Antropologi.info contributor Aleksandra Bartoszko has recently met medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes. In an interview in three parts, she talks with her about the neo-cannibalism of the global organ trade, about her forthcoming book, an anthropological detective story, and about new ways of doing fieldwork in a world where local communities are more influenced by what goes on outside of it than what’s going inside of it.
By Aleksandra Bartoszko, Oslo University Hospital, Equality and Diversity Unit
Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA) focuses on the power relations within health context and political economy of health and health care. It asks why so many people die when there is a cure? Why will I live 20 years longer than my friend from Nicaragua? How do global pharmaceutical markets exclude poor populations? Which body is more worth to be saved? Who decide if you have access to necessary care? What are human rights in every day life, in practice, not on paper?
Critical anthropologists seem to unanimously agree and point out the significant role of neoliberal politics in the construction of inequalities in society. A lot of CMA-writing end up as harsh (and unfortunately often uncritical) critique of “neoliberalism” and “capitalism”.
Reading, listening and talking to critical anthropologists has always left me with a feeling that this part of our discipline is dominated by one political view (which is never good) and every researcher focusing on inequalities is a leftist. Reasons for that can be discussed, but this unwritten agreement has been troubling me for years
I was always wondering if people who grounded CMA think it is possible to do CMA without being a leftist. I asked Nancy Scheper-Hughes. She replied:
Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Photo: UC Berkeley
– Well, that’s a great question, I mean we can always be critical in the scholarly sense, obviously, which can mean critical theory as produced by the Frankfurt school, the new left, Marxists, Neo-Marxists, Gramsci, anarchist socialist, or whatever, but I think that in the anthropological sense critical means essentially realizing your positionality, understanding power relations as outsider looking or as an insider looking out. It means taking these radical juxtapositions of making the familiar strange and making the strange familiar. I think all of that is radical critical without necessary being leftist. These definitions of left and right are not so useful. I simply say, often to raised eyebrows, that I am radical. Take it or leave it.
– Paul Rabinow once said to me, he always plays devil’s advocate, and once he said when he taught about public anthropology: “Well, then, what is private anthropology?” My answer is that private anthropology is anthropology written for 50 people who understand what you are talking about and excludes everybody else.
– So I feel that there is a place for that, there is a time, and where it’s absolutely necessary to speak in an encoded language – it’s a form of shorthand, just like the physicists do or mathematicians do. The audience will be small and a closed circuit one. It would be critical, but private, undemocratic because so many are excluded from participating in the conversation.
– But public anthropology doesn’t only mean making things more readily available to the layman, let’s say. To me it means like making things public that are private. Making invisible things into public issues, making visible secrets that empower some and disempower others who are not privy to the information.
– So I think that part of being a critical anthropologist is getting to the underside of things, the dimensions of social and political life that people cannot ordinarily see. In the end, I see the critical anthropologist, medical or cultural, as necessarily alienated, as politically situated class traitors, race traitors, national traitors and gender traitors. But lets leave that for another discussion.
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