the Real—the enigmatic realm within Lacanian psychoanalysis that represents the limit of language—the aim of this article is to uncover how the current discourse on successful aging renders solitude “unthinkable.”

Ambivalent Attachment — Melancholia and Political Activism in Contemporary Palestine

Lotte Buch Segal

This article argues that over the course of the past three decades a mood change has occurred in terms of how Palestinians relate to the ideal of an independent Palestinian state. During the first Intifada, from 1987 to 1993,1 which constitutes the golden age of Palestinian resistance towards Israel’s occupation, the Palestinian resistance movement was characterized by a passionate belief in the possibility of a revolutionary transformation. Due to the consistent stalemate and even worsening of the conflict that have followed in the wake of the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2003, this passionate belief in the realization of a Palestinian state has been replaced by ambivalence toward that ideal. Based on insights from my intermittent fieldwork with families of Palestinian political prisoners from 2004 to 2011, this article suggests that the contemporary ambivalence surrounding the revolutionary project can be meaningfully analyzed using Freud’s notion of melancholia. In Freud, melancholia accounts for the relation between a feeling of indeterminate loss and ambivalent attachment. The notion of melancholia thereby provides anthropology with a concept that can be used to name and explore the frayed attachment to the ideal of a Palestinian state in the context of an ongoing colonial occupation. The passionate politics of the First Intifada enabled a fusing of Palestinian personhood with the overall political project into a subject characterized by active resistance. In contrast, the ambivalent attachment that marks the link between self and state project in the Palestinian territories after the Second Intifada leads to a mood of melancholia. By analyzing the attachment to the political project as an indeterminate loss in the melancholic’s ego, I argue that the Palestinian political project is part of the self and keeps its adherents in a repetitive temporal fold from which they are unable to escape, because they are obliged and compelled to keep fighting for a state that does not seem to materialize. Conceptually, melancholia has the capacity to elucidate the emotional and deeply intersubjective toll it takes to live and aspire to an ideal that seems further from realization by the hour. 

Public Anxieties and Projective Identification: Therapeutic Encounters Between Danish Clairvoyants and Their Clients

Vibeke Steffen

The capacity to receive occult messages and look into the future is claimed by individuals in most societies and probably always has been. In Denmark, clairvoyance is a popular service offered at the alternative market for counseling and healing. During my fieldwork among Danish spiritualist mediums in 2007–08, I was often puzzled by the way in which clairvoyants and clients seemed to share the same kinds of problems. This observation steered my interests toward understanding how personal sensations and feelings are exchanged in therapeutic encounters and raised questions about who is doing what to whom. Drawing on Jung’s concept of the wounded healer to highlight the clairvoyant’s role as a channel for societal anxieties and Melanie Klein’s concept of projective identification as a framework for understanding the defense mechanisms at stake in object relations, I argue that psychoanalysis may add an important critical dimension to the anthropology of therapeutic encounters.

Psychoanalysis and Ethnography

Douglas Hollan

In this commentary, I discuss some of the theoretical and methodological issues the contributions to this special issue raise collectively, namely: how do we as anthropologists pick and choose among the many diverse psychoanalytic concepts available to us, especially when these concepts may come embedded in very different, and sometimes contradictory, theoretical assumptions about human behavior? Once we find a psychoanalytic concept that is useful for ethnographic work, can we or should we attempt to relate it to more experience near ethnopsychological terms and assumptions, ones that might seem more understandable and intuitive from a local point of view? How intimately should we know people, biographically or developmentally, before we attempt to apply psychoanalytic concepts to their behavior? And, given that George Devereux is cited as one of the inspirations for this special issue, what role can or should an awareness of countertransference play in ethnographic work, and what are the limits, if any, of psychoanalytic interpretation in an ethnographic context?

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 

Embodied narratives of disaster: the expression of bodily experience in Aceh, Indonesia

Annemarie Samuels

The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 caused massive destruction to coastal Aceh, Indonesia, and left countless numbers of people dead or wounded. This article focuses on the embodied narratives of three Acehnese women who survived the disaster and, like many others in Aceh, told their stories ‘through’ their bodies. A detailed ethnographic account of their narratives reveals how the body stretches temporally between the ‘narrated event’ and the ‘narrative event’, both through the representation of the body in narratives and through the embodied performance of narratives. Moving beyond meaning-centred analyses of narratives, I argue that the central accomplishment of these narratives is that they convey poignant bodily experiences to others and thereby create a shared, post-disaster, world. Ultimately, through these embodied narratives of disaster people remake their world, with others, in the wake of its ‘unmaking’.

Necrosociality: isolated death and unclaimed cremains in Japan

Jieun Kim

Inquiring into concerns surrounding death and the afterlife in an underclass enclave in Japan, this article proposes that the politics of survival involves engaging with the enduring relationship between the living and the dead, referred to as ‘necrosociality’. Based on fieldwork carried out in Yokohama, it explores how ‘isolated death’ (kodokushi) and ‘disconnected spirits’ (muenbotoke) have become major concerns in homeless activism and support, giving rise to various necrosocial innovations and practices. The emergent necrosociality in Yokohama conjures up an alternative logic of care that connects people based on the general premise of inevitable decay and decline rather than familial ties and intimate memories. This article suggests that the concept of necrosociality provides a useful framework for analysing how social relations are negotiated, reaffirmed, or negated through bodily remains and graves, effectively shaping the modes of being and care among the living.

Medical Anthropology Quarterly

Special Focus Section: Comorbidity

Ectoparasitic Syndemics: Polymicrobial Tick-borne Disease Interactions in a Changing Anthropogenic Landscape

Merrill Singer and Nicola Bulled

Based on an assessment of the available research, this article uses syndemic theory to suggest the role of adverse bio–social interactions in increasing the total disease burden of tick-borne infections in local populations. Given the worldwide distribution of ticks, capacity for coinfection, the anthropogenic role in environmental changes that facilitate tick dissemination and contact, evidence of syndemic interaction in tick-borne diseases, and growing impact of ticks on global health, tick-borne syndemics reveal fundamental ways in which human beings are not simply agents of environmental change but objects of that change as well.

Beyond Comorbidity: A Critical Perspective of Syndemic Depression and Diabetes in Cross-cultural Contexts

Emily Mendenhall

This article examines the comorbidity concept in medical anthropology. I argue that the dearth of articles on comorbidity in medical anthropology may result from the rise of syndemic theory. Syndemics recognize how social realities shape individual illness experiences as well as distribution of diseases across populations. I discuss synergistic interactions foundational to the syndemics construct through my research of depression and diabetes comorbidity in vulnerable populations from urban United States, India, and South Africa. I argue that social and economic factors that cluster with depression and diabetes alone and together exemplify the biosocial processes that are at the heart of syndemics. In doing so, I illustrate how social, cultural, and economic factors shape individual-level experiences of co-occurring diseases despite similar population-level trends. Finally, I discuss the relevance of syndemics for the fields of medicine and public health while cautioning what must not be lost in translation across disciplines.

“Just One Thing after Another”: Recursive Cascades and Chronic Conditions

Lenore Manderson and Narelle Warren

Chronic conditions and their resultant difficulties in daily living frequently occur with other health problems, sometimes due to interactions or complications at a biological level, or as a result of common pathogens or risk factors. On other occasions, they develop independently. Drawing on research conducted with Australian women that began in the mid-2000s and is still ongoing, we highlight how chronic structural factors shape the risk factors of “chronic” conditions, influencing health seeking, continuity of care, and health outcomes. Institutional, economic, and other circumstantial factors pertain and impact health trajectories as much in highly industrialized as in resource poor settings. In illustrating how poverty and social exclusion create the preconditions of multiple chronic health problems, and how chronic health problems increase such disadvantages for individuals and their households, we introduce the idea of “recursive cascades” to capture the often inevitable trajectory of increasing ill health and growing empoverishment.

Transactions in Suffering: Mothers, Daughters, and Chronic Disease Comorbidities in New Delhi, India 

Lesley Jo Weaver

The biomedical definition of comorbidity belies the complexity of its lived experience. This article draws on case studies of women with diabetes and various comorbidities in New Delhi, India, to explore intergenerational transactions surrounding suffering in contexts of comorbidity. The analysis synthesizes sociological theories of chronic disease work, psychological theories of caregiver burnout, and anthropological approaches to suffering and legitimacy to explore how, when, and by whom women’s comorbid sources of suffering become routinized in everyday life. The analysis demonstrates, first, that comorbid suffering is not simply a matter of the addition of a second source of suffering to an existing one; rather, it comprises complex interactions between suffering, disability, family dynamics, and quality of life. Second, it illustrates several social routes through which comorbid suffering can fade into the background of everyday life, even when it is severe. Close attention to how suffering works in cases of comorbidity will be important as comorbid conditions become increasingly commonplace around the world.

Culture and Comorbidity: Intimate Partner Violence as a Common Risk Factor for Maternal Mental Illness and Reproductive Health Problems among Former Child Soldiers in Nepal

Brandon A. Kohrt and Christine Bourey

Our objective was to elucidate how culture influences internal (psychological), external (social), institutional (structural), and health care (medical) processes, which, taken together, create differential risk of comorbidity across contexts. To develop a conceptual model, we conducted qualitative research with 13 female child soldiers in Nepal. Participants gave open-ended responses to intimate partner violence (IPV) vignettes (marital rape, emotional abuse, violence during pregnancy). Twelve participants (92%) endorsed personal responses (remaining silent, enduring violence, forgiving the husband). Twelve participants endorsed communication with one’s husband. Only four participants (31%) sought family support, and three contacted police. Ultimately, 12 participants left the relationship, but the majority (nine) only left after the final IPV experience, which was preceded by prolonged psychological suffering and pregnancy endangerment. In conclusion, comorbidity risks are increased in cultural context that rely on individual or couples-only behavior, lack external social engagement, have weak law and justice institutions, and have limited health services.

Comorbidity: Reconsidering the Unit of Analysis

Mark Nichter 

In this short essay, I wish to briefly discuss smoking, polypharmacy, the human biome and multispecies relations, and biomedicalization as a means of stretching the common ways we think about comorbidity. My intent is to expand our thinking about comorbidity and multimorbidity beyond the individual as a unit of analysis, to reframe comorbidity in relation to trajectories of risk, and to address comorbid states of our own making when the treatment of one health problem results in the experience of additional health problems. I do so as a corrective to what I see as an overly narrow focus on comorbidity as co-occurring illnesses within a single individual, and as a complement to critical medical anthropological assessments of synergistic comorbid conditions (syndemics) occurring in structurally vulnerable populations living in environments of risk exposed to macro and micro pathogenic agents.


Disordered Eating/Eating Disorder: Hidden Perils of the Nation’s Fight against Fat 

Susan Greenhalgh

The nation’s fight against fat has not reduced obesity, but it has had other worrying effects. Mental health researchers have raised the possibility that the intense pressures to lose weight have heightened the risks of developing eating disorders, especially among the young. Medical anthropology can help connect the dots between the war on fat and disordered eating, identifying specific mechanisms, pathways, and contextual forces that may lie beyond the scope of biomedical and psychiatric research. This article develops a biocitizenship approach that focuses on the pathologization of heaviness, the necessity of having a thin, fit body to belonging to the category of worthy citizen, and the work of pervasive fat-talk in defining who can belong. Ethnographic narratives from California illuminate the dynamics in individual lives, while lending powerful support to the idea that the battle against fat is worsening disordered eating and eating disorders among vulnerable young people.

Locating Purity within Corruption Rumors: Narratives of HPV Vaccination Refusal in a Peri-urban Community of Southern Romania 

Cristina A. Pop

This article locates the symbolic construction of “corrupted purity”—as a key assertion in Romanian parents’ HPV vaccination refusal narratives—within a multiplicity of entangled rumors concerning reproduction and the state. Romania’s unsuccessful HPV vaccination campaign is not unique. However, the shifting discourses around purity and corruption—through which some parents conveyed anxieties about their daughters being targeted for the vaccine—place a particular twist on the Romanian case of resisting the HPV vaccination. Parental discourses took the form of clusters of rumors about state medicine’s failure to provide adequate reproductive health care, additive-laden foods, and exposure to radioactive contamination. In these rumors, corruption becomes literally embodied, through ingestion, consumption, contact, or inoculation. Parental discourses about what is being injected into their daughters’ pristine bodies express their uncertainty around navigating the unsettled post-socialist medical landscape.

Enveloped Lives: Practicing Health and Care in Lithuania 

Rima Praspaliauskiene

This article analyzes informal medical payments that the majority of Lithuanians give or feel compelled to give to doctors before or after treatment. It focuses on how patients and their caretakers encounter, practice, and enact informal payments in health care and how these payments create a reality of health care that is not limited to an economic rationality. Within such a frame, rather than being considered a gift or bribe, it conceptualizes these little white envelopes as a practice of health and care. The article shows how an envelope of money given to a doctor transcends the material patient–doctor transaction and emerges as a productive force for coping with illness, medical encounters, and misfortunes.

Medicine Anthropology Theory

The moral life of epinephrine in the United States

 Danya Glabau

This paper follows the ‘moral life’ of epinephrine auto-injectors, devices that people with food allergies and their caretakers use to administer emergency medication to stop serious allergic reactions, in the United States. These devices are potent signifiers of the seemingly precarious nature of life with food allergies. I follow auto-injectors from their social birth as a commodity object, through how they structure doctor-patient interactions and parenting, to the ways that parents and illness advocates talk about their life-saving properties. At every step of the way, their significance is influenced by the political-economic context of health care in the United States, which places significant burdens of financial cost and responsibility for deciding what constitutes ‘good’ care upon individual patients and caretakers. The moral life of epinephrine serves as a model for thinking about how medical devices take on meaning that is at once practical, moral, and economic as they circulate through manufacturing and distribution channels and into the lives and social worlds of users. 

Am I fine? Exploring everyday life ambiguities and potentialities of embodied sensations in a Danish middle-class community

Sara Marie Hebsgaard Offersen, Mette Bech Risør, Peter Vedsted, Rikke Sand Andersen

Woven into the fabric of human existence is the possibility of death and suffering from disease. This essential vulnerability calls forth processes of meaning making, of grappling with uncertainty and morality. In this article we explore the uncertainty and ambiguity that exists in the space between bodily sensations and symptoms of illness. Bodily sensations have the potential to become symptoms of disease or to be absorbed into ordinariness, prompting the question: how do we ascribe meaning to sensations? In the context of middle-class everyday life in Denmark, we show how different potentialities of ambiguous sensations are weighed against each other on a culturally and morally contingent continuum between normal and not normal, uncovering the complex interplay between the body, everyday life, and pervasive biomedical discourses focusing on health promotion, symptom awareness, and care seeking.

Milk, meaning, and morality. Following the trajectory of donated breast milk from donor to baby

Miriam Waltz and Fiona C. Ross

Donated human milk’s status comes into question as it leaves the mother-child relationship and is reconfigured through practices and discursive structures that seek to stabilise it as a specific kind of object. Based on research conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, we examine the crucial role of technologies in aiding the milk’s transformation as milk moves from donors’ homes into the clinical setting where it is received by preterm, low-birth weight newborns. We show that the milk shifts back and forth between being a bodily fluid, food, and medicine in the course of this trajectory. Different techniques foreground milk’s diverse properties as a set of moral decisions converges around saving, securing, and sustaining life, and materialising relationships.

Medical Humanities

Whereto speculative bioethics? Technological visions and future simulations in a science fictional culture

Ari Schick

This article critically examines the development and current state of speculative bioethics (bioethics discourse concerned with future technologies) as reflecting an intensifying science fictionality, a cognitive/perceptual mode in which the imagined future begins to exert increasing degrees of influence on the present, culminating in a collapse of distance between the two. Future technologies thereby come to be viewed as generating practical ethical issues that need to be addressed well in advance of their arrival. Although this appears to be a prudent effort, it actually bypasses the present as a site of moral agency and locates ethics within a simulation of the imagined future. A constructive form of speculative bioethics must be able to critically assess visions of technological futures if it is to function as an ethics that is of and for the present.

Towards a structure of feeling: abjection and allegories of disease in science fiction ‘mutation’ films

Frances Pheasant-Kelly

This article considers differences between the representation of mutation in science fiction films from the 1950s and the present, and identifies distinctive changes over this time period, both in relation to the narrative causes of genetic disruption and in the aesthetics of its visual display. Discerning an increasingly abject quality to science fiction mutations from the 1970s onwards—as a progressive tendency to view the physically opened body, one that has a seemingly fluid interior–exterior reversal, or one that is almost beyond recognition as humanoid—the article connects a propensity for disgust to the corresponding socio-cultural and political zeitgeist. Specifically, it suggests that such imagery is tied to a more expansive ‘structure of feeling’, proposed by Raymond Williams and emergent since the 1970s, but gathering momentum in later decades, that reflects an ‘opening up’ of society in all its visual, socio-cultural and political configurations. Expressly, it parallels a change from a repressive, patriarchal society that constructed medicine as infallible and male doctors as omnipotent to one that is generally more liberated, transparent and equitable. Engaging theoretically with the concept of a ‘structure of feeling’, and critically with scientific, cinematic and cultural discourses, two post-1970s’ ‘mutation’ films, The Fly (1986) and District 9 (2009), are considered in relation to their pre-1970s’ predecessors, and their aesthetics related to the perceptions and articulations of the medical profession at their respective historic moments, locating such instances within a broader medico-political canvas.

‘Limbitless Solutions’: the Prosthetic Arm, Iron Man and the Science Fiction of Technoscience

Susan Smith

Early last year, a non-profit organisation called ‘Limbitless Solutions’ modelled a 3D printed prosthetic arm on a fighting suit that features in the popular superhero film series, Iron Man (2008–2013). In addition, ‘Limbitless Solutions’ resourcefully deployed the fictional character and inventor of the Iron Man suit, weapons specialist and philanthropist, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr, in a celebrity/superhero endorsed promotional short film, showing ‘Tony’, the ‘real Iron Man’, gifting the futuristic military styled ‘gauntlet’ to Alex, a 7-year-old boy with a partially developed right arm. Engaging with scholarly work on the science fiction of technoscience, prostheses and the posthuman, and disability and DIY assistive technology, I analyse ‘Limbitless Solutions’ use of science fiction in a high-profile media event that problematically portrays an impaired child ‘in need’ of ‘repair’ and subsequently ‘fixed’ by technology. Overall, the aim is to integrate science fiction tropes, such as the wounded hero, the fighting suit and prosthetic arm, with disability studies, to highlight the sustained challenges that emerging theories of disability and technology face as contemporary economic, political and ideological forces endorse and promote militarised images of cyborg assimilation over human variation and physical difference.

Doctors in space (ships): biomedical uncertainties and medical authority in imagined futures (open access)

Lesley Henderson and Simon Carter

There has been considerable interest in images of medicine in popular science fiction and in representations of doctors in television fiction. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to doctors administering space medicine in science fiction. This article redresses this gap. We analyse the evolving figure of ‘the doctor’ in different popular science fiction television series. Building upon debates within Medical Sociology, Cultural Studies and Media Studies we argue that the figure of ‘the doctor’ is discursively deployed to act as the moral compass at the centre of the programme narrative. Our analysis highlights that the qualities, norms and ethics represented by doctors in space (ships) are intertwined with issues of gender equality, speciesism and posthuman ethics. We explore the signifying practices and political articulations that are played out through these cultural imaginaries. For example, the ways in which ‘the simple country doctor’ is deployed to help establish hegemonic formations concerning potentially destabilising technoscientific futures involving alternative sexualities, or military dystopia. Doctors mostly function to provide the ethical point of narrative stability within a world in flux, referencing a nostalgia for the traditional, attentive, humanistic family physician. The science fiction doctor facilitates the personalisation of technological change and thus becomes a useful conduit through which societal fears and anxieties concerning medicine, bioethics and morality in a ‘post 9/11’ world can be expressed and explored.

Are We All Flint? by Catherine Fennell

19 Décembre 2016 - 4:36pm

[This article originally appeared in Limn, Issue No. 7, “Public Infrastructures / Infrastructural Publics”.]

For the past several decades, Flint, Michigan, has staggered under waves of deindustrialization, disinvestment, and abandonment that have left the city depopulated, its built environment in shambles, and its remaining residents reeling from high unemployment and crime rates, a decimated tax base, and dwindling municipal services. While grim, Flint’s decline is by no means unique in a region whose cities have become synonymous with the booms and busts of twentieth century American manufacturing. Nor is the degree of its decay unusual. Aficionados of ruin will find crumbling infrastructures arresting and aplenty in most any “Rust Belt” city. What is singular, however, is the attention that Flint’s contaminated water has received in recent months, an attention that is now amplifying ongoing debates concerning America’s ailing and aging infrastructures. That amplification is especially apparent in variations of a phrase that has recently echoed through local, regional, and national media and activist circles: “We are all Flint.”

With every disclosed email, alleged wrongdoing, and denial of responsibility, the course of Flint’s contamination grows as murky and foul as the water that began flowing from its taps in 2014. In April of that year, the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The switch unfolded amid a climate of intense fiscal austerity in which state-appointed emergency managers pushed Michigan’s most financially beleaguered cities to cut costs. In Flint, part of this push included a proposal to bypass Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department as the city’s water supplier, and to instead source cheaper water through a newly constructed pipeline into Lake Huron. Yet until that pipeline came on line in 2016, the city would draw directly from its river. Decades of heavy industry, pollution, and salted roads meant that more than water rolled through that river. Bacteria, chloride, and chlorine-based disinfectants transformed Flint’s treated river water into a highly corrosive soup that ate into aging copper, iron, and lead pipes. Heavy metals then leached from the service lines that connected individual homes, schools, businesses, and factories to Flint’s broader water infrastructure.

Flint’s residents complained almost immediately about the rank, rust-colored water that tasted strange and sickened them. Local water workers and state environmental monitors, however, repeatedly brushed off these complaints, even as they failed to combat pipe corrosion. According to recent criminal charges, some even went so far as to tamper with tests and readings that would have confirmed the heavy amounts of lead in Flint’s water system (State of Michigan Attorney General 2016). Pressure mounted throughout 2015 as residents clamored for action, and as researchers and medical professionals documented high lead levels in Flint’s water alongside a spike in cases of children with elevated levels of this potent neurotoxin in their blood.

“Flint’s Katrina,” as some activists and politicians have taken to calling the contamination, might seem an isolated event born of the catastrophic convergence of emergency management, shifting water chemistry, aging pipes, and failed governmental oversight. After all, what makes an event a disaster is its ability to rupture everyday life, expectations, and routines. Yet “We are all Flint’s” traction in local, regional, and national media suggests something else. Doctors, journalists, and activists have all invoked the phrase when pointing to the ongoing presence of lead in Americans’ everyday lives, especially within the water systems of older cities. If “We are all Flint” is a rallying cry, exactly who and for what does it rally?

In the face such a question, it’s tempting to argue that there is something universalizing about water because it is a substance that all humans depend on. Consider comments made by Erin Brockovich, an environmental activist known for her legal advocacy. In Brockovich’s recent article “We Are All Flint” (2016), the city emerges as just one entry in a list of municipalities afflicted by a common denominator: tainted water. Water is “the one thing that sustains us all,” Brockovich writes, and for that reason, contaminated water doesn’t “see any boundaries of rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat” (Brockovich 2016). Flint is unusual only because it is “the perfect storm” of pollution and government inaction that might just cause “everybody else to wake up” to the presence of toxins in all our lives and bodies (Brockovich 2016). Here, our biological dependence upon water collapses social boundaries, drawing us into a universal political body with a shared stake in clean water.

In the face of such universalisms, it’s also tempting to underscore that not every American navigates tainted water in the same way. After all, it is not just any city being poisoned through its degraded and neglected infrastructures, but an impoverished Black city. Take a recent column by New York Times journalist Nick Kristoff titled “America Is Flint.” “Today the continuing poisoning of half a million American children is tolerated,” Kristoff writes, “partly because the victims often are low-income children of color” (Kristoff 2016). Kristoff’s column does not back away from the sentiments undergirding “We are all Flint.” It merely qualifies them by pointing out the ubiquity of lead in Americans’ lives alongside the uneven distribution of its risks. A more pointed critique might suggest that were “we” to foreground that that unevenness, we might be forced to recognize that if “America is Flint,” it is not because of the ubiquity of lead in our water infrastructures. It is because like Flint, America is a place built on profound, longstanding, and enduring racial and economic inequalities that continue to waste some but not all of its citizens’ bodies and communities. From this perspective, the sentiments that undergird “We are all Flint” bear more than a passing resemblance to those associated with “All Lives Matter.” They gesture to enduring inequalities at the same time they blunt any serious criticism of those inequalities by diluting them in a wash of misdirected solidarity. Here, “We are all Flint” isn’t just hogwash: it’s whitewash.

While American society’s enduring inequalities are troubling, they are not exactly news. News commentary surrounding Flint in fact dwells on how racial animus directed against residents of this “majority minority” city might have driven the neglect and disregard that ushered in its contamination. “We are all Flint’s” power then rests not on the phrase’s affirmation or denial of social inequalities, but on its capacity to summon a “we,” an expansive group comprising countless Americans concerned with “our” aging municipal water infrastructures. In the process, a down-at-the-heels, Black city in a down-at-the-heels state has become emblematic of the dangers that infrastructural degradation poses to all Americans. The question that “We are all Flint’s” traction raises then is not whether this “we” actually includes those Americans most at risk from lead poisoning. It is rather about the kinds of risks that a far-flung group of citizens can recognize as shared, and thus worthy of collective concern and action, and those that will, despite their ubiquity, seem isolated events that will never break the surface of widespread attention. Scholars of mass media in liberal democratic societies have a term for such groups: publics.

Publics form when strangers consume media forms, like newspapers, newscasts, and novels. As they respond to these forms, and imagine countless others throughout their cities, states, or nations doing the same, they constitute themselves as a political whole (Calhoun 1998; Habermas 1991; Warner 2002). Members of publics come to imagine themselves as part of much larger wholes capable of voicing collective interests and making collective demands upon entities tasked with protecting those interests. Publics emerge through speaking, listening, and reading. As such, they are discursive formations. Yet those formations are never divorced from a material world. Brockovich’s readers have no trouble imagining a “we” indignant at tainted water precisely because they have spent lifetimes opening and closing their own taps, lifetimes filling glasses, tubs, and pots with the water that comes gushing out, and lifetimes expecting that water to be clean. And they have spent lifetimes expecting that their taxes supported the care that fellow citizens took with protecting important collective goods such as water. Yet it’s not every infrastructure that raises a public able to make demands about the soundness of the collective goods it delivers. Consider, for instance, the relative silence that surrounds lead’s presence within another major infrastructure: housing.

Housing does not often show up in conversations about infrastructure, but it should. When understood as a thing that draws other entities into relation, an infrastructure need not be limited to the pipes, wires, or roads that so often come to mind whenever we utter the term (Larkin 2013). We can also understand it as a thing that facilitates flows, standardizes distributions, and extends political projects (Anand 2017; Chu 2014; Collier 2011; Joyce 2003; von Schnitzler 2016). Beginning in the 1930s, subsidized housing in both its public and private guises became a premier infrastructure of the American welfare state. On the one hand, public housing, at least in its earliest years, delivered sound shelter to working- and middle-class Americans shut out of housing markets on account of their limited means or the color of their skin. On the other hand, federally guaranteed mortgages allowed many Americans in the middle class—and those who aspired to join its ranks—to stabilize their housing costs by spreading them over several decades. They obtained, on extremely favorable terms, a major asset that they could then leverage to finance things a household’s members might need, or just want: educations, retirements, second homes, business ventures, enough accrued wealth to pass onto children. The trappings of middle-class security became bound up in the mortgaged home and the orientations to time, place, saving, and spending that it disciplined among mortgage holders. But as much as this welfare infrastructure facilitated the expansion and distribution of financial and economic wellbeing, it was also a thing in its own right. And in the course of older American cities, that thing became thoroughly leaded.

By the early twentieth century, lead was common in the pipes that snaked through growing industrial cities and in the soils of areas that surrounded smelters and foundries. When lead became a common additive in gasoline in the 1920s, lead particles in the air and soil became even denser (Shea 2007). Yet it was lead’s presence in house paint that threw—and continues to throw—American children most directly into its path. Consumer tastes for colorful domestic interiors grew in the 1920s. The electrification of cities meant that consumers no longer needed their house paint to cover soot from coal- and gas-burning lamps, and thus dark, oil-based paints fell out of fashion. Lead paint made the surfaces it covered bright, durable, and easy to clean, adding to consumers’ conceptions that it was the most hygienic way to treat surfaces (Markowitz and Rosner 2002; Warren 2000). As lead paint was more expensive than other paints, consumers tended to save it for surfaces that would see more wear and tear, such as baseboards, windowsills, doors, and stairs. And so the very surfaces small children gravitate toward for ballast as they learn to stand up and walk around became covered in a thin, metallic layer. Without regular maintenance, those surfaces could break down and release leaded dusts. Small children easily ingested these dusts because they explore their worlds as much with their mouths as they do with their hands. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, doctors and researchers gradually tied such ingestion to a host of ailments, including lifelong cognitive impairments, behavioral problems, stunted growth, and in severe cases, death (Markowitz and Rosner 2013). More recently, researchers have suggested that lead-poisoned children afflicted with behavioral problems can age into erratic, aggressive, even criminal behavior (Nevin 2007).

By the 1950s, physicians understood that deteriorating paint had ushered in a lead poisoning epidemic among children, especially among impoverished children living in the dilapidated housing stocks of aging industrial cities. They clamored for regulations, and two strategies emerged. The first called for eliminating lead from American life, and a total ban on its circulation. The second, considered far more cost effective, focused on limiting individual instances of exposure (Markowitz and Rosner 2013). Federal regulations finally emerged in the late 1970s that prohibited the use of lead in paint destined for residential uses. Even so, many leaded homes would remain leaded: to this day, health professionals advise homeowners and landlords that aging lead paint poses little risk when neatly sealed with a layer of clean paint, tile, drywall, or wallpaper, and when dust is contained during renovation. The main public health intervention is to direct those who own homes built before 1980 to make sure that lead paint is properly contained, that renovations are properly conducted, and that children avoid suspect surfaces. In short, lead paint still lingers in all manner of homes financed and delivered through governmental subsidies and programs. Yet in a society that takes homeownership aspirations for granted, and treats the responsible mortgage holder as an exemplar of citizenly virtue, it is difficult to parse the lead layered in one’s walls and windowsills as a collective matter that warrants widespread attention and concern. There is no “we” here; there are only individual homeowners and landlords who act more and less responsibly when grappling with the residues of bygone building practices, homeowners and landlords who are more or less able to safeguard the health of both their investments and the people who live within them. This ethos of individual responsibility is in fact so strong that it has come to govern even obsolete housing infrastructures and their disposal.

Consider here the serious effort that another financially beleaguered Michigan city has recently undertaken to mitigate the hazards posed by the vacant houses that litter its landscape. In 2014, Detroit embarked on an ambitious, federally funded plan to take down 40,000 derelict structures. Those coordinating the demolitions put in place measures to suppress the spread of demolition dust, which typically comprises a range of heavy metals, including copper, manganese, iron, and lead. Coordinators have concerned themselves especially with lead. Like many cities in the region, Detroit has struggled with high childhood lead poisoning rates: although rates have fallen in the past decade, they are still nearly twice the national average (Bienkowski 2013). Adopted measures included requiring contractors to forgo the wrecking ball in favor of equipment and procedures that release less dust, to wet down houses and the resulting debris piles as they demolish houses and cart them off to the dump, and to distribute materials to neighbors that offer tips for avoiding dust. While federal regulators have lauded these steps as a “best practice,” they have not required Detroit to undertake any of them. Were this “best practice” to fall by the wayside under mounting criticisms about rising demolition costs and dwindling federal funds to cover them, nothing apart from personal vigilance would stand between a resident and her exposure to potentially hazardous dusts.

Now compare this situation with that of Flint. Federal regulations phased out lead pipes, paint, and gasoline around roughly the same time. And like leaded housing, many leaded water infrastructures have remained leaded because remediation strategies have likewise centered on containment instead of removal. This is where the similarity ends. Federal regulations in place since the early 1990s require water utilities to take standard corrosion control measures (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] 1991). Adding phosphates to water during the treatment process coats pipes in ways that inhibit lead and copper from leaching into water from a utilities’ own aging and outmoded piping, but also from consumers’ aging and outmoded piping. This second point is crucial: regulations exist governing the disposal of leaded paint in occupied buildings, but they target the actions and inactions of individual property owners. The responsibility for lead mitigation within water infrastructures is neither localized nor localizable. Instead, the service provider must assume responsibility for the health of water distributed throughout the entire network. As such, it must mitigate leaching risks in the houses of private homeowners by making sure that the water it sends into those houses will not cause aging pipes and fixtures to leach lead. This is the step that water workers failed to take in Flint, and the step that state and federal regulators failed to enforce. In the process, they set off a public health emergency that has captured national attention. Federal and state governments are heavily involved in providing and regulating the goods of shelter and water. Yet in contrast to water, Americans do not generally consider shelter to be a collective good, as evinced by that fact that its provision, maintenance, and regulation is in most instances not centrally administered. Publics raised through water infrastructures can make demands of public entities that publics raised through housing infrastructures generally cannot. This means that heads can and will roll for toxic water in a way that they have not and cannot roll for physically and financially toxic housing.

Once airborne, demolition dusts can circulate beyond the point of their origin. In this respect, they resemble the expansive reach of flowing water. Yet even though dust generated by the demolition of homes poses public health hazards in cities across the United States, we are not all Detroit. Just as we are not all Baltimore, Chicago, or Milwaukee, all cities that have, courtesy of leaded house paint, struggled with epidemic lead poisoning rates. Flint is an entirely different matter because Americans have come to conceive of water and its delivery in an entirely different fashion. Water infrastructures may send water flowing through an individual home, but they are not ultimately of that home. They tap deep into investments in a good whose care seems utterly beyond the reach of any single individual. And these investments float the stuff not just of collective imagination and identification, but also of collective administration and related demands for collective protection. So while “we” might all be at risk for ingesting toxins, some of us can spit back the lead soup that leaches from “our” pipes, even as others must swallow the lead dust that flakes off “our” walls.


Catherine Fennell is an anthropologist at Columbia University whose work examines the social and material legacies of housing in the urban Midwest.



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