Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 2, “The Moral Lives of Laboratory Monkeys: Television and the Ethics of Care”

This week we explore Lesley Sharp’s The Moral Lives of Laboratory Monkeys: Television and the Ethics of Care. Sharp asks, “Why do lab monkeys watch TV?” This paper examines the prevalence of televisions in primate housing units based in academic research laboratories. Within such labs, television and related visual media are marked as part of welfare and species-specific enrichment practices intended for research monkeys. In many research centers, television figures prominently in the two inseparable domains of a lab monkey’s life: as a research tool employed during experiments, and in housing units where captive monkeys are said to enjoy watching TV during “down time.”

Sharp engages visual media as a means to uncover and decipher the moral logic of an ethics of care directed specifically at highly sentient creatures who serve as human proxies in a range of experimental contexts. Sharp suggests this specialized ethics of animal care materializes Cheryl Mattingly’s notion of “moral laboratories” (Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014, available here), where television mediates the complicated boundary of species difference among the simian and human subjects who share laboratory worlds.


Sharp starts by discussing that scientific interest in primate theory of mind in a range of disciplines, especially within the fields of primate behavior, cognitive psychology, and experimental neuroscience. In the United States, chimpanzees are widely accepted as exemplifying “sentience” in non-human species. Television figures prominently within a larger arc of primate welfare in facilitating interspecies encounters within modern laboratory science.

In this paper, Sharp is most concerned with the moral sentiments of human workers who interact with lab-based primates, specifically research macaques. Because of their affective power, animals offer a powerful means by which to access “everyday” or “ordinary” ethics. Monkeys inspire specialized responses among lab personnel, including researchers, lab-based technicians, and animal technicians or “caretakers,” who together consistently underscore these creatures’ evolutionary proximity to us, alongside their being highly “sentient” beings. These understandings have a significant bearing on how personnel introduce, interpret, and modify notions of welfare and care in the laboratory.

As early as the 1930s, animal behaviorists and psychologists showed silent clips from films and cartoons to a variety of primate species to measure their perceptions of and “responsiveness” to “moving pictures.” Yet the choices appear to have been based on various assumptions: that a non-human species might find moving pictures interesting; that at least some primate species were capable of reading these images for what they were; and that visual media might evoke strong emotional responses in a viewer. Conducting various experiments with both still and moving color images that were in or out of focus, researchers showed to a dozen restrained juvenile and adult rhesus macaques 16mm films, such as a caged, female and male pair of rhesus macaques eating, climbing, and threatening a photographer, and a clip from a Woody Woodpecker “Indian Whoopee” cartoon episode.

By the 1950s, these experiments were decisively entrenched in a scientific logic that presumed film might evoke emotional responses in primates, and that they might also offer clues for deciphering human psychology. As such, apes and monkeys could stand in as proxies for human subjects, where visual technologies employed as compelling research tools could effectively reconcile species difference. Over the course of less than a century, television’s value as a research tool in laboratory settings became related to ideas about how best to distract or amuse lab-based primates in nonexperimental contexts, referred to as “down time.”

Sharp states that during laboratory experiments, visual technologies are used as interactive devices where, for example, a monkey works alone at a monitor and solves a sequence of problems where responses are digitally recorded by a researcher and transformed into data. In contrast, within a housing room, visual technology is marked by comparatively passive engagement, where a monitor is mounted nearby to allow monkeys to see and watch TV. Sharp explains that television is a literal manifestation of the moral laboratory when lab personnel must work to establish best practices, set against the unavoidable paradox that they are working with lab-based macaques who are viewed as “neither pets nor wild animals.”

In Moral Laboratories, Cheryl Mattingly argues for the addition of a “first person virtue ethics” in her analyses of the everyday struggles of disempowered people in contexts of unending suffering. As Mattingly explains, even seemingly dull decisions regarding the “care of the intimate other” may bring about ethical dilemmas and an associated complex reasoning. Mattingly uses the concept of “moral laboratory” metaphorically for defining an “imaginative space” of ethical experimentation, impacting possibilities for transforming the self.

Sharp proposes a slight variation, involving the literal understanding of the “moral laboratory” as a way to describe primate research labs in academic neuroscience programs. The presence of lab animals is effective in uncovering the logics of scientific morality. The widespread use of primates in neuroscience comes largely from the deep-seated understanding that they are humans’ closest evolutionary “cousins” and, therefore ideal proxies for humans.

Television’s presence figures importantly in a “first person ethics” among lab personnel, standing out as a specialized welfare practice that demonstrates what Mattingly describes as the “care of the intimate other,” in this instance, across the species divide. With these statements in mind, Sharp probes this moral logic of care, where television demonstrates efforts to provide “a good [laboratory] life” to captive, highly sentient creatures. Television is generally understood as a suitable enrichment strategy for highly sentient creatures who can easily suffer from boredom and succumb to pathological, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypy, withdrawal, forms of self harm, or failure to thrive.

As intelligent creatures, macaques are understood as being “interested” in TV, and staff may spend significant consideration and imagination in trying to determine what makes for effective “monkey TV.” Yet the influence of visual technology in aiding animals to “flourish and thrive” may extend beyond the restrictions of a housing room and include experimental contexts, where television-as-research tool may similarly be described as a form of healthy “engagement” for animals, despite such engagement is also regarded as “work.” As one lab director explained, “lab work [itself is] a form of enrichment” because his macaques so clearly “enjoy” computers, regardless of context.

For Sharp, attention may truly signal interest or curiosity, but it may not necessarily specify pleasure or enjoyment. Furthermore, labs where staff regards television as “enrichment” have monitors engaged with a nonspecific monkey in mind, with the same video loop playing repeatedly throughout the day, week, month, or year. In response, Sharp does not ask what television viewing tells us about monkeys’ preferences, but instead questions what pervasive beliefs and assumptions about television say about lab-based humans’ understandings of subjectivity. Or, what might the supposed primate desire for television say about the morality of interspecies encounters in lab areas?

In conclusion, Sharp states that through an under-theorized theory of mind, television provides a powerful medium for fostering human-monkey relatedness. Television draws monkeys in close with humans while simultaneously ratifying the morality of lab animal “care” and “welfare.” Essentially, television brings them closer to us. Just as television transforms the macaque as “intimate other” into a humanized creature, animal caretakers through a specialized “first person ethics,” are transformed into moral beings as well.

Book Release: “Fat Planet: Obesity, Culture, and Symbolic Body Capital”

This week we are highlighting a recent book release from the University of New Mexico Press entitled Fat Planet: Obesity, Culture, and Symbolic Body Capital (2017), edited by Eileen Anderson-Fye and Alexandra Brewis. As a reminder, in June the CMP blog will be switching to our bi-weekly summer schedule.

Photo via UNM Press

The average size of human bodies all over the world has been steadily rising over recent decades. The total count of people clinically labeled “obese” is now at least three times what it was in 1980. Around the world, governments and other organizations are deploying urgent anti-obesity initiatives. However, one unintended consequence of these efforts to tackle the “obesity epidemic” has been the increasing stigmatization of “fat” people. This rapid proliferation of fat stigma has profound implications for both human suffering and disease. Fat Planet represents a collaborative effort to consider at a global scale what fat stigma is and what it does to people.

Making use of an array of social science perspectives applied in multiple settings, the authors examine the interplay of weight, wealth, history, culture, and meaning to fat and its social rejection. They explore the notion of symbolic body capital — the power of non-fat bodies to do what people need or want. They also investigate how fat stigma relates to other forms of bias and intolerance, such as sexism and racism. In so doing, they illustrate the complex and quickly shifting dynamics in thinking about fat — often considered deeply personal yet powerfully influenced by and influential upon the broader world in which we live. They reveal the profoundly nuanced ways in which people and societies not only tolerate, but even sometimes embrace, new forms of stigma in an increasingly globalized planet.

Chapters include:

  • Making Sense of the New Global Body Norms. Alexandra Brewis
  • From Thin to Fat and Back Again: A Dual Process Model of the Big Body Mass Reversal. Daniel J. Hruschka
  • Managing Body Capital in the Fields of Labor, Sex, and Health. Alexander Edmonds and Ashley Mears
  • Fat and Too Fat: Risk and Protection for Obesity Stigma in Three Countries. Eileen P. Anderson-Fye, Stephanie M. McClure, Maureen Floriano, Arundhati Bharati, Yunzhu Chen, and Caryl James
  • Excess Gaines and Losses: Maternal Obesity, Infant Mortality, and the Biopolitics of Blame. Monica J. Casper
  • Symbolic Body Capitol of an “Other” Kind: African American Females as a Bracketed Subunit in Female Body Valuation. Stephanie M. McClure
  • Fat Is a Linguistic Issue: Discursive Negotiation of Power, Identity, and the Gendered Body among Youth. Nicole L. Taylor
  • Body Size, Social Standing, and Weight Management: The View from Fiji. Anne E. Becker
  • Glocalizing Beauty: Weight and Body Image in the New Middle East. Sarah Trainer
  • Fat Matters: Capitol, Markets, and Morality. Rebecca J. Lester and Eileen Anderson-Fye

For more information, visit the University of New Mexico Press website, available here.


Dr. Eileen Anderson-Fye is a medical and psychological anthropologist, and the founding director of the Medicine, Society, and Culture (MSC) Master’s Degree track in Bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Drawn to interdisciplinary study as an undergraduate, Dr. Anderson-Fye developed the MSC degree track for students to explore how factors beyond biomedical science contribute to health and wellness. Social and cultural constructs, historical and rhetorical influences, literature, and philosophy all shape perceptions of health, illness, and recovery, which in turn affect choices, beliefs, and behaviors. Those who appreciate this complex and multi-layered interplay will be able to play pivotal roles in enhancing how care is delivered – and the outcomes it yields.

Dr. Anderson-Fye’s perspective on these issues has been informed by extensive research on the mental health and well-being of adolescents and young adults in contexts of socio-cultural change. Her most enduring project is an ongoing longitudinal study of how subjective perceptions of current and future well-being allowed the first mass-educated cohort of Belizean schoolgirls to overcome severe threats to their mental and physical health. More recently, she led a team’s study of the psychiatric medication experiences of undergraduates at North American university campuses, where a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods revealed stark differences between reported and actual usage. Dr. Anderson-Fye is writing a book about the findings and their implications; it is tentatively titled, Young, Educated and Medicated. Dr. Anderson-Fye has an A.B. From Brown University in American Civilization.  She earned her M.Ed. and Ed.D. in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University. Her training has included work at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Social Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital, and postdoctoral fellowships in Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture and Neuroscience and Culture, Brain and Development at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Dr. Alexandra Brewis is a President’s Professor and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University, where she also co-leads the translational Mayo Clinic-ASU Obesity Solutions initiative and serves as the associate vice president of Social Sciences. Her research interests includes how and why effective obesity solutions are undermined by weight stigma, damaging and distressing for millions of people and is rapidly spreading globally.

Dr. Brewis has a PhD in Anthropology from University of Arizona and was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow in anthropological demography at the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. Before joining ASU, she taught at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and University of Georgia. At ASU, Dr. Brewis served as Director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change from 2009-2017.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life’: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability”

This week on the blog we are highlighting Brian Watermeyer’s article “I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life”: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability. Watermeyer provides an introduction to key aspects of the social and economic marginalization of the disability minority experienced globally. He then explores and compares the complex debates surrounding materialist and psychological approaches and accounts of racism and disablism, particularly with reference to the place of grief and loss in disability discourse. Finally, Watermeyer considers how Cheng’s engagement with racial melancholia may help illuminate how disability inequality, like that of race, may remain a stubborn reality.

Watermeyer begins by discussing some theoretical orientations of social inequality. In the discipline of disability studies, it is a historical materialist (Marxian) approach which has dominated, with particular attention to psychological aspects of disability oppression. Disablism can be defined as discrimination based on physical, sensory, cognitive, or psychiatric impairment. Combined with critical and liberatory theory of racial inequalities, Watermeyer states it is reasonable to assume that living in the face of discrimination and marginalization will create feelings of grief, withdrawal, and suffering, as harms are sustained at both the physical and psychological levels.

In her book, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Ann Cheng (2000) presents a psychological model of racial inequality with loss at its center. For Cheng, racial inequality persists within the United States because it forbids grief. The larger, societal demand for every individual to strive for an ideal cultural whiteness continually pulls individuals away from an emotional center, creating ambivalence, a lack of self-empathy, and distortions of ideology.

Building off of Cheng’s argument, Watermeyer discusses the shared characteristics of racism and disablism. Prejudice and stigma are the ever-present companions of structural inequalities for both forms of disparity. Disabled people, especially those in low income countries, are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, as most societies are designed with only the needs of the non-disabled majority in mind. There are formidable barriers to housing, transportation, and freedom of movement, as well as exclusion or segregation in education and other public accommodations.

Additionally, Watermeyer states the cultural embeddedness of making sense of disability via a “medical model” has reinforced the marginal position of disabled people. In this institutional view, social disadvantage is understood as a simple consequence of bodily difference or dysfunction, portraying disabled people as “damaged invalids” who are unable to contribute in community life. This view negates any consideration of discrimination’s role in inequality.

While the historical materialist view recognizes the role of biomedicine in justifying the marginalization of disabled people, it is the quantifiable, visible reality of exclusion from the workplace, and other “barriers to participation,” as its primary focus. Yet Watermeyer recognizes the analysis of oppression should not just be in the public, institutional spheres, but should also include private domains. Social exhaustion and scarcity have a psychological component, and it is important to understand the ways in which ongoing assaults on identity limit the imaging of different social organization.

For Watermeyer, there are several problems with describing feelings of damage and tragedy as arising from both congenital and adventitious impairment, with little or no attention to structural or contextual factors. This viewpoint positions impairment of the body as the central disadvantage faced by disabled people, ignoring injustices such as discrimination and rejection. Further, attaching narratives of tragedy to disabled people has been loudly rejected by the international disability movement. According to Kleinman, Das, and Lock (1997), if there is loss or grief in the lives of disabled people, it has to do with social suffering, not bodily “flaws.”

While discussing oppression and melancholia, Watermeyer describes an encounter with “J,” a male psychotherapy client living with tetraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs and partial paralysis of the upper). A South African man in his mid-twenties, J lived a life of profound structural exclusion, unemployment, physical dependency, a poor social network, and imprisonment in his mother’s residence by poverty and poor public transportation. In his limited engagements with the world, indications that he was “broken” were commonplace.

When questioned about his emotional experience of these circumstances, J’s reply was, “I don’t have time for an emotional life.” At the subjective level, being trapped in an immovable system of structural exclusion meant being equally controlled by an “emotional economy,” with its own rules on what could be felt, loved, hated, or hoped for. In J’s life, these constraints appeared to limit emotional freedom as definitively as unreachable buses limited his movement. Emotional care, guilt, and limited space were the constant followers of his physical dependency, transferring feelings of sadness, frustration, or rage to unconsciousness. Simply, “not having time for an emotional life” meant not having the resources to overcome prohibitions on feelings and expressions of grief.

Melancholic systems deal with difference by maintaining existing racialized and discriminatory structures. This disjuncture produces a detrimental position involving both alienation from one’s emotional self, and experiences in the social world which repeatedly point to one’s failure to assume the ideals which secure real belonging. Watermeyer states that dominant culture presents disabled people with a paradox: while reaffirming the message that the disabled figure is dismal and broken, the world demands that he or she not grieve, as this would be a submission to the passivity, pessimism, and invalid status that pervade the disabled stereotype. As in the case of race, the ruling is “prove to me that you are not what I know you to be.”

Watermeyer’s perspective reframes lives of disabled people as basic to the universal human condition. The stereotype which attaches loss simplistically to impairment is rejected, and replaced by a more nuanced picture of struggle relating to discrimination, structural exclusion, pain, fatigue, and the host of everyday miseries that punctuate any human life.


References Cited:

Cheng, Ann A. (2000) The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Berkley: Oxford University Press.

Kleinman, A., V. Das, and M. Lock. (1997) Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

From the Archive: “Exposure and Exclusion: Disenfranchised Biological Citizenship among the First-Generation Korean Americans”

This week on the blog we are featuring an article from a past issue of the journal as part of our “From the Archive” series. In this highlight, we explore “Exposure and Exclusion: Disenfranchised Biological Citizenship among the First-Generation Korean Americans” by Taewoo Kim, Charlotte Haney, and Janis Faye Hutchinson, available here. This article was featured in Volume 36, Issue 4 (December 2012).


In the midst of an uncertain future of health insurance in the United States, it is important to reflect on how larger social systems affect individual experiences of health and illness. Our contributing authors at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry frequently express the need for ethnographic approaches to healthcare analysis. In this article, the authors documented how the healthcare system in the United States in 2012 disenfranchised those of marginal health insurance status. Based on fieldwork with a highly uninsured and underinsured Korean American population, the authors argued that the vulnerability of these disenfranchised biological citizens is compounded through exposure to health risks and exclusion from essential healthcare.

According to the authors, the first-generation Korean Americans interviewed faced the double burden of increased health risks from long, stressful work hours and lack of access to healthcare due to the prohibitive costs of health insurance for small business owners. Even as their health needs became critical, their insurance status and costly medical bills discouraged them from visiting healthcare institutions.

Based on a multi-sited ethnography of Korean–American communities in Houston, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, this study attempted to describe the condition of marginal insurance in the United States. The authors trace health risks among Korean Americans from “daily life to life in crisis.” By mapping the connections from an unequal social structure where risks are unevenly distributed, to the disproportionate prevalence of disease, the authors discuss the impact of inequality on the bodies of the disenfranchised population.

The authors build off of Nikolas Rose’s term biological citizen, defined as encompassing “all those citizenship projects that have linked their conceptions of citizens to beliefs about the biological existence of human beings.” The authors argued that their participants were left out of such developments and strategies due to the participants’ place in the employment structure and healthcare payment schemes. The high concentration of small business owners among the first-generation Korean Americans led to long work hours in risk-laden conditions as well as high rates of marginal insurance driven by sky-rocketing private health insurance costs. These risks were compounded by limited access to appropriate preventive measures and medical intervention.

This combination of exposure to precarious working conditions and exclusion from healthcare increases Korean Americans’ vulnerability, particularly to chronic illnesses including hypertension, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. These conditions are the bio-devaluation that results from biological disenfranchisement.

Through detailed ethnographic research with uninsured and underinsured Korean Americans working in family-run businesses, the article focused on the daily practice of “doing-without-health,” pushing the discussion of barriers to healthcare-seeking toward an examination of how those barriers cultivate subjectivities of disenfranchised biological citizenship. The authors also describe how such disenfranchisement multiplies the participants’ vulnerabilities by exposing them to disproportionate health risks and excluding them from essential care.

First, the authors examined the daily-lived experience of risk exposure. Social and economic contexts of risk included the uneven distribution of economic activities and opportunities that Korean Americans face after immigration. The authors discussed several circumstances which contributed to social and economic risks, such as institutional barriers which disregarded educational attainments and professional experiences in South Korea, linguistic barriers, already difficult and stratified economics in the United States, stressed relationships with the surrounding communities, and fear of robbery and theft. These factors exposed the Korean American participants to health risks, such as overwork and stress, on a daily basis.

Second, the authors discussed how exclusion from care operated within the studied community settings. Uninsured and underinsured participants experienced discouragement from using healthcare services. A long-term uninsured status and widely circulated stories of financially devastating medical bills create a distance between Korean Americans and healthcare institutions. Underinsured participants similarly encountered healthcare discouragement through high out-of-pocket costs. With tight budgets, underinsured participants feared the high cost of medical care and avoided visiting doctors.

Combined, these factors illuminated the embodiment of the social inequality among uninsured and underinsured Korean Americans; the authors linked exposure to health risks and exclusion from healthcare. Through an ethnographic examination of the daily practice of “doing-without-health” among a marginalized sub-group in society, the authors articulated how disenfranchised biological citizenship goes beyond creating institutional barriers to healthcare and shaping subjectivities of the disenfranchised.

Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘They Treat you a Different Way:’ Public Insurance, Stigma, and the Challenge to Quality Health Care”

This week we are highlighting “They Treat you a Different Way:” Public Insurance, Stigma, and the Challenge to Quality Health Care by Anna C. Martinez-Hume, Allison M. Baker, Hannah S. Bell, Isabel Montemayor, Kristan Elwell, and Linda M. Hunt. The authors argue that stigma is a public health issue which should be addressed in Medicaid policy. Even though Medicaid eligibility is expanding to include more low-income adults, issues within the social context of public insurance and the experience of stigma may result in increased disparities in health care.

In this article, the authors examined the experiences of stigma when using public insurance as described by a group of low-income individuals eligible for Medicaid in Michigan and how such stigma influences their health-seeking behavior. Social scientists have long been concerned with the impacts of stigma on an individual’s social identity. Sources of stigma affecting health care experiences may include race, class, gender, and illness-status, all of which have serious consequences for health status. Underutilized care, delayed care, forgoing tests, infrequent check-ups, and lower quality of life have all been linked to health care stigma.

Patients in this study often reported stigmatization based on having public insurance, or no insurance, and reported feeling ignored, disrespected, or overlooked. As patients experience low satisfaction with their health care providers, the result is often missed follow-up appointments, changes in their providers, and reluctance to access necessary services. The authors discuss that groups who experience stigma in the health care system are most likely to be individuals who enter into the system as already stigmatized patients.

Racial categories within health care structures also distinguish between types of people, often leading providers to unknowingly treat some patients differently than others. The authors discuss how providers are taught through their medical training, published articles, and clinical guidelines to presume racial and ethnic groups share genetic, socio-economic, and cultural characteristics. These assumptions ignore complex social problems and highlight the multidimensional processes of differential treatment in health care.

Understanding the intersectionality of personal attributes, such as race or illness-status, and public insurance status can improve the appreciation for how experiences of stigma are compounded. Clinical encounters which manifest stigma have important health consequences for patients.

From their research, the authors explore participants’ stories about being treated differently while receiving Medicaid coverage and focused on two central stigma themes: receiving poor quality care, and experiencing negative interpersonal interactions.

One example of receiving rushed or poor quality of care comes from a woman named Destiny. She recounted her experience of taking her son to a clinic:

“The wait was an hour long…and then they were very quick with us, they didn’t take their time to ask questions…It’s like they weren’t patients, they were just another number, you know, to get them out the door, and the next one in… [The doctor] just sent us on our way without even fully understanding what the problem was… [My son] had a really bad cold or bronchitis and I told the doctor before he’s allergic to amoxicillin, penicillin, and he actually wrote him an amoxicillin script. It was in his file. He didn’t even read through his file.”

Mistreatment by staff or health care personnel based on public insurance status included shaming, being disrespected or ignored, not being believed, or being patronized. Shannon described her negative interpersonal interactions:

“When we had Blue Cross and Blue Shield, we were treated much differently even by the receptionist. People treat you differently. They look at you differently… I sometimes don’t want to pull out my green [Medicaid] card when I’m in the line at the pharmacy…the lady in front of me has a Blue Cross Blue Shield card and the way they talked to her or interact with her…is much different than when I roll up with my green card and my cardboard [Medicaid health plan] card. It’s ‘here, sign this, birth date, co-pay, have a great day.’”

These stigmatized experiences often lead to discontinuity of care and even resistance to returning to these facilities for care. The authors consider an especially concerning story from Carrie, whose stigma experience is amplified by her HIV-positive status:

“My doctor asked me to swab myself one time when I was being tested for STDs… How the hell can you work in infectious disease and you don’t want to swab me? Like okay, I can do that. But how humiliating is that? I’m switching doctors…I just don’t want to go. I want to be able to sit down and talk to somebody about what’s going on with me because I’ve been missing medicine, and that’s serious. It’s a serious thing, and they’re so callous to it.”

As the authors’ research elaborates, Medicaid use has long carried a stigma in the United States as a symbol of waste and excess of the welfare system. This carries with it a set of assumptions about the individuals who rely on these resources. The social construction of low-income individuals who enroll in Medicaid characterizes these people as lazy, willingly unemployed, less educated, and ultimately, undeserving. Inequitable health care received under the stigma of public insurance is fundamentally a public health issue, creating further disadvantages for the health of already vulnerable people.

SfAA 2017 Conference Feature Part 1: “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses”

This week on the blog we are highlighting part one of a paper session from the 2017 Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) Annual Meeting which took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico from March 28th through April 1st. This session was entitled “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses” and featured Beth Moretzsky, Karen Dyer, Marlaine Gray, and Ellen Rubinstein (full program from the SfAA meeting available here). Here, we present a summary of Beth Moretzsky and Ellen Rubinstein’s presentations. Next week we will feature part two with Karen Dyer and Marlaine Gray.

Beth Moretzsky (GSU) – Cancer Survivorship as Contested Category and Lived Reality

Moretzsky begins by maintaining the term “cancer survivor” is a social category and societal label which does not adequately represent the individuals it claims to include. The label does not encompass the multifaceted, lived experiences of those living with post-cancer treatment and instead conveys a cultural idea of what these individuals can represent to other people. In 2014 the American Cancer Society identified over 14 million living individuals in the United States who received a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. Moretzsky states that as we think about how to reach, support, and provide services for this population that has unique medical and social needs, we need to understand how this term “cancer survivor” is interpreted. We also need to appreciate how people who have had cancer respond to this label frequently used by non-profit organizations and the medical community.

Life after treatment for cancer is a period of complicated uncertainty. Rather than a unified “survivorship” experience which is often portrayed by the media, Moretzsky’s fieldwork examines how people characterize their own lives post-treatment. Between June and August of 2016 Moretzsky conducted 19 interviews with individuals who had completed treatment for several types of cancer. Her goal was to determine how participants conceptualize the idea of “cancer survivorship,” whether or not they thought of themselves as a “cancer survivor,” and how stories of experiences, treatments, and diagnoses were carried into the present.

Three main findings of Moretzsky’s research state that “cancer survivor” was rejected as a useful category because of (1) a confusing biological and medical usage, (2) a tendency to define people solely on their illness, and (3) because of various social implications of the term’s usage. Many people merged “cancer survivor” as a biomedical term, indicating a stage in the medical process, with a colloquial label for individuals who had undergone this diagnosis. The line between the social and medical categories often blurs, revealing a meaning- and value-laden term with little practical use. Yet no one can seem to agree upon who falls within the category. Moretzsky asks, who gets to define and speak about illness for these individuals?

In this research, the discomfort over the use of the “cancer survivor” term came up time and time again. Cancer “survivors” are represented as heroes who have triumphed over this illness, perpetuating problematic notions of who gets defined as a survivor, as well as the negative social impacts of applying this label. Moretzsky argues the label placed onto people disregards the experiences of those individuals. The public’s support of individuals battling cancer conjures up the image of a successful warrior rather than an individual with a complex daily experience. The models of success paints “survivors” as strong, optimistic, and successful, even if those individuals do not see themselves in those narratives of triumph. Moretzsky states that not all individuals with a history of cancer view themselves as the pink warriors that the media shares every October. While some participants stated they felt driven to become better people as a result of their cancer, almost as if they needed to fill our societal search for heroes, others strongly resisted this categorization as a “cancer survivor.” The latter often argued against problematic notions that there was something special about them that warranted their persistence, saying the model should instead be: “Don’t be a hero. Ask for the help you need.” These varying responses to treatment contradict the notions of “surviving heroically” and suggested complexity and diversity to human experiences.

Additionally, for many with lingering side effects, financial problems, and emotional complications, this term “cancer survivor” signified a success that may never be achieved, and misrepresented the challenges they continue to face long after treatment completion.

Moretzsky argues that subjectivity is a better model and representation of a person because it is an inherently dynamic concept. Subjectivity allows for agency in how people are self-identifying. To follow the lead of subjectivity would mean we could enable those who have completed cancer treatment to define themselves and categorize their own lives as they see fit. Rather than upholding the category of “cancer survivorship,” allowing individuals to self-identify according to their own experiences would enable other sentiments to be expressed. In Moretzsky’s research, nearly all those who did identify as a “cancer survivor” accepted the original definition of “cancer survivorship” as a biomedical phase of treatment, still expressing problems with some of the heroic language hidden in “survivorship.”

This research suggests that many organizations, particularly those providing post-treatment services for cancer, should critically assess their language. If “cancer survivors” do not identify in that way, it limits the reach of organization marketing to this population, potentially missing many of the people they are trying to help.


Ellen Rubinstein (and Benjamin Crabtree) (RWJMS) – Lost in Translation: The Perils of Prioritizing Cancer Survivorship in Primary Care

Rubinstein begins by describing “Parker” as a man in the Denver suburbs who had left Colorado many years ago to attend a Big 10 college and compete as a pole vaulter. In his sophomore year, after what was assumed to be pain and damage from a sports-related injury, blood tests revealed he had osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. “One day I’m on campus and literally the next day I was back in Denver searching for hospitals around the world.” After a brutal round of chemotherapy, Parker’s leg was amputated mid-thigh. Eight years later the pain started again “out of nowhere.” Even though Parker’s pain was directly related to his cancer-caused amputation, Parker disclosed that he felt it may be better not to tell his primary care physicians about his cancer history. “All of a sudden your treatment for what’s wrong stops right there… It can really take over medically.”

Rubinstein explains that Parker’s story provides us with an opportunity for critical reflection on the push to integrate “cancer survivorship” into routine primary care practice. For Parker, pain was a far more salient issue than cancer. Even though the two ailments were intertwined, he spoke of them as if they were separate entities with their own biography. Rubinstein states Parker did not like to identity himself as a “cancer survivor.”

The story of the “cancer survivor” is a story about the multiple translations, or semiotic events, that occur both within the context of an office visit and within the wider context of a patient’s life. The status of “survivorship” occurs at the moment of diagnosis, where a patient plays an active role as an embattled warrior who is supposed to emerge from the fight victorious. Yet as clinicians begin to recognize that cancer is a chronic condition, it becomes impossible to escape cancer’s existential clutches, leading to a problematic life sentence. Rubinstein quotes, “One cannot just live, but must always be not-dying.”

Further, there is a distinction between “I have” and “I am” diseases. “I am” encroaches on an individual’s self-identity categories. Cancer “survivorship” falls into a similar category: “I have” cancer during an active treatment, but “I am” a cancer survivor. In the transition from active treatment to follow-up care, going from having a disease as part of the body to occupying a medically and clinically delineated subject position, this one medical event now defined them. Rubinstein discusses that many people survive other sickness events yet are not referred to as “survivors.” One participant states she has a history of mononucleosis and hypertension, yet has never been referred to as a “mono survivor” or “hypertension survivor.” Identifying as a “cancer survivor” overshadows the remainder of individual complexity.

Rubinstein argues the medical community is so steeped in cancer rhetoric that when a patient complains of various maladies, such as sexual dysfunction or weight gain, the immediate or inevitable response is that “these are well-known late and long-term effects of cancer and its treatments.” In making this assumption however, clinicians have already ignored what the patient is saying. If the patient does not identify their symptoms as being related to their cancer, then what is the benefit of forcing them to interpret their symptoms in that way?

Part of this framing of symptoms stems from a political and economic necessity for identifying cancer “survivors” as a unique population with distinct medical needs. Making a kinship of individuals who have experienced cancer, contrasted against those who have not, makes them a large and powerful constituency. Yet cancer in reality is slippery, chaotic, and constantly being redefined. Experiences and outcomes vary widely, making it impossible to group together the vast array of subjectivities into one entity. Rubinstein argues that current biomedical discourse does a poor job of capturing complex and diverse lived experiences.

Rubinstein concludes by asking if an individual does not consider themselves as a “cancer survivor,” then what are the broader implications for their health and well-being when clinicians insist that their current problems are the direct result of their cancer or cancer treatment. How much does etiology matter in the moment of the clinical encounter, and how much does it influence a patient’s future relationship with their primary care physician? Rubinstein states that in de-emphasizing the “survivor” in primary care conversations, we recognize that a history of cancer is only one set of concerns among many.


Part two of “Experiences and Identity in Long-term and Chronic Illnesses” featuring Karen Dyer and Marlaine Gray will continue next week. 

Message from the Society for Applied Anthropology 2017 Annual Meeting

sfaa-2

“Like the roads to Rome, all trails lead to Santa Fe” (Ruth Laughlin, Caballeros, 1931)

The Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry editorial team sends our greetings this week from the Society for Applied Anthropology 2017 Annual Meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This year’s meeting will be held March 28th – April 1st, 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.

This year’s theme is “Trails, Traditions, and New Directions,” embracing the Santa Fe location as a place steeped in centuries of traditions, where Native histories reach back 10,000 years and follow paths through time and across geographical space. Metaphorically, this theme highlights the importance of understanding the history and intended destination of those “theoretical trails” that we follow when engaging our community partners, methodology, and active interpretations. Presentations that approach current issues from a historical perspective—including health disparities, energy and climate change, interpreting culture—or any of our broad concerns are encouraged, as is work that critically examines the motivations that have guided social science research and practice in the past.

Highlights from this conference will be featured on the blog next week.

Best wishes,

The CMP Editorial Team

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.

Books Received for Review: February 2017

This week we are featuring previews of four books received for review at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry (available here). These previews provide a snapshot of recent publications in medical anthropology, global health, and the history of medicine that we’re excited to discuss in our journal and with our followers on social media.


9780520282841

via UC Press

Blind Spot: How Neoliberalism Infiltrated Global Health

Salmaan Keshavjee

From the University of California Press, Blind Spot is a historical and anthropological case study of how market-based ideologies and neoliberal health policies impact global health and development programs. “A vivid illustration of the infiltration of neoliberal ideology into the design and implementation of development programs, this case study, set in post-Soviet Tajikistan’s remote eastern province of Badakhshan, draws on extensive ethnographic and historical material to examine a ‘revolving drug fund’ program — used by numerous nongovernmental organizations globally to address shortages of high-quality pharmaceuticals in poor communities.” The books discusses how the privatization of health care can impact outcomes for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

For more information, visit the University of California Press website here.


via Berghahn Books

via Berghahn Books

Cosmos, Gods, and Madmen: Frameworks in the Anthropologies of Medicine

Roland Littlewood and Rebecca Lynch, eds.

“The social anthropology of sickness and health has always been concerned with religious cosmologies: how societies make sense of such issues as prediction and control of misfortune and fate; the malevolence of others; the benevolence (or otherwise) of the mystical world; local understanding and explanations of the natural and ultra-human worlds. This volume presents differing categorizations and conflicts that occur as people seek to make sense of suffering and their experiences. Cosmologies, whether incorporating the divine or as purely secular, lead us to interpret human action and the human constitution, its ills and its healing and, in particular, ways which determine and limit our very possibilities.”

For more information, visit the Berghahn Books website here.


via UC Press

via UC Press

A Passion for Society: How We Think about Human Suffering

 Iain Wilkinson and Arthur Kleinman

“What does human suffering mean for society? And how has this meaning changed from the past to the present? In what ways does “the problem of suffering” serve to inspire us to care for others? How does our response to suffering reveal our moral and social conditions?” This highly anticipated book investigates how social science has been shaped by problems of social suffering. The authors discuss how social action, through caring for others, is reshaping the discipline of social science and offers a hopeful, intellectual basis for a fundamentally moral stance against indifference, cynicism, and inaction. They argue for an engaged social science that bridges critical thought with social action, seeking to learn through caregiving, and achieving greater understanding that operates with a commitment to establish and sustain compassionate forms of society.

For more information, visit the University of California Press website here.


via UC Press

via UC Press

It’s Madness: The Politics of Mental Health in Colonial Korea

Theodore Jun Yoo

“This book examines Korea’s years under Japanese colonialism, when mental health first became defined as a medical and social problem. As in most Asian countries, severe social ostracism, shame, and fear of jeopardizing marriage prospects compelled most Korean families to conceal the mentally ill behind closed doors. This book explores the impact of Chinese traditional medicine and its holistic approach to treating mental disorders, the resilience of folk illnesses as explanations for inappropriate and dangerous behaviors, the emergence of clinical psychiatry as a discipline, and the competing models of care under the Japanese colonial authorities and Western missionary doctors. Drawing upon printed and unpublished archival sources, this is the first study to examine the ways in which “madness” was understood, classified, and treated in traditional Korea and the role of science in pathologizing and redefining mental illness under Japanese colonial rule.”

For more information, visit the University of California Press website here.

Interview: Jonathan Sadowsky and “Electroconvulsive Therapy in America”

9781138696969This week on the blog we’re highlighting an interview with Dr. Jonathan Sadowsky about his new book Electroconvulsive Therapy in America: The Anatomy of a Medical Controversy, released November 2016 by Routledge. The book (available here) follows the American history of one of the most controversial procedures in medicine, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and seeks to provide an explanation of why it has been so controversial, juxtaposing evidence from clinical science, personal memoir, and popular culture. ECT is widely demonized or idealized. Some detractors consider its very use to be a human rights violation, while some promoters depict it as a miracle, as the “penicillin of psychiatry.” Sadowsky contextualizes the controversies about ECT, instead of simply engaging in them, making the history of ECT more richly revealing of wider changes in culture and medicine. He shows that the application of electricity to the brain to treat illness is not only a physiological event, but also one embedded in culturally patterned beliefs about the human body, the meaning of sickness, and medical authority.

Dr. Sadowsky is the Theodore J. Castele Professor of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, the Associate Director of Medical Humanities and Social Medicine, the Medical Humanities and Social Medicine Initiative co-founder, the Associate Director of Medicine, Society, and Culture in the Bioethics department of the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and on the Editorial Board here at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Sadowsky’s research concentrates largely on the history of medicine and psychiatry in Africa and the United States. His previous publications include Imperial Bedlam: Institutions of Madness in Colonial Southwest Nigeria (1999), available here from the University of California Press.

From all of us at CMP, we hope you enjoy our new interview category!

  1. For someone who is thinking about reading your book or about to start, is there anything you would like them to know beforehand?

I would urge everyone to understand that not everybody’s experience of a medical therapy is the same. People should be careful not to generalize from experiences they’ve had, or that loved ones have had, and assume everyone has had the same experience. People who’ve had bad experiences with ECT have criticized me for to wanting to pay attention to the voices of people who’ve had good experiences, and people who’ve have good experiences have wanted to say “oh sure that might have been true in the 1950s but everything’s fine now.” ECT has a complicated story. I have met people who have told me that this treatment saved their lives and that it did so with either none or only the most mild of adverse effects. Those people are very concerned to make sure that the therapy gets represented in positive light because there are so many negative depictions. At the same time I’ve heard from and spoken to people who say they’ve lost 20 points off their IQ after having this treatment, or who had huge gaps in memory, or that they know somebody who had killed themselves after an ECT treatment. And what I find a little bit puzzling still after all these years of working on this book, is the way people are so unwilling to see that other people might have had a different experience than their own. But it’s my feeling as a social and cultural historian that it’s my responsibility to take into account all voices. So that’s the main thing that I want people to know and think about, that experiences of this treatment do vary and people shouldn’t be too quick to generalize from their own experience.

  1. How did you become interested in ECT?

I was already several years into my career as a historian of medicine, and in particular psychiatry, and had no knowledge of the treatment other than the images that many of us have from movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Images that it was a highly frightening and abusive treatment. I was a well-trained student of medicine and psychiatry and I didn’t know anything more than that. And then I began to hear stories, both from patients and from clinicians, about it being a valuable treatment and that was just so intriguing to me. So I began to look at some of the clinical literature and it was represented in almost completely the opposite way, as this safe, effective, humane treatment that’s been unfairly stigmatized. I felt like these were two completely distinct realities. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to reconcile them, but I just wanted to understand how views of this treatment became so bifurcated. And that became the central goal of the project: to understand why it became a controversy and have such strongly held opinions on either side.

  1. What did you find most exciting to research and write about?

I worked on this project for a long time and one of the things that sustained me was that there are so many different angles to it. I was interested in learning about how it was used to treat homosexuals in 1950s, to see what the reaction of the psychoanalytic community was, and how it figured as a symbol for all that was worst in psychiatry in the antipsychiatry moment. And then there were all the debates going back to the inception of the treatment, ongoing continual debates about the extent of memory loss. Is it a serious problem? Is it a rare problem? These debates are still raging. All of this I found so intriguing. The history of ECT is also replete with ironies. Such as the irony that it was developed initially as a treatment for schizophrenia based on a hypothesis that schizophrenia has an inverse relationship with epilepsy. That hypothesis is no longer even believed in, and schizophrenia is not the main indication anymore, and yet it’s effective. That’s so weird and so seemly random! Another irony is that this treatment which become an icon for frightening medical treatment, and became almost like people’s haunting nightmare of how medicine could abuse you if you came into its clutches, was initially developed as a way to try to create a safer, less frightening treatment than chemical convulsive therapy. So it’s these layers of irony that I just found so interesting and kept me intrigued in the book.

  1. Did you come across anything unexpected?

Yes, I did come across things that were unexpected. I found the gender politics to be very elusive. I found very little evidence for the idea that women were given ECT for simply protesting against their social role as housewives, which was promoted in another book on ECT. But it does appear likely that over the course of the treatment’s history more women have gotten it than men, and there is likely a gender politics to this. Minimally it may mean simply that more women are getting diagnosed with depression, and that’s the main indication. And we know that. The diagnosis of depression has predominated among women. There is a darker possibility, which is that women’s cognitive abilities haven’t been as valued, and so doctors have been more willing to use a treatment that might damage cognitive abilities on women than they were on men. I didn’t see any proof for that. But I think there were suggestive circumstances that might indicate that that played a role. In many realms of medicine, and this has been really well documented by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of medicine, women’s complaints about medical treatments are more quickly dismissed than men’s complaints. So it’s quite possible that some of the complaints about memory loss, which have persisted throughout the history of this treatment, have been taken less seriously because they were so often voiced by women. I’m not arguing that women had more memory loss than men, but if they predominated in the treatment, and there were complaints about memory loss, it is plausible to suggest that perhaps there has been too much dismissal. I didn’t have evidence such as clearly sexist language in clinical reports that would strengthen a speculation like that, but one thing I do argue in the book is that the history of ECT is filled with doctors dismissing patient complaints of adverse effects. There are a number of ECT providers now, however, who are trying to be very sensitive to these complaints about memory and cognitive deficits following the treatment, but there still exists in clinical manuals the claim that serious memory problems are extremely rare, and that rarity really hasn’t been proven. So it remains a problem. The history of ECT treatment has shown a tendency to dismiss patient complaints about adverse effects, and this has not served anyone well. If anything, the tendency to dismiss complaints has worsened the stigma attached to the treatment. It’s understandable that some clinicians might feel some defensiveness for a treatment they feel is helpful and safe, but the dismissal of complaints of adverse effects has led to embittered patients and worsened the stigma. In a recent piece in The Conversation (available here), I argued that if we wanted to spell the stigma attached to ECT, it’s going to take more than attesting to its therapeutic efficacy. It’s going to mean we have to reconcile with its full costs.

  1. Why was it important for you to try and remain neutral and not argue for or against ECT?

I’m not trying to presume objectivity. Everyone has a point of view. But I thought I could tell a more interesting story by taking a step back and making the controversy itself my study rather than becoming a disputant in the controversy. There’s some precedent for this. Didier Fassin, an anthropologist, did a book on AIDS in South Africa, When Bodies Remember (available here), in which he did the same thing; he tried to look at the structure of the controversy. He was trying to understand the medical controversy over HIV as an anthropologist, even though he did actually side more with one than the other. But I do argue in the book there are good reasons to attest to efficacy of ECT and it is a valuable part of psychiatry’s repertoire, that it has a place in medicine. But I also argue that there were good grounds for people to contest it and have fear of the treatment. I really try to resist the view, which is very common in clinical literature on ECT, that opposition to ECT is irrational. There are rational reasons for the resistance rooted in some of its historical uses, some of which were abusive, and rooted in the experiences of adverse effects. At the end of the book I lay it all out and I say exactly what I think about ECT after trying to look at it from a step back. I think it’s an invaluable part of psychiatry and could be very useful for many people. But I don’t think it should be used as a first or second resort; other things should be tried first because there are risks. I’m glad it’s there if I should ever need it, but I hope I never need it.

  1. Would ECT be perceived differently if it didn’t treat the brain but some other organ?

Probably. In our society now, more than any other organ your brain is you. It is the seed of the self in our self-conception. I would go beyond that. The side effects do occur, without making any kind of representation about how common these problems are, but at least some people do experience permanent memory losses. I used a lot of patient memoirs in the chapter on memory as my source material. And as one of the memoirists wrote: We are our pasts. You lose your memory it’s like you lose a part of yourself. I think in some ways people feel they lose a part of themselves if they lose their memories more than even if they were to lose a limb. Losing a limb is very traumatic, I don’t mean to minimize that. But in a way, you lose your leg and you say “I lost my leg.” It’s something that belongs to you, but it isn’t you in the same way that maybe you feel your memories are you. Memories are not just something that you have, they’re something that you are.

I think ECT is a treatment for the very ill and as a society we do generally accept that treatments for the very ill sometimes involve radical interventions. Chemotherapy for cancers for example. Most of us are glad we have it, and there isn’t a large anti-chemotherapy movement. My leading theory for why ECT treatment occasions this kind of resistance is because of depression’s uncertain status as illness. No one disagrees that cancer is an illness. When you have cancer you accept that you need surgery or radiation or chemotherapy. These are things that you normally wouldn’t do to your body if you were healthy and you didn’t need them. Cancer is clearly different from normal. But depression has this ambiguous status for two reasons. It is an ambiguous word in the English language because it refers both to an illness which can be extremely severe, yet it also refers to a mood that’s normal and that everybody at some point in their lives gets a little bit depressed. We might have disagreements about how long it has to go on and how severe it has to be to be considered an illness. But it becomes something different when we call it an illness. Secondly why I think depression’s status is a bit uncertain, is that there continue to be people who reject medical models for what we call mental illness altogether. Some might believe what people need is talk therapy and they shouldn’t have drugs or shock therapies or anything like that. Some might believe that they don’t need any treatment at all; they might want to de-medicalize the entire thing. For example, for something to qualify as disease, there has to be some kind of lesion, or something physical that can be identified. Since we don’t have the means to do that with depression, it should be removed from the medical realm. I argue against this view. The idea that there has to be some kind of visual marker is arbitrary. I do think what we consider an illness is a social decision. But if you look at it historically and anthropologically, the idea that things we call madness are medical problems is pretty widespread. And in some ways having to have something be visually identifiable is buying into a lot of biomedical hegemony. I just don’t see why that should be the criteria for illness. Ultimately it’s a philosophical question. Most people in our society do accept that severe depression actually constitutes an illness category, but I think these kinds of ambiguities leave people unsure whether this is something worthy of very strong medicine. ECT is strong medicine. It’s a big decision to undergo ECT and it’s the right decision for some people. It’s a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly and shouldn’t be treated like a trip to the dentist.

  1. Is there anything else you want to add?

I was really gratified by the number of anthropologists who read and used my first book on insanity in Nigeria, Imperial Bedlam (available here), and I would be thrilled if anthropologists gave this book the same attention. And I’d also like to add that Routledge says there will probably be a paperback within the next year and a half.