"Anthropology needs to develop a listening capacity and to engage in an activist way, to become involved with the problem, not just to observe it from a distance", says Brazilian anthropologist João Biehl in a portrait on the website of his university (Princeton University).
Biehl has conducted fieldwork in Vita, a site in Porto Alegre that is populated by the sick, mentally ill and poor who have passed beyond the care of families and social institutions. He wrote about his experiences in "Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment" which revolves around an ethnographic study of Catarina, a young women who was considered by her family and various doctors to be insane. With no one to look after her, she had ended up at Vita. Se died in Vita in 2003.
Working with Catarina taught Biehl anthropology in a new way, he says.
Describing the impact of the book, Princeton anthropologist Carolyn Rouse said, "In addressing social policy and ethics, 'Vita' demonstrates how one person's life can be a basis for thinking about complex issues."
According to Biehl, places like Vita are emerging everywhere in urban Brazil, and the book shows "how economic globalization and state and medical reform coincide and impinge on a local production of social death."
Unfortunately, I couldn't find more texts by or about Biehl. His anthropology department looks like one of the worst faculty website on the web. But you'll find three papers on the website of Anthropology, Art, and Activism Series (Brown University).
UPDATE (9.2.07): Read the comment by Anne Galloway (Space and Culture)