Issue Highlight: Vol 39 Issue 4, Incarceration & Medical Anthropology

This blog post is the second installment of our three-part issue highlight on the new December 2015 issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry (the full issue is accessible here.) In this week’s blog, we examine Carolyn Sufrin’s article on the shared roles of clinicians and anthropologists working with incarcerated women in the United States.


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Clinician-anthropologists are in a unique position to lend voice to their participants and to care for their medical needs. For Carolyn Sufrin, who served both as a physician and an ethnographic researcher for incarcerated women in the United States, the clinical and anthropological roles intersected in deeply meaningful ways. Sufrin notes that in these dual roles, she observed with female prisoners and analyzed their experiences, and provided reproductive health care and delivering the same women’s babies in a county hospital, where imprisoned women gave birth. The women were alternately enrolled in Sufrin’s study upon ceasing to officially be her patients, or were individuals that Sufrin cared for during her tenure as their OB/GYN.

Sufrin uses her case as an example of how to interpret the ethical consequences of working as a clinician-anthropologist. Part of the challenge she faced as both a physician and anthropologist to the women was that IRB and HIPAA regulations divided the types of data she could use in her anthropological research. Though some details of her participants’ lives, such as past trauma or childhood abuse, were essential to their experiences as mothers and as incarcerated women, she could not use this data inasmuch as it had been shared with her in the context of a patient-practitioner interaction: in other words, it was considered classified personal health information that could not be subsequently utilized in her ethnographic research. These methodological hurdles, Sufrin explains, shed light on the complexities of what constitutes “sacrosanct” data. It also suggests how the safeguarding of medical data does not necessarily translate to the “protective” collection of ethnographic data which is not isolated to the case of individual patients, and which relies on knowledge of participants and their connections to other people (in this instance, to individuals in the participant’s life who had caused past psychological harm.)

Likewise, as stated earlier, relationships between the participant/patient and the clinician/anthropologist are another form of interpersonal connection which must be reconfigured depending on the nature of the exchange taking place. In Sufrin’s case, this meant being clear with her participants that– upon entry into her anthropological study– she was no longer their physician, and that the nature of their exchanges and their professional relationship would take a new form. She could share their information (albeit de-identified), unlike information drawn solely from their medical records or from an examination.

Yet here, Sufrin notes that the anthropologist– like the clinician– is still engaged in an ethic of care. For example, one of Sufrin’s former patients in the prison was charged with child endangerment after giving birth in an alley and handing her child to a stranger, unable to afford treatment at a hospital following her release from prison. The story made news headlines, and as public knowledge, was within the realm of information that Sufrin employed in her ethnographic analysis of reproductive health in the American prison system. However, Sufrin knew an added piece of information that was not already publicized from her interaction with the woman in prison: a clinical detail that she understood as a physician, but was shared during her time as an ethnographic researcher. This detail would have enhanced her analysis of the situation, but she chose to omit it out of concern that to publicize the detail would be to betray the woman’s trust in her as a researcher and as someone who served in the prison as a physician.

In other instances that Sufrin discusses, her role as both an anthropologist and clinician led the women she worked with in each capacity to feel as if she was especially attentive and caring. Rather than always relying on her medical authority, Sufrin underscores her decision to remain non-judgmental and supportive even when the women in her study had made potentially harmful choices; for example, she chose not to openly admonish a woman who was continuing to use crack upon release from jail, despite being thirty-two weeks pregnant. Sufrin notes that her silence hid her own frustration with this choice, but it strengthened the woman’s trust in her as an anthropologist and “as a doctor.”

In sum, these dual roles ultimately bolstered her relationships to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women that she served. Thus, the author argues that both anthropologists and clinicians share an “ethic of care” in their relationships with research subjects or patients. This ethic involves a careful fostering of the professional, interpersonal connections that ethnographers make with research participants, or that physicians make with their patients. This care entails the protection of private information and the researcher/clinician’s conscious attendance to interpersonal exchanges that bolster the patient/participant’s trust in the clinician/anthropologist. Likewise, an analysis of the clinician role alongside the anthropological one demonstrates both the delineations between multiple forms of care and social connection, as well as the shared commitment in medicine and anthropology to the sensitive attendance to patient and participant experiences.

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