SPA 2017 Biennial Meeting: Breakfast Lecture with Richard Shweder and Byron Good

This week we’re featuring a summary of The 2017 Biennial Meeting of The Society for Psychological Anthropology Breakfast Lecture. This year, the Breakfast Lecture presented a conversation with the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Awardee, Richard Shweder, and the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Awardee, Byron Good. In this event, Dr. Shweder and Dr. Good reflect on morality and “the mental” in both Cultural Psychology and Psychological Anthropology, discussing how profoundly different worlds still share some moralities and orientations. They also discuss some critical challenges and opportunities for psychological anthropology. By interviewing each other, a foundational technique in anthropology itself, Dr. Shweder and Dr. Good explore their past works, theoretical orientations, and their anticipation of where anthropological explorations of psychological processes are heading.

2016 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee Richard Shweder

The conversation begins with Dr. Good asking Dr. Shweder to “tell us about your history.” Dr. Shweder delves into his upbringing in Great Neck on the north shore of Long Island, at the time an emerging suburb with a very progressive, left-wing population. He discusses the first time he heard the word anthropology in his 11th grade English class when “Mr. Beal” said, “for any of you who don’t know what to do in life, there’s this thing called anthropology.” After graduation Dr. Shweder went to the University of Pittsburgh where Dr. Arthur Tuden, an Africanist and Cultural Anthropologist, taught his Introduction to Anthropology class, bringing in the study of culture with current events and ultimately solidifying Dr. Shweder’s path in Anthropology. From Pittsburgh, Dr. Shweder progressed to Harvard, where he states several figures had an impact on his intellectual growth, including Cora DuBois and John Whiting. After finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard, Dr. Shweder taught at the University of Nairobi in Kenya before finally landing at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Shweder then, discussing approaches and schools of thought in Cultural Psychology, defines Cultural Psychology as “the study of differences in mentalities across human populations.” Psychological Anthropology, for Dr. Shweder, has been more interested in taking universal psychological schemes and applying them to particular cultures to see whether or not different practices or beliefs were essentially manifestations of a broader psychological concept, such as a variation on an Oedipus complex. There is not a denial of universals in Cultural Psychology, however, since, to Dr. Shweder, there is not a way of studying differences without also studying universals. Dr. Shweder describes his way of defining the Cultural Psychology of Morality as “investigating the fates of moral absolutes in history and to show the way they get transformed, take on different content, and lead to different judgments.” To Dr. Shweder, behind a culture or individual is a set of moral absolutes, or rules of moral reason. Yet these moral absolutes and rules are abstract concepts which do not present determinations of actual cases, histories, or cultural contexts. Cultural Psychology is not about looking for likenesses, but looking for the differentiations and local adaptations that have taken place. For Dr. Shweder, the psychological means looking at differences in “the mental.” “The mental” refers to what people know, think, feel, want, and value as good and bad. Dr. Shweder states, “Anywhere you look in the world you’re going to find that people know, think, feel, want, and value things as good and bad. In some sense, that’s what it means to be a person.”

Dr. Shweder follows up with a discussion that anthropologists are supposed to fairly represent the groups they study; to try to portray their way of life in a way that the people the anthropologist is writing for might see them not as “exotic aliens,” but as morally sensitive persons who do things for recognizable reasons. Dr. Shweder proposes the conspicuous use of the notion of “oppression,” or seeing the social order as oppressive, combined with the now popular term “agency,” suggests that to have agency was to be opposed to culture. Thus, for Dr. Shweder, the concept that there might be people whose agency was used to carry forward a cultural tradition which was in a framework where they felt they could be fulfilled, was gone. “When I went to India I was in a world where if I approached it as ‘a good liberal,’ assuming everything is free choice and the world is there to satisfy my preferences, I would have seen it as an oppressive order. Yet the people who live there, for the most part, feel quite at home with rich, meaningful lives,” Dr. Shweder states.

Building off the discussion of morality, Dr. Good then engages with concepts of morality and oppression. Dr. Good states that for him, the experience of morality is often an experience of oppression. He expresses that many people spend at least parts of their lives resisting or fighting against morality, feeling that the moral system around them is actually an oppressive system causing them to live their lives “wrongly” within it. It seems to Dr. Good that reading ethics with a grand “they” or a grand “we” misses, ethnographically, another side of the story. Dr. Shweder responds that there is a multiplicity of the moral world. The moral world has many goods and desires that are in conflict with each other, and one cannot have them all. This sets up the dynamic of resistance since the system of conflict and prioritization pushes alternatives to the side. Dr. Shweder states that within any society there is the orthodox and the heterodox, that which is center stage and that which is done covertly. The mistake is to privilege one ethic over another, to act as if that privileging itself is not a choice or commitment, or to label the ethic of autonomy as the “natural way” in which anyone who is fully enlightened will ultimately go. Dr. Shweder cautions against the view of “liberalism as destiny,” where there are stages of moral development, the height of moral development being an autonomous, individualized person or society.

2017 SPA Lifetime Achievement Awardee Byron Good

Dr. Good then discusses his personal and academic history. He starts by commenting that his childhood and upbringing couldn’t have been more different than Dr. Shweder’s, growing up on a Mennonite farm in the Republican mid-west. Dr. Good spent much of his life feeling that religion and divinity grounded and oriented aspects of his academic life. “I don’t romanticize ethical norms if they, over time, have become more and more interested in controlling our lives in ways that we have very little direct knowledge of,” Dr. Good states. “I don’t romanticize suffering.” While at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Dr. Good started studying mathematics before spending a year at the University of Nigeria. Dr. Good expressed this time as having a powerful impact which changed his life. “My worldview became profoundly different,” he states. Coming back from Africa convinced that there had to be something more than mathematics, Dr. Good decided to go to Harvard Divinity School. It was there that he began taking courses in anthropology and religion. Attending the University of Chicago for his Ph.D., Dr. Good states his first year at Chicago was Clifford Geertz’s last year. Yet even after Geertz left, Dr. Good still considered him a mentor and inspiration. This was also a very political moment for universities and the country in general. Dr. Good describes how he came of age in anthropology in a time of the Vietnam War, in a time of activism, and in the time of the Civil Rights Movement. These were all very powerful influences on how Dr. Good conceptualized the importance of anthropology.

Discussing his research, Dr. Good describes the time he spent in a genuinely post-colonial conflict setting of Aceh, Indonesia.  He became very aware of colonialism and its colonial history and how it had impacted political life along with a diverse set of religious and cultural influences. It was a setting that had a history of tremendous violence. “It was my first experience of working in areas of really intensive conflict,” Dr. Good states, “and I have to say that I went home from that experience very affected by listening to stories of violence.” Terms like “post-colonialism” and “post-colonial subjectivity,” and even terms like “haunting” and “hauntology” became central to his vision of what Psychological Anthropology can be today. Dr. Good poses the question of how one does Psychological Anthropology in settings of violence. “My thinking about hauntology started off with being in Aceh, and thinking about what Aceh was like post-tsunami and post-conflict,” Dr. Good remarks. Aceh was a place where ghosts and spirits of the dead were everywhere, alongside the ghosts of the recent violence and the emergence of political gorillas who had been previously hidden away. “Suddenly Aceh was no longer in the midst of a war and people who had been fighting were coming back and appearing in everyday life,” Dr. Good explains, “and I began thinking about post-authoritarian Indonesia and why it is that there are certain moments in a society that ghosts begin to appear in a very powerful way, and ghosts that are related to historical violence.” Dr. Good became fascinated with the relationship between historical memory, histories of violence, how they make themselves present, and how they reintroduce themselves in psychological experience.

To wrap up the Breakfast Lecture, Dr. Shweder discusses how the issue of nationalism is front and center in a very powerful way at the moment. He suggests that anthropologists should be qualified to talk about the ethno-national impulses people are facing and examine why it is that some people feel like their way of life, or their control over their life, is being threatened by globalization, for example. He calls on anthropologists to give a native point of view instead of simply reacting with fear and mainstream ideology. “This is anthropology. There are in-groups and there are out-groups. People have ways of life and traditions; they want to exercise control over their way of life. This has to be examined,” Dr. Shweder states. He further discusses that one of the things that’s exceptional to the United States is that we are a nation in which constitutional patriotism is the binding feature. In principle, that means there is space for cultural diversity. “The ways in which tyranny can be built up and balanced through distribution of power are all rich topics right now. Immigration. Making sure we represent minority views in a way that majority groups understand them and why the way they live is both meaningful and justifiable.” Dr. Shweder finishes by stating that there are also threats to anthropology from within. He warns against a “liberal tyranny” which can be compared to a “white-man’s-burden-style” of thinking with regard to cultural differences. Dr. Shweder sees this as using the notion of oppression or exploitation as an excuse for interventions into other people’s ways of life rather than starting by seeing whether or not one can understand other practices and social organizations in a morally-motivated way. Dr. Good closes the conversation session by encouraging anthropologists to be engaged in both theoretical debates within the discipline as well as policy and implementation projects and practices which can benefit the people in the communities we study.


Richard Shweder is the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (1991) and Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology (2003), both published by Harvard University Press. Dr. Shweder is also an editor or co-editor of many books in the areas of cultural psychology, psychological anthropology, and comparative human development. For more information on Dr. Shweder, visit his page at the University of Chicago here, as well as the Society for Psychological Anthropology 2017 Biennial Conference Breakfast Lecture website, available here.

Byron Good is a Professor of Medical Anthropology at, and former Chair (2000-2006) of, the Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University. Dr. Good is director of the International Mental Health Training Program, funded by the Fogarty International Center to train psychiatrists from China in mental health services research. Dr. Good’s broader interests focus on the theorization of subjectivity in contemporary societies, focusing on the relation of political, cultural, and psychological renderings of the subject and experience, with a special interest in Indonesia. He is the editor or co-editor of many significant volumes, books, and is a former editor-in-chief of our Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry journal (1986-2004). For more information on Dr. Good, visit the Harvard Medical School Department of Global Health and Social Medicine website here, as well as the Society for Psychological Anthropology 2017 Biennial Conference Breakfast Lecture website, available here.

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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.

News: UN Releases New Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

On Friday, September 25th, the UN released its new plan for global development through 2030: the sustainable development goals (SDGs).[i] This plan replaces the millennium development goal (MDG) plan that expires at the end of 2015, and offers a new 17-point agenda focused on social equality, infrastructure, technology, and environmental conservation.[ii] Of note to medical anthropologists, global health workers, and other scholars in social medicine is the continued focus on health and well being as the third item amidst the seventeen goals. The SDG plan champions health “for all at all ages,” although it proposes no specific goals for improving elder care despite the language stressing health across ages. Maternal and reproductive health, substance abuse, traffic deaths, and universal health care coverage are key issues addressed in the SDGs.

Emblem of the UN via Wikimedia Commons

Emblem of the UN via Wikimedia Commons

Proponents of the new SDGs, like the World Bank, argue that the plan’s emphasis on both developed and developing countries creates a shared impetus for bolstering food security, education, and access to quality health care; likewise, it suggests that these issues are global ones that cross national borders, and do not exist at the state level alone.[iii] Others criticize the SDGs as too ambitious, arguing that global authorities already struggle to aid migrants and peoples in crisis[iv], stating that the goals are too broad and thus not focused enough to produce observable change[v], and highlighting the irony of combating climate change while promising electricity for all by 2030.[vi]

Anthropologists have long held an interest in international development as a site of cross-cultural exchange, a relic of colonialism, and as a paternalistic model of societal shepherding of developing nations by the wealthy West and Global North.[vii] Amongst development anthropologists, the sustainable development goals will certainly generate new questions about the connectedness of social inequities with health, autonomy, and human rights in the contemporary age. The goals will similarly continue to attract the interest of scholars studying biomedicine and global health in diverse cultural settings.

In addition, the SDGs will no doubt capture the attention of anthropologists in science and technology studies (STS) with the plan’s robust emphasis on technologies, energy, infrastructure, and the environment. This sharpened focus on the connection between social order, science, and technology attests to the applicability of STS approaches to the study of development.

The SDGs arrive at a time of increased concern over social justice and equity on the transnational scale, particularly in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis[viii] and given wide income gaps that impact people in the United States, Chile, Greece, Mexico, and Turkey alike.[ix] Anthropologists are ideally situated to explore the impact of development goals across cultures, and to question how and why these goals may face considerable challenges as they are translated into action, law, and practice at the local level.


[i] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/sep/25/global-goals-summit-2015-new-york-un-pope-shakira-malala-yousafzai

[ii] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics

[iii] https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/global-goals-economic-transformation-in-an-interconnected-world

[iv] http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/09/28/444188463/are-the-new-u-n-global-goals-too-ambitious

[v] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sustainable-development-goals-offer-something-for-everyone-and-will-not-work/

[vi] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/energy-access-sdgs-un-climate-change/407734/

[vii] http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0631228802.html

[viii] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/28/world/united-nations-main/

[ix] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/27/us-development-goals-challenges-analysis-idUSKCN0RR0TV20150927

Book Release: “The Law of Possession: Ritual, Healing, and the Secular State”

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Image via Oxford UP website

Out this November 2015 from Oxford University Press is an edited collection by William S. Sax and Helene Basu entitled The Law of Possession: Ritual, Healing, and the Secular State. The text presents both contemporary and historical case studies of the relationship between spiritual conflict and judicial exchanges across cultures. While rituals to exorcise spirits from the afflicted are typically characterized solely as acts of healing, they are also scenarios in which spirit healers do justice by the possessed by driving out a spirit who has committed an act of evil against the person they inhabit. Spirit possession may similarly provide valuable opportunities for members of a community to contact restless spirits through a human oracle. These otherworldly entities may then offer evidence to the living as to how to avenge or appease them, thereby restoring social harmony. Healing, justice, cosmic order, and religion are thus closely integrated within these culturally meaningful negotiations.

The authors of the text challenge the assumption that these spiritual encounters– which have consequences for both medicine and the law in many societies– are antiquated and do not belong in modern societies or in secular governments. By drawing on examples from East Asia, South Asia, and Africa, the authors assert that spiritual healing and law nevertheless persist in the contemporary age as a way to meet social and religious needs in many cultures.

Learn more about the book (in paperback) by clicking here.

Link to the hardcover copy: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-law-of-possession-9780190275747?cc=us&lang=en

About the editors: William Sax teaches at the University of Heidelberg, where he serves as the Chair of Cultural Anthropology at the South Asia Institute. Helene Basu is the director of the Institute of Social Anthropology at Münster University.

AAA 2014: Perspectives on the Bruno Latour Distinguished Lecture

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.

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.

Our blog editor at the Latour Distinguished Lecture

Our blog editor at the Latour Distinguished Lecture

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.

Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. She holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the culture of human anatomy and dissection in Western medical traditions, as well as public access to anatomical and pathological specimens.


Note on the presenter:

Bruno Latour is professor at the Sciences Po Paris in Paris, France. A central theorist in STS (science and technology studies), he is the author of We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Science in Action (1987) and Laboratory Life (1979).

You can read the full text of Latour’s lecture here: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/139-AAA-Washington.pdf