Medicine and Science, Unpredicted

It is somewhat predictable that at a weekend-long workshop medical anthropologists and STS scholars would, first, talk a lot about bodies and, second, discuss the politics of their knowledge production.  What is not predictable is what happens when the workshop also includes a few cultural anthropologists, philosophers, and medical doctors; and allows a much longer-than-usual amount of time for paper presentations.

I can tell you what happens. Curious and provocative conversations, challenges to taken-for-granted ways of theorizing the world, and productive conversations that begin a collective process of re-drawing the borders around what might count as “medical anthropology.”

This is what happened at the “Medicine on the Edge” workshop held at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) in the beginning of May, hosted by UCSC medical anthropologists Matthew Wolf-Meyer and Nancy Chen. While the workshop organizers may have been envisioning ways that medicine is “creeping out of the laboratory and clinic” into everyday life (as they stated in the workshop description), what the workshop became, I would say, is something that could be called “Medicine and Science, Unpredicted.”

Prediction and predictability are, of course, historically specific constructs, as Ian Hacking (1990) and others, such as Mary Poovey (1998) have taught us; concepts that organize time and space into the present and the future in ways that make us believe we are “modern.” Although as good scholars we know that We Have Never Been Modern (Latour 1993), when it comes to the processes and practices of our own knowledge production, turning away from the ruse is a challenge. For example, we may critique the use of population-level health statistics on one hand and rely on those very statistics on the other hand; we are in and of the worlds that we study. What “Medicine and Science, Unpredicted” allowed us were moments and spaces in which we could collectively consider not only how medicine is “creeping out of the laboratory and the clinic” but also how our own knowledge production processes are always a part of the world we are critiquing.  Our “situatedness” matters (Haraway 1999).

Part of this turn to unpredictability was achieved through an unconventional design; the workshop format demonstrated that the structuring of our knowledge production matters. First, only junior faculty presented work. Second, they were given 30 minutes for their presentation rather than a standard 15 minutes. Third, panels of senior faculty provided impromptu commentary. Finally, there were numerous times and spaces for conversation—extended lunches and dinners and lengthy Q&A sessions. Organizing the workshop in these ways allowed all of the participants to engage with the papers, as well as continue conversations started during the Q&A. In these extended spaces of conversation, numerous exciting themes emerged. In this series of posts I want to highlight three: comparison and commensurability, storying bodies, and knowledge production. These themes seem particularly relevant to the workshop-long concern of how medical anthropology’s predilection to ask certain kinds of questions—such as what constitutes a body?, how are bodies and citizenship claims related?, and how do bodies become gendered, racialized, and classed?—is increasingly meaningful for topics that don’t, at first glance, seem medical. In subsequent posts I will elaborate on each of these themes. In the rest of this post, I will begin what I hope can be an online conversation about themes that began at the workshop.


Bodies are not only material; they are also stories, and storied. They are mediated and mediatized. This is, of course, not news. In her on-the-spot commentary, Galen Joseph, however, noticed that in all the papers presented—even ones that initially seemed to be incomparable—the bodies and their stories were wrangling with issues of comparison and commensurability, of making sense of oneself through the story of someone else. That process of learning can be classroom-based and explicit, as in the case of Joe Hankin’s ethnographic work with Japanese Buraku activists and Indian Dalits. Both groups struggle to commensurate the social stigma of the Buraku, on the one hand, with the extreme physical violence experienced and enacted by the Dalits, on the other. It is the UN-based category of “discrimination based on descent and labor” that encourages them to seek this discursive calibration. But the process of learning to tell one’s story can also involve the (seeming) unlikely coupling of physical violence/torture and care. This was most stunning in the case of Angela Garcia’s current research with individuals and families in Mexico City who are desperate to care for drug-addicted family members. In the context of Mexico’s war on drugs, the unregulated—and extremely violent—residential treatment centers called annexos often felt safer than the streets. Through techniques of care that involved what Garcia described as “torture”—often at the hands of peers—the (mostly) men learned to narrate themselves in particular ways. These storied bodies, seeking a protected political status on the one hand, and medical care on the other, exist in an economically and politically fraught world in which knowledge of how to story one’s own body is always in dialog with the storied body of another.

These stories, these bodies, these interactions of comparison and commensurability exist in national or international contexts, but not only in these places. They exist, as Charles Briggs reminded the workshop participants, in a global situation of post-colonial medicine, in which stories and their telling do not simply play out against the backdrop of a static and finished colonial past. Rather, the stories are always historical. They continue legacies of creating geographic, economic, and political distance and proximity, and legacies of politicized sympathy. Often, statistical narratives of risk are put to this task. In the case of T.S. Harvey’s work with indigenous people living around two lakes with blue/green algae in Guatemala, stories of risk produce certain populations as risky and other populations as the much-needed controllers of risk. Seth Holmes, a medical anthropologist and a physician, drew on Lauren Berlant’s (2007) theory of “slow death” to describe how statistical stories about migrant laborers render the repetitive motion of their exhausted joints and backs invisible.

These papers pushed us to not to take “the body” for granted, to examine bodies in and of contemporary capitalist practice. What bodies are, how they are composed and how they decompose in labor, and how they are interrelated to form the world in which we live, were critical components of all the ethnographic work presented at the workshop.

But, what of knowledge production, unpredictability, and “the edge”? Certainly, this workshop demonstrated that the categories of medicine and science are increasingly part of many peoples’ everyday lives.  Thus, where is medicine’s edge? The workshop participants couldn’t decide on any one edge; instead we settled on unfinished and jagged edges, organized unpredictably in spaces and times that are always deeply historical. The edges of medicine and how they teach one to story the body might be quite different in each of the ethnographic sites I have described: Mexico City’s contemporary annexos, Japanese Buraku and Indian Dalit stories of the body’s suffering, indigenous Guatemalans lake-water practices, and Oaxacan migrant laborers’ back and joint pain.

One body has thus far been conspicuously absent from this post:  the body of the ethnographer. The next post, on knowledge production, will address this perpetually challenging issue.


Celina Callahan-Kapoor is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on how chronic illnesses are reshaping everyday life and, in the process, informing individual, regional, and national identity in two historically distinctive border regions of the United States. Her primary fieldsite is McAllen, TX on the U.S./Mexico border and her comparative site is St. Albans, VT on the U.S./Canda border.


Berlant, Lauren. 2007  Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency). Critical Inquiry 33:754-780.

Hacking, Ian. 1990  The Taming of Chance. University of Cambridge.

Haraway, Donna J. 1999  Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In The Science Studies Reader. Mario Biagioli, ed. Routledge.

Latour, Bruno 1993  We Have Never Been Modern. Catherine Porter, transl. Harvard University Press.

Poovey, Mary. 1998  A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. University of Chicago Press.

One Response to Medicine and Science, Unpredicted

  1. Pingback: Invisible Interlocutors and the Savage Slot: Conversations at “Medicine on the Edge” | Somatosphere

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