Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 3, “Shame, Blame, and Status Incongruity: Health and Stigma in Rural Brazil and the Urban United Arab Emirates”

This week on the blog we are highlighting a paper by Lesley Jo Weaver and Sarah Trainer entitled Shame, Blame, and Status Incongruity: Health and Stigma in Rural Brazil and the Urban United Arab Emirates. The authors build on sociologist Erving Goffman’s classic notion of stigma as a social phenomenon to investigate the stigma attached to two seemingly disparate conditions: food insecurity in rural Brazil, and obesity in the urban United Arab Emirates. The authors’ analyses emphasize that both circumstances are stigmatized because they represent a deviation from a deeply-held social norm. Additionally, in both cases, the stigma related with food insecurity and obesity is likely at least as damaging to personal wellbeing as are the biological effects of these conditions. To close, Weaver and Trainer suggest that these forms of stigma transcend individuals and are principally structural in their origins. Viewing stigma as a common element of the human condition refocuses the analytic lens toward structural-level factors that need to be addressed in order to improve human wellbeing.


Weaver and Trainer begin by discussing the theoretical grounding of stigma. Frequently defined as an indicator of disgrace signifying physical, moral, or social flaw, stigma is a powerful determinant of physical and mental health. Whether externally imposed by others or internalized and self-directed, stigma may come from or produce feelings of shame and embarrassment. Sociologist Erving Goffman described stigma as a “single social process uniting a dizzying range of conditions and behaviors… Stigma is stigma because it is ‘fundamentally discrediting’—that is, it is perceived to index something inherently negative about a person.”

Precisely because stigma draws on core beliefs held by mainstream society and has consequences for both physical and mental health, stigma should be a public health concern. Having a unitary conception of stigma can be operationalized as status incongruity—that is, the potentially measurable difference between culturally held attitudes of what people should be or achieve in a given realm, and what they are actually able to be or achieve.

Food insecurity is defined as a lack of secure access to safe and culturally appropriate foods at all times. Food security is often stigmatized since it may be a public symbol of poverty, or force one to have to obtain food in socially unacceptable ways. Even when not visible, food insecurity often generates self-directed stigma, often with damaging psychological impacts and experiences of status incongruity.

While clinically obese bodies are an epidemiological norm worldwide, they are rarely socially normalized in modern Western cultures. Further, evidence suggests that obesity stigma has increased along with increasing global obesity. Obesity cannot easily be hidden, and therefore stigma acts through both internal shame and external blame, which distinguishes it in profound ways from food insecurity. Stereotypically, obesity stigma stems from a combination of Western beauty ideals of aesthetic thinness and increased risk of ill health, along with moral beliefs that obesity signals lack of control. Further, obesity now can serve as a visible marker of poverty in many cultural settings, signaling status incongruity.

The authors discuss two different case studies—Brazil and the UAE—precisely because the severity of the differences between the settings exemplifies the powerful underlying similarities in the ways stigma influences health and well-being through feelings of shame, blame, status incongruity, and social isolation.

Weaver’s research in rural Northern Brazil focused largely around food insecurity and mental health. Ethnographic research conducted in urban Brazil establishes that bodies are read as high or low status, and weight and body shape are a key part of that. There is also an agreed-upon set of factors that signal the “good life.” These signals include things such as the ownership of a television and computer, participation in leisure activities, and the attainment of a desirable body shape. Some food items signal luxury and abundance while others carry stigma because they indicate humbleness, if not outright poverty.

Household food insecurity scores collected from pilot study phases were associated rather strongly with symptoms of depression among heads of household. The depression associated with food insecurity in this setting may be a result of the understandable stresses of having limited resources, but potentially also a result of the shame related to having to eat low-status foods or engage in non-normative food behaviors, such not being able to invite neighbors to eat or reciprocate sharing food.

Many people reported that they were unaware of food insecurity in the community, despite the authors’ documentation of its frequency. It appears in this setting that the harmful effects of food insecurity on mental health might stem more from self-stigmatization of one’s own food insecurity than from active stigmatization by others. The authors state they suspect that shame and self-stigma surrounding food insecurity motivates people to hide it.

In the United Arab Emirates, the authors’ discussion of stigma focuses on interwoven behavioral and aesthetic norms, and stigma related to perceptions of deviations from these norms. Food and eating patterns, as well as bodies and body norms, have seen particularly profound changes over the course of only twenty or thirty years of intense socioeconomic, structural, and cultural shifts. Despite the conspicuous consumption and wealth on display in the UAE, poverty and food insecurity are also present within the local population and foreign workers, but again the social pressure to hide such deprivation was intense.

Much more publicly considered in the UAE is the growing apprehension over obesity and associated chronic diseases. While “fatness” was once a desirable physical characteristic, especially in women who were expected to “fill out their skins” in order to display familial wealth, today young people reliably express physical female beauty ideals that aspire to an hour-glass shape, while stigmatizing bodies categorized as too fat or too skinny.

At issue here are “bodies that don’t conform.” The implications of lack of cultural consonance with body norms in this context are serious. In the UAE, the recipients of stigma are very thin or obese bodies, and in Brazil, the recipients are people experiencing food insecurity. The moral discourse around these issues, the ways in which this stigma is enacted, and the importance of specific types of stigma over others varies in important ways between research sites, however. The relative importance of internal versus external stigma in each case is likely related to the fact that one condition (food insecurity) can be hidden, while the other (obesity) cannot.

For the authors, a second common element linking these two cases of stigma is the fact that each signifies a departure from a social norm, accompanied by intense social isolation. Third, both food insecurity and obesity have well documented consequences for physical health, as well as important but poorly understood consequences for mental and social health. Weaver and Trainer states that these common features suggest stigma around food insecurity and obesity can be conceptualized as two “outlets” for the same social phenomenon: “health stigma.”

The authors conclude by asserting a useful implication of considering stigma as a single social phenomenon is that it refocuses away from the individual and toward structural causes of stigma. While the everyday issue of stigma is enacted on the individual level, stigma is only stigma because people concur at a larger population level that a position is stigma-worthy. Focusing on the commonalities between stigma experiences functions as an important reminder that stigma is not just personal but also collective. Policy implications of stigma-as-structure have largely been overlooked.

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In the News: Health Disparities and Water Quality in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics

 

August 2016 – The 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has dominated news headlines in recent weeks. The athletics event, taking place from August 5 to August 21, featured 207 countries in the Parade of Nations as well as the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. It is the first time the games have been held in South America. But besides highlights on the events and spotlights on athletes’ training regimens and backgrounds, there is another stream of news stories surrounding the Olympic Games. These stories have focused on two key public health issues related to this year’s Games: health disparities and water quality issues.

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Rio’s Olympic beach volleyball venue is on Copacabana Beach. Photo from Marcio Jose Sanchez for AP.

Only two years ago the FIFA World Cup was making similar headlines in Brazil. As reported in 2014, and highlighted in this blog[1], there have been past concerns about access to quality healthcare despite the surge of funds for the World Cup event. These reports unmasked a problematic system of health disparities to a global audience. The Daily Californian[2] stated that many Brazilians were “unhappy that their government [was] funding stadium renovations instead of spending on more instrumental matters like improved health care and emergency services.” Reports relating to the current Olympics have painted a similar picture for the present health scene. As Reuters[3] reported in December 2015, the governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency “as hospitals, emergency rooms and health clinics cut services or closed units throughout the state as money ran out for equipment, supplies and salaries.” According to CNN[4], the financial crisis has been causing difficulties in the “provision of essential public services and can even cause a total breakdown in public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management.”. While the state of emergency declaration provides a critical 45 million reais ($25.3 million) in federal aid and may facilitate the transfer of future funds, estimates state that Rio de Janeiro owes approximately $355 million to employees and suppliers in the healthcare sector alone, and the state needs over $100 million to reopen the closed hospital units and clinics.[5] While the city of Rio spent approximately $7.1 billion on improving toll roads, ports and other infrastructure projects, the Brazil Ministry of Health devoted only $5.7 million to address health concerns[6].

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The Christ the Redeemer statue is visible above the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo from Joao Velozo for NPR. 

In addition to these issues (and the high-profile Zika virus, which is causing health concerns in multiple countries[7]), concerns surrounding water quality and cleanliness in Brazil has garnered considerable attention. A recent scene involving the diving and water polo pools turning a swamp-green color because of an algae bloom left some athletes complaining of itchy eyes.[8] While the Olympic Games have brought international attention to the impact of water quality on the athletes and visitors, the residents of Rio have been dealing with theses concerns on a daily basis for much longer. With almost 13 million people living in and around Rio, the current sewage system is struggling to cope. One news report[9] notes that “about 50 percent of what Brazilians flush down the toilet ends up in the country’s waterways. Diseases related to contaminated water are the second leading cause of death for children under five in Brazil.” Tests performed in a variety of areas, including the sailing venue of Guanabara Bay, over the course of a year found high levels of “superbugs of the sort found in hospitals on the shores of the bay.” The possibility of hospital sewage entering the municipal sewage system remains a concern.[10]

An economic recession, compounded by water concerns, political unrest, and a presently faltering healthcare system all leave many Cariocas— citizens of Rio– who rely on the public health system in a challenging and hazardous situation across the social, medical, and political spheres. With hopes of local profits from the Olympic Games ranging in the billions of dollars, much is at stake for both residents and investors.[11] Despite the risks and tribulations, many residents welcome the international event and attention, and credit the Olympics for cultivating “several underutilized, often abandoned spaces have been transformed to ones that appeal and cater to local residents”. Many “beautification” projects leave residents hoping the installation of new art and the newly constructed spaces will leave a lasting impression on its residents and visitors long after the games end.[12]  Despite this optimism, the citizens of Rio are not impacted equally by the Games.[13] The improved infrastructures will likely benefit those who already have access to services. Tourism, and tourism cash, has been weak in the favelas, or shantytowns, which house at least 25% of the population in Rio. The infrastructure inequities have even bypassed some neighborhoods entirely, leaving those residents out of the celebrations.[14]

Overall, these Olympic Games promise once again to bring the world’s cultures together in competition and camaraderie, yet they do not do so without controversy. This global spectacle illuminates athletics and sportsmanship, as well as the intersections between cultural events, politics and nationalism, power and profit, and community health. These larger issues lead to questions about what will happen to the residents of Rio after the Games have drawn to a close.

 


[1] https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2014/07/11/news-the-2014-world-cup-and-healthcare-in-brazil/

[2] http://www.dailycal.org/2014/07/08/uc-berkeley-faculty-graduate-students-look-world-cup-different-light/

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-health-emergency-idUSKBN0U716Q20151224

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/18/americas/brazil-rio-state-emergency-funding-olympics/

[5]http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-health-emergency-idUSKBN0U716Q20151224

[6] http://wuwm.com/post/let-s-do-numbers-money-spent-rio-olympics#stream/0

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/29/world/americas/brazil-zika-rio-olympics.html?_r=0

[8] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-olympics-rio-diving-pool-idUKKCN10O0UW?feedType=RSS&feedName=sportsNews

[9] http://wuwm.com/post/rios-water-problems-go-far-beyond-olympics#stream/0

[10] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/02/sport/rio-2016-olympic-games-water-quality-sailing-rowing/index.html

[11] http://www.newsweek.com/rio-2016-who-stands-benefit-successful-olympics-453094

[12] http://www.kvia.com/news/rio-olympics-bring-beautification-projects/40884340

[13] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetorch/2016/08/11/487769536/in-rios-favelas-hoped-for-benefits-from-olympics-have-yet-to-materialize

[14] http://www.reuters.com/video/2016/08/14/olympic-infrastructure-causes-suffering?videoId=369565427

Book Releases: New Texts on Sex Tourism, Biotechnology

This week, we are featuring two book releases from the University of Chicago Press. The first book is Gregory Mitchell’s Tourist Attractions: Performing Race and Masculinity in Brazil’s Sexual EconomyThis new book, published in December 2015, presents an ethnographic perspective on gay sex tourism in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, and the Amazon. Mitchell examines issues of race, masculinity, and sexual identity amongst both sex workers and sex tourists. In particular, he asks how men of various racial, cultural, and national backgrounds come to understand their own identities and one another’s within this complex series of commercial, sexual, and cultural exchanges. Details about the book can be found here.

About the author: Gregory Mitchell is assistant professor at Williams College, where he teaches in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program and in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

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Image via UC Press website

The second book, debuting in September 2016, is Hallam Stevens’ Biotechnology and Society: An Introduction (cover image not yet available.) Each chapter of the text will address a different topic in the cultural and historical study of biotechnology, from gene patents, to genetically-modified foods, to genetic testing and disability, assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), and the intersections of race, diversity, and biotechnologies. The text will be of equal interest to scholars of science and technology studies (STS), posthuman theory, and the history and culture of medical technology. Details about the book can be found here.

About the author: Hallam Stevens is assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He teaches courses in the history of the life sciences and information technologies. He is the author of Life Out of Sequence: A Data-Driven History of Bioinformatics, also available here via the University of Chicago Press.

 

Autism in Brazil and Italy: Two Cases From the June 2015 Special Issue

Our July 2015 entries on the blog highlighted individual articles from our latest release, the June 2015 Special Issue on the conceptualization of autism (which you can access here.) These articles, focused centrally on anthropological and ethnographic accounts of autism across the world, explore contemporary issues surrounding identity, subjectivity, citizenship, biosociality, neurodiversity, and disability. In this week’s installment, we visit two more articles from the issue to investigate concepts of autism and its treatment in two countries: Brazil and Italy.


Autism in Italy: Rigidity and the Culture of Therapy

Read the full article by M. Ariel Cascio here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9439-6

In Italy, therapy and educational professionals who work with young adults with autism (ages 14-34) note that autism is often marked by a desire for intense social structure and timeliness: what they describe as “rigidity” or “rigid mind.” While the desire for structure is considered a core feature of the autism diagnosis across the world, Italian professionals who serve in community-based therapy, day centers, and residential homes for people with autism nevertheless have a complex relationship with “rigidity” as a mechanism for treatment.

Cascio interviewed both staff members at centers and programs for young people with autism as well as mental health and social service professionals throughout the region who worked on autism across the life course. These professionals voiced the value in creating structure for people with autism to assist in their development of improved social skills. Therapeutic centers and programs are themselves operated within an institutional structure that facilitates organized social interactions, both between their clients with autism and amongst staff members. However, professionals who worked at these programs often felt stymied by expectations from parents and their peers who wished for children with autism to adhere to a particular therapeutic regimen, diet, or activity schedule. The professionals likewise cautioned one another that taking any staunch, singular, and indeed “rigid” route to therapeutic intervention could prove counterintuitive to helping people with autism develop new social skills. Professionals embraced the idea of providing structure while, simultaneously, seeking to blend behavioral therapies to match individual client needs, as well as to create opportunities for clients to engage in valuable, less structured social activity.

These concerns about rigidity in the treatment of autism arrive at a time when older social structures for the care of neurodiverse individuals have been disassembled. In the 1970s, new social movements led to the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals and care facilities, replacing the separation of mentally ill and neurodiverse individuals with integration policies that mandated new employment opportunities and equal-opportunity education for the developmentally disabled. Local mental health services attached to the national health care system provide psychiatric, behavioral, and therapeutic services that accompany other integration policies. This state of flux, at the societal level, refutes the notion that social services for autism must remain “rigid” and immmovable: they, too, change and develop with time given broader changes in the resources and services made available by the state to the disabled.

The Italian case presents a unique perspective on both the relationship between care professionals and the nature of diagnosis and treatment, as well as between concepts of autism at the scale of individual treatment and at the level of the state and national systems of health care. Like the discussion on Brazil, Italy similarly provides a fascinating context for the study of autism as a condition that is diagnosed globally, yet treated and conceptualized locally.

cropped-cropped-2009cover-copy1.jpgAutism in Brazil: Diagnosis, Identity, and Treatment Models

Read the full article by Clarice Rios and Barbara Costa Andrada here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-015-9448-5

Brazil’s model for delivering social services to the developmentally disabled was directly modeled after the Italian system of deinstitutionalization and social integration of the mentally ill and neurodiverse. Treatment interventions for people with autism, however, were not included in Brazilian social services until the early 2000s, when adolescent and child mental health conditions were integrated into existing mental health systems. This shift increased programming for people with autism, however concerns accompanied this new system about the nature of diagnosis and treatment, as expressed differently by mental health professionals and the parents of children with autism.

Rather than viewing autism as an integral piece of an individual’s identity, Brazilian mental health professionals instead employ a social model of disability that stresses the environment that a person with autism exists within. Therapies emphasize social inclusion and bolstering all mental health clients’ sense of autonomy, so as to combat the exclusion and institutionalization of the individual. This model did not emphasize treatment plans specific to autism, but rather sought to improve the lives of all clients with mental disabilities. Mental health professionals voiced concerns about creating autism-specific services, saying that these programs would exclude people with other forms of mental disability from seeking appropriate care (and exclude people with autism from engagement with people of other mental disabilities.)

Parent activists who have children with autism, on the other hand, take an identity-based approach to championing the rights of people with autism. They argued that by underscoring the specific nature of autism as a mental disability, and providing services tailored to the treatment of autism, their children would be better prepared for social inclusion. Parents feared under-diagnosis of the condition, which would mean that their children– failing to have a certified diagnosis by a health professional– would be unable to seek out care resources and early intervention programs to improve behavioral and social outcomes.

In both instances, the authors stress that the dichotomy between medical and social models of disability is scarcely stable when examining autism in Brazil. Mental health professionals and parents of children with autism both grasp the importance of medical certification of autism (diagnosis) as a means to access services (that are aligned with the social model of illness.) However, parents and professionals disagree on the nature of these services; parents hold that social inclusion for people with autism requires an understanding of their difference from non-autistic people, while professionals strive to avoid employing specific diagnosis categories as a means to separate the kind of care and services they deliver to clients with other mental health conditions.

The Brazilian case thus highlights the nature of autism and mental disability as both a medical and a social condition: one that must be negotiated, treated, and diagnosed in light of its manifold implications for human health, development, and social life.

News: “Uncontacted” Tribes Emerge in Brazil

As reported by the BBC, the Brazilian organization FUNAI (which handles affairs of indigenous people within the country) released a statement on July 1st 2014 stating that seven members of an isolated tribe entered a village on the Peruvian border and made “peaceful contact” with the locals.[i] The group has been referred to in news media as an “uncontacted” tribe because of its formerly limited interaction with settled society outside of the Amazon rainforest, where the group makes its home.

This image of two members of the tribe was released by the Brazilian organization FUNAI.

This image of two members of the tribe was released by the Brazilian organization FUNAI.

The reemergence of this tribal group proves to be a source of enlivening discussion for scholars of the culture of medicine. The American Association for the Advancement of Science—the organization behind the journal Science—published a news piece that the tribal people “first exhibited flu symptoms on 30 June, 3 days after their first meeting with government officials in the Brazilian village of Simpatia.”[ii] After returning to the town, the article notes, the group was met by a medical team who administered flu vaccines and held them for six days at a treatment facility. They hoped to stop the disease from being transmitted to fellow members of the tribe, who due to infrequent contact with the villagers, could lack established immune defenses against the illness.

Another piece from Forbes news describes this interaction in further detail. “Doctors were flown in to the remote village and were able to talk to the nomads through an interpreter who knew a similar language, persuading them to take medicine that helped them to recover before they went home to their people,” the piece explained.[iii] The author also cites Carlos Travassos of the FUNAI organization, who remarked that, “at first [the tribal people] were afraid and wary, but thankfully in the end they understood, believed us, trusted the medical team and accepted the medicine…it was a difficult and slow dialogue.” The case therefore highlights the cross-cultural impact of medical treatment and the possible problems of delivering care that is non-native to the patients.

This news invites us to revisit postcolonial theory and to weigh the relationship between the settled, modernized world with that of local natives who have sustained their lifestyle alongside globalized societies which they come into contact with. It also suggests that the notion of the exotic “other,” and romanticizing of tribal life, remain objects worthy of introspection and critical interest.

 

[i] Newar, Rachel. (August 4 2014). Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140804-sad-truth-of-uncontacted-tribes

 

[ii] Pringle, Heather. (July 25 2014). Did Brazil’s uncontacted tribe receive proper medical care? American Association for the Advancement of Science News. http://news.sciencemag.org/health/2014/07/did-brazils-uncontacted-tribe-receive-proper-medical-care

 

[iii] Rodgers, Paul. (July 20 2014). Indians Emerge From Jungle, Catch Deadly Flu. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulrodgers/2014/07/20/indians-emerge-from-jungle-catch-deadly-flu/