• Open Access

Medical anthropology at the intersections: histories, activisms, and futures

Edited by Marcia C. Inhorn and Emily A. Wentzell ; Published by Duke University Press , Durham , NC , 2012 . ISBN 978-0-8223-5270-9 ; 352 pages.

Reviewed by Christina Birdsall-Jones

John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Curtin University, Western Australia

This edited volume of papers results from the 2009 conference of the Society for Medical Anthropology held at Yale University and is made up of chapters based on the conference presentations of the plenary speakers. As the sub-title of this book implies, it is organised according to three themes: histories, queries and activisms. The chapters, with one exception, are of uniform length, about 20 pages. Despite the division according to themes, all contain a large serving of history and literature review prior to discovering the topics with which the authors are primarily concerned.

The quality of the papers is uniformly good, although of course, some are inherently more interesting than others to the individual reader. Lynn Morgan's chapter, on the Western conviction that the Chinese eat human embryos is an example of this. While the topic is arresting, the paper itself fits within Said's critique of anthropology as fostering orientalism in its view of cultures of the east. Morgan notes that while the cultural myth has the Chinese consuming embryos, it was European scientific inquiry in the early 20th century that focused on the collection of Chinese embryos and foetuses, preserved in specimen jars and studied for evidence of developmental differences between the Chinese and Europeans.

Didier Fassin queries the concept of global health and whose purposes are served by it. He notes that:

The mere fact of taking global health as an object worthy of academic interest and scientific publications can be seen as concordant with technocratic common sense or even neoliberal ideology, consequently contributing its legitimization by science or conversely to its takeover by opinion makers (p.103).

Fassin points here to one of the facts of life in the world of academic research. We are people of our time and we are influenced by whatever the contemporary agenda of concerns. To an extent, this is the dilemma of the researcher who needs funding. One needs a topic with which funding bodies will find immediate resonance. There is a feedback loop therefore between research, policy and terminology. An illustration of this in the Australian setting is a now defunct federal government policy on Aboriginal Affairs. This was the Assimilation Policy for which the anthropological and journalistic records show great concern and interest. Although assimilation began life as a term of political policy, it was transformed by anthropologists into a conceptual basis of analysis and theorising. That it was no such thing is revealed by the fact that after the Assimilation Policy was revoked by a newly elected Labour government in 1975, there was no further research, analysis or theorising about it.

Fassin's questions about the nature of global health as an object of study are well justified therefore. Terms of political policy present a danger to anthropologists through entrapping our discourse within the political language and ideology of the day. Perhaps this is why the final section of the book, Activisms, engenders a note of reality. In this section, the authors do not employ the term ‘global health’ as the conceptual basis of research. Rather, they report on research into the relationship between public policy and the worlds of the disabled, the LGBT, and so on.

Singer (pp183–205), in his paper concerning the relationship between medical anthropology and public policy, notes that anthropology seems absent from the policy-making process. He quotes Okongwu and Mencher (2000) who complain that:

Anthropologists have tended to write mainly for other anthropologists, not for those who have the power to change the world (p.109).

This concern echoes those of public health researchers of my acquaintance who seek to find ways to move the fruits of the research process into the world of public health practice. However, Singer is not quite correct in this view, at least not in Australia where a significant proportion of the academic anthropological community reports directly to and writes specifically for the policy makers. Whether this portion of the Australian anthropological community is willing to go with Singer into community organising on the basis of their findings is another matter.

In any case, there is a difference of purpose in writing for the policy makers as opposed to the academy. In writing for the academy, we seek to move the fruits of research into the realm of research practice, method and theory. Only by doing so can we truly advance our disciplines, providing our colleagues with new ways of looking at problems, and new ways of providing the tools of research to investigate them. This reflects the central message of this book, that medical anthropology requires the dimensions of the academy and the community in order to influence the nexus between the medical context and the power of the policy makers.