AAA 2017 Session Highlight: Jonathan Metzl, “Negroes With Guns: Mental Illness, Gun Violence, and the Racial Politics of Firearms”

This week on the blog we are highlighting an oral presentation given at this year’s annual American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C. by Jonathan Metzl entitled Negroes With Guns: Mental Illness, Gun Violence, and the Racial Politics of Firearms. The session was named “Critical Inquiries: Violence, Trauma, and the Right to Health” on Thursday, November 30, 2017. Metzl combined historiographical and ethnographic analysis to explore the connections between gun violence, mental illness, and shifting anxieties about race in the United States. Metzl discussed how decisions about which crimes American culture diagnoses as “crazy,” and which crimes it deems as “sane,” are driven as much by the politics and anxieties of particular cultural moments as by the innate neurobiologies of particular assailants. The presentation concluded by describing how racialized questions of whether “the insane” should be allowed to bear arms become the only publicly permissible way to talk about questions of gun control while other narratives, such as the mass psychology of needing so many guns in the first place or the anxieties created by being surrounded by them, remain silenced.

 


Metzl began his presentation by stating that after the recent and tragic Las Vegas mass shooting, he gave 58 interviews in only two days on “the insane politics of mass shootings.” The two main questions that get asked after each mass shooting are: “Is mental illness the cause of mass shootings?” and, “Will treating mental illness stop gun crime?” Both conservative and liberal media analyses include these types of questions, whether or not they ultimately claim mental illness as the answer (for example: NPR’s On Point, Politico, and Fox News). 

Yet Metzl asked, why do these mental illness questions follow after mass shootings? “Aren’t these questions starting to be ridiculous?” Metzl asked, after referring to a study published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior which found some mass murderers and serial killers have something in common: autism and head injury. Yet this study was criticized for fueling judgments about an entire section of society and further contributing to the mental illness-gun violence debate.

In some ways, linking mass shootings and mental illness makes sense. Mass shootings are beyond the realm of “sanity” and understanding. Metzl stated that constructing a binary of sane vs. insane, good vs. evil, may be a means of processing grief and uncertainty. Further, many of the mass shooting perpetrators in the last decades have displayed some kind of mental illness symptomatology before their crimes. Mother Jones published an investigation of US mass shootings from 1982-2017 including information on the shooter’s race, gender, prior signs of mental health issues, mental health details, and whether or not the weapons were obtained legally. But this information cannot lead to a causal argument.

These types of questions have ideological and political roots, and focusing exclusively on issues of mental health force other concerns out of the debate. At a National Rifle Association (NRA) press conference in December 2012, chief executive Wayne LaPierre suggested having “an active national database for the mentally ill” would help prevent gun violence. In 2013, Ann Coulter wrote a Sound Off on Fox Nation entitled “Guns Don’t Kill People, The Mentally Ill Do.” After the 2015 Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, Paul Ryan called for a need to look at fixing our nation’s mental illness health system, not it’s gun legislation. Most recently, following news of the mass shooting of parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in Texas, Trump proclaimed mental health was the overarching issue, not gun control, even before complete details of the shooter were known. 

Following this overview of political ideologies shaping the mental illness conversation, Metzl then asks, “What can reasonably minded people do to push back?”

Metzl then presented five talking points about important ways to push back against the mental-illness-and-mass-shooting account while still remaining respectful of mental illness, treatments, and medications. These talking points discuss why this association is problematic.

1. “It’s sample bias – and dangerously so…”: Mass shootings come to stand for all shootings. But mass shootings are not the only time we need to talk about gun violence, Metzl stated. When we talk about mass shootings, we are not talking about policy implications for everyday gun death. Every day gun violence, gun proliferation, the ability to buy guns through loop holes should all be part of the national conversation. Worryingly, Metzl states, the situation is about to get much worse. Today (Wednesday, December 6, 2017) the House will vote on a “concealed carry reciprocity” bill, creating a national blanket right to carry a concealed weapon across state lines. For Metzl, the point overall is that the mental illness narrative distracts from daily gun violence and the political negotiations behind gun regulations. 

2. “It’s stigmatizing and misrepresentative…”: Fewer crimes involve people with mental illness. People with sanity are much more dangerous, Metzl stated. People diagnosed with a mental illness are less likely to shot other people, therefore we should really be restricting guns from the sane. Further, Metzl stated that statistically there is no predictive value in using a mental illness diagnosis for gun crime. Individuals with mental illness are more likely to be shot by police than to do the shooting themselves. 

3. “It constructs false psychiatric expertise…”: Psychiatrists are being told they should be able to predict which of their patients may commit violent act. Yet the pool of people they see are not a high risk population. Metzl stated the public culture of fear may lead psychiatrists to feel culpable for the actions of their patients, over-report their concerns, and complicates the doctor-patient confidentiality bond. In the weeks before the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, shooter James Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia. In June 2012 The Brian Lehrer Show discussed how psychiatrists determine red flags with their patients and when behavior is concerning enough to warrant further action with Columbia University Director of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry Paul Appelbaum

4. “It detracts from awareness of true predictive factors for everyday gun violence…”: The mental illness narrative also detracts from other risk factors for everyday gun violence and mass shootings. Substance use or abuse, past history of violence, lack of gun training, social networks, and access to firearms are all important predictive factors for gun violence.

5. “It’s racist…”: Last but certainly not least, the construction of a mentally ill, dangerous, white, male, gun-owning “loner” is a political choice. The intentional presentation of the individual-isolated-from-society is not supposed to be representative of white culture. Yet in the 1960s, the FBI openly blamed “crazy” black “culture” for the rise of public black activist groups. In debates leading up to the Gun Control Act of 1968, the U.S. Government and mainstream US culture proclaimed links between African American political protest, guns, and mental illness in ways that intensified fears about black activist groups. For example, FBI profilers diagnosed Malcolm X with “pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia” and with membership in the “Muslim Cult of Islam” while highlighting his militancy and his “plots” to overthrow the government. The FBI also hung “Armed and Dangerous” posters throughout the southern states warning citizens about Robert Williams, the controversial head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP author of a manifesto, Negroes With Guns, that advocated gun rights for African Americans. According to the posters, “Williams allegedly has possession of a large quantity of firearms, including a .45 caliber pistol… He has previously been diagnosed as schizophrenic and has advocated and threatened violence.”

These historical narratives were linked to black culture, not black individuals. Issues of race and insanity produced black male bodies coded as insane. This association fostered fears that helped mobilize significant public and political sentiment for gun control. Yet there are very different politics of the present day. Metzl states were are in a time when white shooters with mental illness beget reaffirmations of gun rights and groups that advocate anti-government platforms and support broadening of gun rights, such as the Tea Party, take seats in Congress rather than being subjected to police scrutiny. For much of our country’s history, guns marked whiteness. 

Metzl concluded his presentation with a discussion of a helplessness narrative. There is a kind of inaction about calling mass shootings and gun violence part of mental illness. Since we can not do anything about whether or not individuals have mental illness, it allows us to ignore the other issues and risk factors. This further constructs a kind of persons, not a composition of something larger and more systemic. The learned helplessness surrounding gun crime in the US makes hard rhetorical work to not look at whiteness and mass culture as part of the problem. 


Jonathan Metzl, MD, PhD is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health, and Society, Director for the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, and Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. He is also the Research Director of the Safe Tennessee Project, a non-partisan, volunteer-based organization that is concerned with gun-related injuries and fatalities in the United States and in the state of Tennessee. His areas of expertise include mental illness and gun violence with a particular focus on gender and race.

Learn more about Jonathan Metzl at his website, available here.

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Message from the AAA 2017 Annual Meeting

The Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry editorial team sends our greetings this week from the American Anthropological Association 2017 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. This year’s 166th Annual Meeting will be held from November 29th through December 3rd, with session listings and other helpful information available here. The theme for this year’s meeting is Anthropology Matters!. We hope all of our readers attending the conference have safe travels to– and many productive conversations at– this year’s meeting! Next week we will feature highlights from one of the many excellent paper sessions.

As a reminder, we continue to accept guest blog submissions on topics spanning cultural, medical, and psychological anthropology and related disciplines in the social sciences and medical humanities.

Consider submitting an abbreviated version of your AAA conference presentation as a guest blog, or write a commentary on one of the keynote speeches at the event. We look forward to sharing the work and research of our readers with our colleagues on the blog! If you are interested in submitting a guest blog, please contact our social media editors, Sonya Petrakovitz at smp152@case.edu or Monica Windholtz at mmw106@case.edu for details.

Best wishes,

The CMP Editorial Team

 

Upcoming AAA 2017 Annual Meeting: Highlights of Scheduled Sessions

This week on the blog we are highlighting two scheduled sessions at the upcoming American Anthropological Association 2017 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC from November 29th through December 3rd. Anthropology Matters!, the theme for the 116th AAA Annual Meeting, is a call to unite the field of anthropology, to embrace difficulty, and to promote the persistent relevance of what anthropology is and does. As stated on the Annual Meeting website, available here, anthropology is best at describing the past, exploring the present, predicting the future, and navigating the processes of being and becoming human.

The first scheduled session highlighted is entitled Biomedical Subjectivities and Imagined Futures (2-0145) and features oral presentations by Kimberly Dukes, Markus Idvall, Leslie Carlin, Dana Ketcher, and Rebecca Grunzke. The second scheduled session is an Executive Roundtable session entitled Do Black and Brown Lives Matter to Anthropology?: Race, Bodies, and Context. This roundtable features John Jackson, Norma Mendoza-Denton, Aimee Cox, Jonathan Rosa, and Vanessa Diaz.


Biomedical Subjectivities and Imagined Futures (2-0145) 

Wednesday, November 29th – 12:00-1:45pm in Marriott Ballroom Salon 1

– Oral Presentation Session –

Kimberly Dukes (Co-Authored with Aaron Seaman) – University of Iowa

Title: “Let’s Take a Peek”: Looking At, For, and Away From Future Cancers

Abstract: This paper considers what it means to be living, for a time, “between” illnesses, a particular moment of what Lochlann Jain has called “living in prognosis.” How—ostensibly from a place of “health,” as some would define it—is one’s reckoning of the future shaped by prior experiences? Are there ways of imagining an embodied future other than the overdetermined eventuality of recurrence or other bodily breakdown? This paper contemplates how people who have been successfully treated for head and neck cancer envision themselves and their futures as they consider whether to undergo screening for lung cancer. Drawing on semi-structured, in-depth interviews with patients and providers at a Midwestern US academic tertiary care center, we explore the tension between some people’s reliance on surveillance as an active health practice and others’ comfort with uncertainty. As patients situate themselves in the space between cure and potential recurrence, they sometimes resist biomedical understandings of evidence, harms, and risks. As participants explore the costs—and even the perceived gifts—of cancer in their lives, they draw on other sorts of evidence, including fun lives and prices paid; personal and social narratives of cancer as something to be surveilled, cured, or merely interrupted; and the value of different kinds of knowing. Working in this context, then, the paper contributes to anthropological conversations about the ways that people make sense of the precarity of life, especially within a US biomedical landscape increasingly contoured by anticipatory conceptualizations of chronicity and risk.

 

Markus Idvall – Lund University

Title: Synchronizing Oneself with Science: How Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease Go Along with Clinical Trials

Abstract: Sweden has a long tradition when it comes to biomedical research on Parkinson’s disease. For example in the 1980s the first neuron cell transplantation to a Parkinson patient in the world took place in Sweden. Today Swedish Parkinson scientists, in collaboration with researchers in other countries, continue the search for a cure for Parkinson’s disease within several research fields. In the last years I have followed a biomedical research project in Sweden focused on realizing clinical trials with Parkinson patients within the field of cell transplantation. In my work I have conducted interviews with patients, researchers and medical staff as well as observations in hospital environments and in contacts with patient’s organizations.
My aim with this presentation is to explore what constitutes a clinical trial from the viewpoint of the patients. How does this biomedical research matter for trial-participating as well non-participating patients? How does one as patient follow and understand the clinical trials? How does one move along in relation to what one, on the basis of one’s degenerative illness, perceives as the progress of science? Individuals with Parkinson are, in this sense, temporal beings in whatever they do or calculate in relation to science. Taking part in clinical trials is viewed as a way of synchronizing one’s self with what one experiences as the tempo of practiced science. In my presentation I will explore different concepts for how a form of time sensitivity can be studied among patients.

 

Leslie Carlin (Session Chair, Co-Authored with Sonya Allin, Sarah Munce, Christine Ibrahim, Susan Jaglal) – University of Toronto

Title: Inside the BMD Black Box: Investigating the Performance and Production of Bone Material Density Tests

Abstract: Most research into the social context of bone mineral density (BMD) testing has focused on its consumers, mainly “older” women, and the effect of such tests on perceptions of aging bodies, in particular on the frightening risk of hip or other fragility fracture. BMD tests, which detect thinning (osteoporotic) bone, provide information on an invisible, painless, and otherwise unknowable aspect of bone health. From a health policy perspective, the cost of evaluating individuals’ fracture risk through such testing must be measured against both the expense of treating fracture patients and the trauma of injury. Between patient and policy, and very much under-investigated, is the material and social production of the BMD test itself, a procedure that often takes place in small (box-like) rooms using carefully calibrated machines operated by X-ray technologists with specialized training in BMD. In Ontario, Canada, the Ontario Health Insurance Program (OHIP) is a single-payer government-funded system that pays for BMD tests for individuals who meet OHIP’s eligibility criteria; these are based on a referring physician’s assignment of a “risk category.” In order to ensure reimbursement, the scanning facility’s intake staff must align the request with the OHIP risk designations, a process that is subject to judgement and error. “It’s always a hardship,” says one technologist. Using data from interviews with personnel at twelve scanning facilities in Ontario, we consider BMD testing as the creation of a ‘desirable’ artifact—the scan itself and the report created by the ‘reading physician’—in order to explore how a process, like a thing, can have a fluid and dynamic social life.

 

Dana Ketcher – University of South Florida

Title: Value of Genetic Testing and Counseling for Cancer Syndromes: Perspectives of Women at Genetic High Risk

Abstract: Genetic counselors might contend that the knowledge derived from the results of genetic testing (GT) for hereditary cancer syndromes is the primary characteristic that makes testing valuable. The knowledge and information gained from GT results inform cancer screening recommendations and potential prophylactic surgeries, as well as who (if anyone) in the patient’s family should also undergo testing. However, less is known about the value of GT as determined through the experiences and perceptions of patients – what I call the ‘folk knowledge’ of GT. This paper will discuss this ‘folk knowledge’ and the value assigned to GT and genetic counseling by women determined to be at high genetic risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. While biomedicine places a premium on technology, how is that technology used and/or perceived by women who are exposed to it? Ethnographic research with women who have undergone testing, and also those who have refused, helps illustrate the ways in which women determine if, and what, kind of value GT has in their perspective.

 

Rebecca Grunzke – Mercer University

Title: Is There a Doctor in the Mouse? Proposing a Cyberethnography of Online Diagnosers

Abstract: In 2008, Microsoft conducted a study of Internet users’ experiences with web searches concerning medical concerns and self-diagnosis. The result was the first systematic study of cyberchondria, defined by researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz as the “unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.” Researchers from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported in 2013 that 35 percent of U.S. adults say “they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have,” referring to people who search for such medical information on the internet as “online diagnosers” (Fox and Duggan 2013). According to the Pew study, a total of 80 percent of Internet users, or about 93 million Americans, have searched for a health-related topic online, indicating that searching for health or medical information is currently one of the most popular online activities (Weaver 2013). This finding also provides significant support for both increased spending online by the health care industry to reach its consumers and the prediction by technology firm Jupiter Research that “health care companies will spend $1 billion online within the next five years” (Weaver 2013). With an estimated 24 million U.S. residents poised to lose health care coverage by 2026 under the current iteration of the American Health Care Act (Congressional Budget Office 2017), these numbers are likely to increase, much to the chagrin of some medical professionals responding to the trend of online diagnosis, who conclude that many people prefer Google over their doctors for medical advice (Samadi 2016). While attempting to self-diagnose at home and making decisions whether or not to seek a clinicians help are not new, websites giving medical advice are a recent edition to a household’s information resources (Fox and Duggan 2013). The Pew study found that women, younger people, white adults, those from households earning $75,000 or more, and those with a college degree or advanced degrees have a higher likelihood than their counterparts to go online to figure out a possible diagnosis (Fox and Duggan 2013). This study seeks to enhance the demographic and cultural profiles of online diagnosers using the tools of cognitive anthropology and social network analysis to compose a cyberethnography of this growing virtual community. The study’s theoretical orientation will emphasize the interplay between consensus theory and confirmation bias (the tendency for people to confirm what they already believe to be true, even in the face of evidence to the contrary), with particular attention to how each potentially informs the development of cyberchondria.


Do Black and Brown Lives Matter to Anthropology?: Race, Bodies, and Context (3-1225)

Thursday, November 30 – 4:15-6:00pm in Omni, Hampton

– Executive Roundtable Session –

John Jackson (Chair/Roundtable Introducer) – University of Pennsylvania

Norma Mendoza-Denton – University of California, Los Angeles

Aimee Cox – Yale University

Jonathan Rosa – Stanford University

Vanessa Diaz (Organizer) – Dartmouth College

In line with the 2017 AAA theme, “Anthropology matters!,” which invokes #BlackLivesMatter and the movements of other racialized and stigmatized groups, this roundtable offers a space for anthropologists to respond to how anthropology interacts with, strengthens, and/or stifles the movement(s) of people of color and other marginalized populations. More specifically, this roundtable will center around the question anthropologist John Jackson posed in his comments for the roundtable “Ferguson and Beyond” at the AAA 2015 annual meeting: Do Black lives matter to anthropology?

In the time since this provocative question was posed, the lives of Black folks, and people of color more broadly, have remained under attack by U.S. political, legal, and criminal justice systems. As this year’s call for papers asks us to bring panels to the table “that involve investigation, translation, influence, and action” to various parties, including “as an association (AAA and all the sections),” this roundtable offers the opportunity to address if and how anthropology has addressed Jackson’s question. This roundtable will explore various anthropological perspectives on race, the body, and the reality of white supremacy and racial hierarchies that are alive and well within anthropology, academia, and the U.S. on a national level.

By exploring such topics as racialized and gendered labor in the academy, racial profiling in various social realms, raciolinguistic politics, and how popular U.S. culture relates to and perpetuates racial hierarchies, we come together as anthropologists of color to insist that issues of race and racialization be at the forefront of contemporary anthropological inquiry. The panelists will identify the ways in which their research addresses contemporary struggles with inequality, discrimination, and other topics that should matter to anthropology, while at the same time offering examples of the ways in which anthropology as a discipline and AAA as an organization (and its members) can show that these struggles, and the discipline’s own relationship to colonialism and white supremacy do, in fact, matter to anthropology.

Message from the AAA 2016 Meeting

 

Logo_of_the_American_Anthropological_Association

via Wikimedia Commons

The Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry editorial team sends our greetings this week from the American Anthropological Association 2016 Meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year’s meeting will be held November 16th-20th, with session listings and other helpful information available here. We hope all of our readers attending the conference have safe travels to– and many productive conversations at– this year’s meeting. As a reminder, we continue to accept guest blog submissions on topics spanning cultural medical anthropology and related disciplines in the social sciences and medical humanities.

Consider submitting an abbreviated version of your AAA conference presentation as a guest blog, or write a commentary on one of the keynote speeches at the event. We look forward to sharing the work and research of our readers with our colleagues on the blog! If you are interested in submitting a guest blog, please contact social media editor Julia Knopes at jcb193@case.edu for details.

As a reminder, there will be no new blog entry posted next Wednesday, November 23rd 2016 in light of the upcoming holiday week.

Best wishes,

The CMP Editorial Team

AAA 2016 Session Highlights: Part 1, Evidence

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Image via AAA Website

This is the first in a two-part series spotlighting sessions in medical anthropology at the upcoming 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Though not intended to be exhaustive in scope, this series will highlight a selection of sessions at the AAA that may interest our readers and conference attendees. The sessions spotlighted here centered around two themes: evidence (Part 1) and discoveries (Part 2.) These two subjects are also the core themes of this year’s annual meeting. For more information, find details about this year’s conference at this link.


Sessions on “Evidence”: Paper Sessions on the Themes of Knowledges, Certainties, Uncertainties, Evaluation, and Medical Data in Practice

HEGEMONY OF EVIDENCE: THE SHAPING OF KNOWLEDGE AND UNCERTAINTY

Wednesday, November 16th / 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM

Chair: Shannon Satterwhite (University of California, San Francisco)

This session will include papers on biopolitics, medical documentation, certainty and diagnosis, maternal health data collection, and nursing and primary care practices.

AMBIGUITIES OF CERTAINTY: NEGOTIATING KNOWLEDGE AND NAVIGATING THE BOUNDARIES OF EVIDENCE

Thursday, November 17th 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM

Chair: Anna Zogas (University of Washington)

Papers in this session will address health rationalities and socialities, the nature of uncertainty and medical evidence, and the boundaries of medical knowledges.

EVIDENCE? ACCIDENT? DISCOVERY? PSYCHOSIS, MORAL SUBJECTIVITY AND CARE 

Thursday, November 17th 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM

Organizer(s): Neely Myers (Southern Methodist University) and Michael D’Arcy (University of California, Berkeley)

Chair: Lauren Cubellis (Washington University, St Louis)

Discussant: Elizabeth Bromley (University of California, Los Angeles)

In this session, the presenters will explore numerous connections between psychological experiences, illnesses, and clinical evidence.

EVIDENCE AND THE ENDS OF AIDS: SCIENCE, DISCOURSE, AND POLITICS AT THE END OF THE TREATMENT SCALE-UP ERA

Thursday, November 17th 4:00 PM – 5:45 PM

Organizer(s): Nora Kenworthy (University of Washington, Bothell) and  Matthew Thomann (Columbia University)

Chair: Richard Parker (Columbia University)

Discussant: Vinh-Kim Nguyen (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Geneva, Switzerland)

Papers in this session will explore global AIDS/HIV landscapes, including the reframing of risk, data, and treatments. They will also consider the ties between science and politics in HIV/AIDS research and global health initiatives.

CLINICAL IMPRESSIONS: REGIMES OF INTERPRETATION AND EVALUATION IN HEALTHCARE

Friday, November 18th 10:15 AM – 12:00 PM

Organizer(s): Adam Baim (University of Chicago), Colin Halverson (University of Chicago)

Chair(s): Talia Weiner (University of Chicago), Miao Hua (University of Chicago)

Discussant: Barry Saunders (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

This session will explore how biomedical systems are evaluated, how biomedical practitioners evaluate illness, and how medical evidence and interpretation align in numerous settings.

Blog Archive: Latour’s AAA 2014 Address

In this installment of the blog, we revisit one of our first conference features. This commentary piece examined Bruno Latour’s Distinguished Lecture address at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC. You can access the original post here.


 

This year at the American Anthropological Association 2014 Meeting, Bruno Latour was invited to deliver the distinguished lecture. Entitled “Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene,” Latour discusses the rise in the term anthropocene to describe our current stage of natural history. Although the term makes reference to how “human” (anthro) our current age may be, Latour jests that this term was introduced by geologists, not social scientists. In the anthropocene, it is humans that play the defining role in our geological historical moment.

Logo_of_the_American_Anthropological_Association

via Wikimedia Commons

The assumption, Latour notes, is that human agency is the prime source of action that shapes the physical world. Humans are responsible for climate change, for pollution, for altering the literal, natural fabric of our world. Yet we know that not all humans have the same impact on our environment. As Latour quips, there is not “One Human” who is responsible for the changes we see in our climate or environment. We are simultaneously assessing human power as a plural, collective entity, as well as using this concept to suggest that the blame for global change does not fall evenly across all humans. As anthropologists and cultural theorists, we know how fragile human agency can be when we divide it amongst many contending social and cultural groups.

Is there another way to think about human action that does not problematically configure humans as both collective and individual, acting but not universally accountable for all human actions? Latour posits that rather than focusing solely on agency, with a strong emphasis on human intention and purpose when committing action, we could think instead about animation, or what forces–human and non-human– are in motion in a given social space. To do so, we can no longer assume that the human agent is a colloquial be-all-end-all.

How does this assertion speak to medical anthropology, social medicine, and medical humanities? At first, we might raise our brows at the discussions of geography, environment, and most of all the suspicion surrounding the primacy of human agency. Decentralizing the human agent, we might say, is perhaps the least humanistic approach to the study of human experience. Indeed, medicine is the care of humans by humans!

However, our human ability to question our own power and position in the universe, amidst other natural and non-human forces, is a mark of our species. Whether through philosophy, religion, or social science, humans have a proclivity for ruminating about our place in the material, corporal world. We crave knowledge about what sets us apart from non-human things, and how we are sometimes reliant on them. For scholars of medicine, such inquiries about our relationships with the physical universe is key. We consider the place of non-human agents in disease and care. We ask: why do physicians rely on certain tools? Why do patients see stethoscopes, thermometers, and scalpels as making a clinician legitimate in his or her practice? How are medical traditions made unique by their tools and pharmaceutical formulas? Could the layout of a hospital or clinic itself alter the way care is given?

In an age where technology permeates developed and developing societies, Latour’s suggestion to destabilize human agency is productive when considering medicine as a cultural object. We must think not only of ourselves, but the physical environments we live in and the material objects and devices we cannot seem to live without.

Many scholars understandably resist Latour’s idea that non-humans could have some primitive agency. Yet even if we do not assign agency to non-human tools, things, and environments, thinking seriously about their role in sociocultural systems is informative. Medicine is a lively site of exchange between patients and physicians, as well as practitioners and devices, patients and new medical innovations, and the built environments which house them. As Latour invites us to do, we should pause to consider humans within the midst of a rich material world around us that– like humanity itself– is constantly in motion.

 

AAA 2015 Sessions: Medical and Patient Bodies

This entry is our last in a three-part blog series on the upcoming American Anthropological Association (2015) meeting, to be held in Denver, CO from November 18th-22nd. Here we feature paper sessions on contemporary themes in medical anthropology and social medicine. This year, we showcased sessions on the anthropology of mental health care (read here) and on cultural approaches to food sovereignty and economies, featured last week. In this installment, we highlight three sessions on the theme of the medical and patient body. All sessions are listed chronologically by date and time.

Image via AAA Website

Image via AAA Website

The Politics of Health and Ritual Practices: Ethnographic Perspectives

Wednesday, November 18th from 2:00pm-3:45pm (details here.)

In this session, topics will include: health and religion in Putin’s Russia; rhetoric and biopolitics in local medicines of North India; hypochondria, somatic experience, and psychiatry in Soviet-era Bulgaria; and the implications of mortuary rituals in neoliberal Romania. These papers will particularly interest scholars who study the relationship between body and state, as well as those who examine the intersection of religion, health, and healing practice.

The Biosociocultural Trajectory of Stigma

Sunday, November 22nd from 10:15am-12:00pm (details here.)

Papers in the session will address stigma in the following contexts: methadone treatment in a Moldovan prison; HIV+ identities in intergenerational perspective; changes in HIV/AIDS stigma in Western Kenya; stigma and HIV/AIDS as chronic versus curable; obesity and depression in Puerto Rico; and de-stigmatization in massive weight loss. Through these presentations, the session will posit the medical body at the center of social discourses on stigma, illness, and treatment across cultures.

Micropolitics of Medical Life

Sunday, November 22nd from 10:15am-12:00pm (details here.)

This session spans topics such as: organ donation and the family in Japan; patient-centered approaches to biomedical readmission; infant health in El Salvador; translation and language in medical encounters; ethnographic research on contaminated water exposure and local treatments for infant diarrhea; dialysis and the family unit; and the connections between cells, culture, and knowledge-making. These papers will underscore the cross-cultural ties between body, biology, illness, culture, and daily life.