Still writing 2012 on your checks and paperwork? For those of you already missing the year when we escaped another end of the world apocalypse, here is a retroactive look at some interesting journal articles published in the later half of 2012.
American Anthropologist offered up an interesting revisiting of the anthropology of the body informed by scholarly work in archaeology, sociocultural anthropology and history in this essay written by Oliver J.T. Harris and John Robb.
Oliver J. T. Harris and John Robb
In this article, we return to a fundamental anthropological question: How can we understand apparently incommensurate perspectives on the human body? While applauding recent moves to place local people’s perspectives on an ontological rather than epistemological footing, we suggest that both of these approaches fail to explain how different ontological perspectives can ever communicate with one another and how historical change takes place. To understand this, we offer a different model of multiple ontologies that also makes room for physical materials; we explore this through the ontologies of Native America and Western Europe from medieval times to the present day.
Two pieces in American Ethnologist explored the formations of subjectivities vis-a-vis multispecies and biopolitical encounters.
Rheana “Juno” Salazar Parreñas
In a postcolonial economy of volunteer tourism from the Global North to the Global South, mostly British women pay thousands of U.S. dollars to travel to Sarawak, on Malaysian Borneo, to work in a wildlife rehabilitation center. There, in a program operated as a public–private partnership, they provide hard labor to maintain and improve the facility and assist subcontracted indigenous Iban men in caring for displaced orangutans. Through the concept of “custodial labor,” I argue that affect produced at the interface of bodies in the work of orangutan rehabilitation also produces an unequal distribution of risk and vulnerability among those involved, across differences of species, classes, nationalities, and genders. My findings contribute to understandings of how humanity is constituted through multispecies encounters, help demonstrate how animals can be treated as subjects in ethnography, and show how affective encounters produce human and nonhuman subjectivities.
Psychologists working in Russia’s cities have found it both desirable and profitable to offer “psychological education” to the children of the elite. I examine two characterizations of this work—as a form of neoliberal subjectivation and as a post-Soviet project focused on progressive sociopolitical reform. Exploring the tensions between them illuminates the historical specificity of self-work in Russia, its relation to commerce and biopolitics, and its political ambiguity. I conclude that studies of governmentality that attend to both subjectivation as an ethical practice and social history can effectively render capitalist complicity and ordinary ethics in the same frame.
Nikolas Rose recently published this piece in BioSocieties that has resonances for scholars working in science and technology studies and the anthropology of knowledge.
In this article I reflecton the contemporary arguments for democratisation of science, in light of the work of the historian of the life sciences Ludwik Fleck. I explore some possible reasons for the current demands for ‘responsibility’ among scientific researchers, and briefly consider this in the context of the various arguments that have made a link between democracy and science, or considered the role of science in a democratic society. I conclude by considering some recent proposals for opening up the secluded spaces of scientific research and truth finding, and suggest that, far from destabilising scientific truth, such developments might actually address the well known failures of ‘translation from bench to bedside’, and make scientific truth claims in the life sciences more robust when they leave the lab and enter the world of everyday life.
Body and Society offered up these two articles (and several others) in their joint September and December 2012 issue.
In the wake of Foucault, the debate on biopolitics has focused on the tensions of bíos and zoé, community and immunity, generation and thanatopolitics. What remains obscure in these accounts is the experiential aspect of life – its unfolding and entanglement with the ageing process. This is true both of approaches that emphasize the ethical implications of the life sciences and those that explore the biopolitical workings of wider social processes. In the contemporary capitalist formation, life’s unfolding is caught up in global flows of information, finance and labour. The organization of the human faculties, the general preconditions for knowledge and communication, becomes central to value creation. And the human body, like fixed capital for Marx, becomes a cost to be amortized as quickly as possible. Investigating these processes with regard to transformations in practices of care provides a means for reassessing current debates regarding the ageing of people and populations.
This article examines how the formation of markets in bottled water has relied on assembling a particular subject: the subject of hydration. The discourse of hydration is a conspicuous feature of efforts to market bottled water, allowing companies to appeal to scientifically framed principles and ideas of health in order to position the product as an essential component in self-health and healthy lifestyles. Alongside related principles, such as the ‘8 × 8 rule’, hydration has done much to establish new practices of water drinking and consumption in which the consumer appears to be always at risk of dehydration and must engage in practices of ‘frequent sipping’. This article traces the emergence of the concept of hydration from its origins in exercise science and explores its circulation, contemporary uses and purchase. I argue that the appeal to biomedical languages and concepts found in the discourse of hydration connects with much broader ways of conceiving and acting upon the self that have become prevalent in contemporary society – what Rose and Novas call ‘biological citizenship’ – indicating how the ensemble of hydration participates in wider-ranging transformations in forms of rule. The story of hydration reveals how biomedical techniques of the self can be made to double up as ‘market devices’ by offering specific procedures for assessing the self and calculating the body’s needs. In order to grasp these developments, I position the health sciences, and health and fitness in particular, as a potent site of popular culture in which bodies learn to be affected by the procedures of scientific experiment. A critical grasp of this context is best enabled, I argue, by situating the producers and consumers of scientific principles and commercial products as embodied and looking at their interconnection in processes of emergence. Through these means, we can begin to develop a fully materialized account of the question: how have we become so thirsty?
Cultural Anthropology published these essays recently. Always a sharp roster of contributions courtesy of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. Their previous virtual issue entitled “Ethnographies of Science” is worth consulting for readers working in and around science and technology studies.
Nicaraguan Ministry of Health protocols for the control of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits dengue fever, hinge on an aesthetic ordering of the urban household, one in which mosquitoes, like garbage and dirt, do not belong. Management regimes such as this appear to rely on an alienation of people—and in the case of dengue, women in particular—from the urban natures in which they live. In this essay, I draw on eighteen months of research with Nicaraguan community health workers (brigadistas) for whom mosquito abatement involved an opening, rather than a closing, of the landscape. Brigadistas, especially female brigadistas, took deep pleasure in learning about mosquito-human lifeworlds, a pleasure I call “ecological aesthetic.” Ecological aesthetics—patterns of connection that are identifiable only through performance—contrasted to the more familiar aesthetics identifiable in the ministry’s ordering of the household. While the latter aesthetic has human control over life at its core, the former emphasizes entanglement, a relational knowledge of life. I suggest some implications of this idea for future anthropological studies of “the politics of life.”
Megan Crowley-Matoka and Gala True
Pain, despite being an elemental bodily experience and the most common reason for seeking medical care, occupies a place of profound ontological and moral uncertainty in American biomedicine. Taking seriously the highly charged emotions – frustration, anger, even disgust – frequently expressed by clinicians regarding their patients with pain, this article draws on ethnographic research to explore both the origins and the implications of such anxiously ambivalent responses to pain and pain medications among the clinicians charged with treating it. Set against the recent history of pain medicine as an emergent specialty in the highly fragmented landscape of American biomedicine, we examine at close ethnographic range some of the key ways that U.S. clinicians frame the experience of contending with pain in their everyday practice. Emergent from these clinician experiences are the ways in which pain and pain medications remain both incompletely medicalized and ineffectively medicalizing in American biomedicine, as well as the threatening effects on what we term the pharmaceutical subjectivity of clinicians themselves of this persistently ambivalent medicalization.
Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry and Ethos foregrounded patient perspectives in two compelling pieces about cancer. Their other articles demonstrated why these two journals continue to be important ones to consult on an ongoing basis.
As numerous scholars have noted, cancer survivorship is often represented in popular discourse as providing an opportunity for a physical, emotional, and spiritual makeover. However, this idea that cancer enables the self to be remade on all levels is also increasingly evoked in the field of psychosocial oncology. Exploring cancer survivorship as a biopolitical phenomenon, I focus on two concepts that have become central to understandings of the disease: the “teachable moment” and “post-traumatic growth.” Drawing primarily on representations of cancer survivorship in the clinical literature, I suggest that cancer is increasingly seen to present a unique opportunity to catalyze the patient’s physical and psychological development. In this framework, the patient can no longer be relied upon to transform him or herself: this change must be externally driven, with clinicians taking advantage of the trauma that cancer entails to kick-start the patient into action. Broadening my analysis to the concepts of “trauma” and “development” writ large, I go on to suggest that survivorship discourse seems to partake of a larger and relatively recent meta-narrative about development—both individual and societal—and the positive opportunity that trauma is seen to present to stimulate reconstruction on a grand scale.
From folk beliefs about how cancer spreads within the body and why “they” have yet to find a cure for it, to the cultural dimensions of personal condolences, and the ideological dimensions of cancer constructions in the media, I examine the ways in which U.S. culture and culture bearers frame the experience of cancer for cancer patients and their families. Viewing cultural frames as resources to be drawn on in time of need and engaging in participant-observation in the life of a family simultaneously confronted with two cancer diagnoses, one of which was terminal, I conclude that contemporary cultural understandings of cancer in the United States may often work as antiresources threatening lived experience with maddening distortion.
Health reminded us that the construction of clinical and biopolitical reality is something both healthcare professionals and ordinary actors actively shape.
May-Lill Johansen, Knut Arne Holtedahl, Annette Sofie Davidsen, and Carl Edvard Rudebeck
An important part of GPs’ work consists of attending to the everyday and existential conditions of human being. In these life world aspects, biomedicine is often not the relevant theory to guide the GP; nevertheless they are a part of GPs’ professional domain. In cancer care, previous studies have shown that GPs with a biomedical perspective on medicine could feel subordinate to specialists, and that doctors with a curative focus could see disease progression as a personal failure. The aim of this study was to explore in depth the experiences of being a GP for people with advanced cancer. Fourteen Norwegian GPs were interviewed about accompanying patients through a cancer illness. Their stories were analysed using a narrative approach. The GPs expressed a strong commitment to these patients, a loyalty which in some cases could be weakened due to judgements of distant specialists. In view of the GPs’ close knowledge of their patients’ background and history this subordination was a paradox, mirroring a hierarchy of medical knowledge. The GPs had an ideal of honesty and openness about death, which they sometimes failed. To reach the ideal of honesty, clinicians would have to abandon the biomedical ideal of mastering human nature through interventions and acknowledge the fundamental uncertainty and finiteness of human life. GPs may learn from being with their patients that bodily and existential suffering are connected, and thus learn implicitly to overlook the body–mind dualism. This practical wisdom lacks a theoretical anchoring, which is a problem not only for general practice.
Philippa Spoel, Roma Harris, and Flis Henwood
This article develops a rhetorical analysis of how older adults in Canada and the UK engage with civic-moral imperatives of healthy living. The analysis draws on Burke’s concepts of ‘symbolic hierarchies’ and the ‘rhetoric of rebirth’ to explore how participants discursively negotiate the moralizing framework of self-regulation and self-improvement central to healthy eating discourse, in particular. Working from the premise that healthy eating is a ‘principle of perfection’ that citizens are encouraged to strive to achieve, the article traces the vocabularies and logical distinctions of ‘guilt’, ‘purification’ and ‘redemption’ in participants’ accounts of what healthy eating means to them. This analysis reveals some of the complex, situated and often strategic ways in which they rearticulate and reconfigure the normative imperatives of healthy eating in ways suited to their lived experience and their priorities for health and well-being in older age.
Finally, the International Journal of Social Psychiatry published this descriptive snapshot drawn from qualitative research surrounding mental illness in the United States.
Marta Elliott, Robyn Maitoza, and Erik Schwinger
Psychiatrists and advocates for persons with mental illness in the USA argue that the biomedical model of mental illness as a brain disease is both accurate and effective in reducing stigma. Few studies have queried individuals diagnosed with mental illness to determine the extent to which they define their condition as biologically based versus caused by social and psychological factors.
Stay tuned for ongoing highlights from these journals and others in 2013.