Archive for January 22, 2018

NYAS @ WGF 1/29: Will Humans Survive our Assault on the Earth? A Message from Madagascar

Join us at the Wenner-Gren Foundation on January 29th at 5:45 as we kick off the first New York Academy of Sciences lecture of the year. Patricia Wright, Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University will be presenting, “Will Humans Survive our Assault on the Earth? A Message from Madagascar”. Joel E. Cohen, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations and Director of the Laboratory of Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University will act as discussant.

Please note: the lecture begins at 6:30 PM, and while the event is free to attend pre-registration is required for entry into the building.

Event Registration:  If you will be registering for an event for the first time, the New York Academy of Sciences will ask you first to set up a user account with them. Registration is free and does not require divulging personal or financial information.

You can also register by phone, 212-298-8640 or 212-298-8600.  Early Registration is strongly recommended since seating is limited.

Anthropologists are well aware that there are wars in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, areas where humans have existed the longest. But rarely do we suggest that the roots of these conflicts are competition for natural resources, ie, fighting for access to farming and grazing land and access to water. Madagascar has been populated by humans for only a few thousand years, yet a shocking portion of its natural resources has been destroyed. Today it is the 6th poorest country on Earth. This grinding human poverty, where 70% of the population is malnourished, is partially caused by destruction of natural resources by fires since human arrival. I will discuss the current political and economic situation in Madagascar and offer two possible predictions for Madagascar of the future. These predictions could apply globally.

About the Speakers:

Patricia Wright is best known for her extensive study of social and family interactions of wild lemurs in Madagascar. She is Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University, where she also established the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments. Wright  contributed to the establishment of the Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Books include For the Love of Lemurs: My Life in the Wilds of Madagascar (2014) and High Moon Over the Amazon: My Quest to Understand the Monkeys of the Night (2013).  She was the first woman to receive the Indianapolis Prize for Animal Conservation (2014), and is the recipient of three medals of honor from the Malagasy Government (Knight, Officer, Commander) for her work in Madagascar. She has won numerous awards and fellowships including being made a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow (1989). Her research is highlighted in the National Geographic Magazine, by the BBC Natural History Unit, in Natural History magazine, in several films and TV series, and in the IMAX film, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar (2014).

Joel E. Cohen is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations and Director of the Laboratory of Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University. At Columbia University, Cohen holds appointments as Professor of Populations in the Earth Institute, and as Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, and in the Department of International and Public Affairs. His research deals with the demography, ecology, epidemiology and social organization of human and non-human populations and with mathematical concepts useful in these fields. Books include Casual Groups of Monkeys and Men (1966), Food Webs and Niche Space (1971), Forecasting Product Liability Claims: Epidemiology and Modeling in the Manville Asbestos Case (2005), and International Perspectives on the Goals of Universal Basic and Secondary Education (with Martin Malin, 2010). Cohen received the Golden Goose Award at the Library of Congress (2015), and has been a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1981-82) and of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (1981-86).

Buffet Dinner at 5:45 pm ($20 contribution for dinner guests / free for students).

Lecture begins at 6:30 pm and are free and open to the public.

Pre-registration is required for entry into the building.

All talks in this series take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street).


Engaged Anthropology Grant: Kelsey Dancause

Image 1 - Central Market, Port Vila, Efate. In 2015 and 2016, we collected data on psychosocial health among women in both rural and urban areas. The central market in Port Vila, the urban capital, was an important data collection site. Image source: Collaborator Mian Li, Binghamton University.

In 2015 Dr. Kelsey Dancause received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on “Effects of Prenatal Psychosocial Stress on Birth Outcomes in Developing Countries: Filling the Knowledge Gap Using Validated Surveys in Vanuatu”. In 2017 Dr. Dancause received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Promoting Local Research Capacity Through Psychosocial Health Research Training and Knowledge Translation”.

In 2015, we began the “Healthy Mothers, Healthy Communities” study of maternal psychosocial stress during pregnancy in Vanuatu, a lower-middle income country in the South Pacific. The archipelago had recently been hit by a Category 5 cyclone, which destroyed many villages and affected large numbers of the population. Based on studies showing links between prenatal stress due to natural disasters and infant health outcomes, we adapted questionnaires commonly used to assess post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, in order to assess distress due to the cyclone among pregnant women and women of reproductive age in Vanuatu. In 2016, we followed up on this study to assess daily stress, depression, and anxiety among similar samples. Our diverse sample included women from hospitals, clinics, and markets in both rural and urban areas (Images 1 and 2).

Image 2 - Umej village, Aneityum. In 2015 and 2016, we collected data on psychosocial health among women in both rural and urban areas. Collaborator Dr. Alysa Pomer (Yale University) collected data on Aneityum, an island with around 900 people. Image source: Amanda Roome and Elisabeth Standard, Binghamton University.

This is a unique study that allows us to assess the role of psychosocial stress in risk of adverse birth outcomes such as low birthweight and prematurity that remain elevated in many low- and middle-income countries, and to begin to tease apart differences between acute distress and chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Our analyses to date have helped us to characterize mental health patterns in Vanuatu. We observed that distress following the cyclone was very high, and that high distress among pregnant women in the sample predicted smaller weight among their infants at birth: controlling for confounding variables, distress explained 8.5% of variance in birthweight (p=0.012), and was an even more important predictor of birthweight than maternal dietary characteristics.

Equally importantly, our experience has highlighted that psychosocial health is an increasing priority, both among health professionals and community members. Thus, in 2017, we worked to adapt our assessment tools for broader use by local health professionals, and by other researchers working in Vanuatu.

Image 3 - Collaborators Amanda Roome, Kathryn Olszowy, and Elisabeth Standard. Our work in 2017 included both local and international collaborators. Dr. Kathryn Olszowy (Cleveland State University) collected data on stress among adult men and women, with assistance from graduate students Amanda Roome and Elisabeth Standard (Binghamton University). Image source: Amanda Roome and Elisabeth Standard.

From June-August 2017, we worked in Port Vila, Vanuatu to re-evaluate and refine our psychosocial health assessment measures. We met with nurses, physicians, and professionals at the Ministry of Health. We presented results of our 2015 and 2016 studies, highlighting the importance of maternal mental health in Vanuatu and the need for more detailed surveillance. We reviewed and revised our assessment tool with these key collaborators. We also updated our database in collaboration with midwives from Vila Central Hospital, and shared the full dataset with key health professionals. This provides a baseline dataset for comparison to future studies that incorporate our assessment tool.

Image 4 - Mele village, Efate. We visited villages to follow up with 100 women who completed the questionnaire in 2015 and 2016. Team members Giavana Buffa (Ross University Medical School) and Jake Rafferty visited villages all around the island of Efate. Image source: Kelsey Dancause.

We also followed up with 100 women who completed the questionnaires in 2016 (Image 3). We re-administered the same questionnaires, which allows us to assess consistency of responses over time. We also discussed women’s perceptions of the questionnaires and their suggestions. We met women in their communities, which allowed us to include chiefs and other community leaders in discussions. Finally, we administered the assessment tool among men and among older women in the same communities, allowing us for the first time to begin to assess its applicability among samples beyond women of reproductive age (Image 4). Together, these evaluations help us to refine the assessment tool, for broader use by local health professionals.

Image 5 - People complete the distress questionnaire on the island of Ambae. In October 2017, the entire population of Ambae was evacuated due to threat of a volcano eruption. In December 2017, Amanda Roome and collaborator Dr. Chim Chan used our questionnaire to assess psychosocial health among people in the evacuated communities. Image source: Amanda Roome, Binghamton University.

Recently, the entire population of one island in Vanuatu – more than 12,000 people – was evacuated because of risk of a volcano eruption. Given the increased focus on mental health in Vanuatu, a mental health team was on hand to help provide services to the displaced communities. We worked with local collaborators to collect data in the displaced communities using our assessment tool (Image 5). These studies will allow us assess the efficacy of the intervention programs, and the short and long-term effects of stress due to displacement in these communities. This could provide important insights to guide the development of similar services in other low- and middle-income countries. We are also currently adapting our assessment tools for use not only by local health professionals, but by community volunteers who could help to increase mental health surveillance resources, and also provide a first contact for people seeking mental health services. Where resources are limited, such community-focused efforts might provide a sustainable means of increasing mental health services and ultimately improving health and well-being.

Meet Our Wadsworth International Fellows: Dmitri Prieto Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto Samsonov received his undergraduate degree from the University of Havana. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship he will continue his training with a PhD in anthropology at University College London, supervised by Dr. Martin Holbraad. Read the previous four entries in the series.

My research interests are focused on the political anthropology of radical social transformations, particularly in Eurasia and the Caribbean. As a person of Cuban-Russian ancestry, I have experienced the long-term, trans-oceanic effects of the Cuban revolution, the Soviet revolution, and Perestroika. I am particularly interested in how emancipatory revolutions produce unintended dynamics of social asymmetry (including class inequality) and structures of hierarchy, authoritarianism and domination. In my MSc dissertation (LSE, 2008) and a subsequent book about the socio-legal aspects of the anti-slavery revolution in Haiti (1791-1826), I coined the term “transdomination” for this sort of social process.  I also auto-ethnographically investigated the (post)-Soviet diaspora in Cuba, a complex group of barely perceptible ethnicities, which emerged as an outcome of revolutionary policies and transatlantic migratory fluxes during the period of geopolitical alliance between Cuba and the USSR.

My current research topic is the ethnography of transdomination in post-insurrectional and post-Soviet Cuba (from1959 to the present). It encompasses the intersection of three areas of anthropological interest, the: (1) anthropology of revolutions, (2) anthropology of freedom, and (3) anthropology of historical consciousness. Additionally, issues related to geopolitics, 20th-century ideological and strategic models of State socialism, and the modern capitalist world-system are relevant for analyzing post-1959 Cuba.

Such a proposal requires carrying out massive fieldwork –which is exactly the sort of inquiry that ethnographic approaches make possible — and conceptualizing an innovative theoretical framework. I will need to collect ethnographic evidence pertinent for interpreting the complex social reality of present-day Cuba, and to put the resulting accounts in dialogue with life histories narrated by the witnesses and protagonists of the post-1959 revolutionary project. Anthropology is the academic discipline that makes such an integrative approach possible. I chose the University College London (UCL) because its Anthropology Department is deeply engaged with the ontological turn in the research of contemporary revolutions, which conceptualizes their social and cultural dynamics as radical cosmological changes. This kind of theoretical and investigative framework will be crucial for formulating an accurate scientific narrative of the process of transdomination in Cuba.UCL also has a tradition of expertise in both Latin-American and Eastern-European studies, which is an interesting combination for problematizing the issues of State socialism in contemporary Cuba.

My previous research has focused on social asymmetries and ethnography of the habitat in Old Havana and the Guanahacabibes peninsula (Cuba), history of the Cuban anthropology, work cultures of the Cuban emergent economic agents, history of the Cuban legal-constitutional identity, and administrative corruption in Cuba. I earned a Masters in Law, Anthropology and Society with Distinction at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and obtained a Graduate Diploma in Biological Anthropology from the University of Havana. My first degrees are a BSc in Biochemistry and an LLB at the same university. I am currently a member of the Research Workgroup “Anti-Capitalismos & Sociabilidades Emergentes” affiliated with the Latin-American Council for Social Sciences (CLACSO) and one of the coordinators of its Cuban chapter. I worked as an ethnographer at the Instituto Cubano de Antropologia, as a Constitutional Law specialist at the Centre for Law Research of the Cuban Ministry of Justice, and as a molecular biologist at the Centro de Ingenieria Genetica y Biotecnologia in Havana. I lectured in Social Theory, Anthropology, Constitutional Law, History of Cuba and History of Philosophy (inter alia) at the Santa Cruz del Norte Community College of the Universidad Agraria de La Habana.I am deeply committed to the future of Cuba and the development of the anthropological sciences in my homeland. After the completion of my degree, I expect to return and work towards opening new fields of study for Socio-Cultural Anthropology, and to strengthen transdisciplinary research.