NYAS @ WGF: Audio Now Available!

Left to Right: Brian Boyd and Genese Sodikoff (Co-Chairs, Anthropology Section, NYAS), Speaker Sarah Croucher (Wesleyan), and Discussant Mandana Limbert (Queens College, CUNY)

Recently we hosted the final New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section meeting for the 2013-2014 academic year, deliciously entitled “Capitalism and Cloves: Islamic Plantations on Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar”. Now you can listen to Wesleyan University’s Sarah K. Croucher walk us through race, capitalism, and the complex landscaping of clove plantations, followed by a brief comment by discussant Mandana Limbert of Queens College CUNY.

Listen to the talk, discussant portion, and audience Q&A.

…and thanks again for joining us for another great season of NYAS programming!

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Daisy Deomampo

Women discussing the surrogacy industry in Mumbai, India

Dr. Daisy Deomampo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The New Global ‘Division of Labor’: Reproductive Tourism in Mumbai, India,‘ supervised by Dr. Leith Mullings. Last year, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite in Mumbai and share findings from her research on kinship and race in the context of transnational surrogacy.

In December 2013 I returned to my fieldsite in Mumbai, India, where I studied the social, cultural, and ethical implications of transnational surrogacy. The practice of transnational surrogacy forms part of a broader phenomenon known as fertility tourism, transnational reproduction, and cross border reproductive care, involving the travel of prospective parents in pursuit of assisted reproductive technology (ART) services such as gestational surrogacy, egg donation, and in vitro fertilization. When I began this research in 2008 I was especially interested in how various actors—including commissioning parents, surrogate mothers, and egg donors—understand and articulate notions of kinship and race as they undergo assisted conception across national, ethnic, and class boundaries. Since then, my interests have expanded to include questions related to power and agency for all actors involved, but especially for the Indian women who become surrogate mothers for foreign clients and wealthy Indians.

Seminar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences

These questions are important to consider, particularly as surrogacy remains unregulated in India and the Draft ART (Regulation) Bill and Rules awaits decision in Parliament. As debates continue around how to legislate the flourishing fertility industry, various groups have argued that major gaps exist in the protection of surrogate mothers and children in the current draft bill (Sama 2010). Yet the voices and perspectives of Indian women who participate in commercial surrogacy remain largely absent in ongoing discussions around ART policy and legislation. Because of this, I wanted to return to India to share my research findings, which illustrate the ways in which Indian women do not conform to simplistic stereotypes and binary oppositions between agent and victim. Indeed, these findings demonstrate how women resist dominant constructions of surrogates as powerless victims and express forms of individual and collective agency, albeit within larger structures of power.

In this engagement project, then, my goals were to disseminate research findings and to provide a forum in which Indian women involved in surrogacy could voice their hopes, desires, and visions for the future of surrogacy in India. The aim was to provide an opportunity for surrogate mothers and egg donors to articulate their concerns around the health, medical, social, and contractual aspects of commercial gestational surrogacy. Thus, this engagement project encompassed several activities, carried out in December 2013 and January 2014 in Mumbai, India, including a participatory workshop with surrogates and egg donors and a research presentation with the local scholarly community.

» Read more..

NYAS @ WGF: Sarah K. Croucher and “Capitalism and Cloves”

We’ve just had another great season of NYAS Anthropology Section lectures here at the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and this upcoming Monday, April 28th, marks the final meeting for the 2013-2014 academic year. On this occasion we will welcome Wesleyan University’s Sarah K. Croucher, a historical archaeologist focused on race and colonialism in the 19th century, to present a talk entitled “Capitalism and Cloves: Islamic Plantations on Nineteenth-Century Zanzibar”

Plantation landscapes have been understood by historical archaeologists to be fundamentally part of the expansion of global capitalism. This talk explores this taken-for-granted assumption through the study of Islamic plantations on nineteenth-century Zanzibar. Through a combination of archaeological and historical data I explore how landscapes were understood by Omani settler colonists on the island during the 1800s, in the process questioning the manner in which capitalism and European culture are generally assumed to be synonymous.

This event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). Dr. Croucher will begin her lecture at 7 PM, and a dinner and wine reception, free to students, will precede the talk at 6 pm. The event is free, but registration with NYAS is required.

Interview: Kristen Pearlstein and “An Analysis of Immigrant and Euro-American Skeletal Health in 19th Century New York City”

Kristen with skeletal collection at the Museum Support Center, Smithsonian Institution

Kristen Pearlstein is a doctoral student at American University. In 2012, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘An Analysis of Immigrant and Euro-American Skeletal Health in 19th Century New York City,’ supervised by Dr. Rachel J. Watkins. We asked Kristen to answer a few question about her grant research working with the George S. Huntington Anatomical Skeletal Collection and exploring New York City’s lost social history through the marks it left on human remains.

Let’s begin with a bit of background. Could you briefly summarize the project you undertook with your Dissertation Fieldwork Grant?

My project compares the skeletal health of European immigrants to Euro-Americans from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to understand the biological impact of socio-economic inequality and poverty in New York City during this time period.  I evaluated the human remains of individuals who were unclaimed when they died and used as dissection cadavers for medical teaching purposes.  The subjects most likely to be unclaimed were individuals who could not afford the cost of a burial, and were generally from a very impoverished segment of the population.

Skeletal health indicators from three ethnic groups – Irish, German, and Italian – were compared to health indicators from indigent U.S.-born individuals in order to determine how perceived social and economic disparities within and between immigrant and U.S.-born groups differentially impacted their skeletal health.  Historical narratives show that different nationality groups had diverse experiences with discrimination and marginalization after migrating to this country.  One hypothesis is that groups which experienced more prejudice had a lower health status.  The Irish, for example, were maligned more than the Germans, and were more often relegated to occupations of manual labor.  Therefore, I expected to observe more indicators of adverse health events in the Irish skeletal remains than in the German or U.S.-born groups.  This physical evidence provides the basic data for my dissertation: the broken bones, herniated vertebral discs, tuberculous lesions, rampant systemic infections, severe arthritis, etc.  I am finding that the U.S.-born group has a similar health profile to the Irish, so an interesting aspect of this study will be discerning why those similarities exist and where there are subtle differences between those two groups.

 

How did you originally become interested in this particular research question?

My sub-field interest is paleopathology, so my research was going to involve some aspect of human health and history.  I was familiar with this particular anatomical skeletal collection from a long term rehousing project, but I did not envision the focus of this study until I took a history course on health and migration and spent time reviewing how 19th century immigrants were perceived in regards to social status and public health, with more prejudice directed toward some immigrant groups than others.  I became interested in evaluating how these diverse experiences were expressed not just in the historical records, but in the actual skeletal remains.  As I began my search for other studies of skeletal collections from that time period, I realized that hardly any literature expressly discussed immigrants.  So I am excited that my research can contribute to this ongoing conversation about inequality and health and the experiences of different groups.

 

Abnormal bone formation of the anterior spine due to tuberculosis

How did cultural anthropology and race theory influence your work with the physical anthropological archives?

Previous studies on anatomical and historical collections have utilized a biocultural framework to situate physical evidence within the context of the cultural environment.  This project builds on existing scholarship by combining the historical narrative of social and racial/ethnic bias with the physical documentation of skeletal health.  My research engages in the debate on the relationship between health and social status by examining the interactions between dominant and marginalized groups, and how these interactions are connected to health inequalities.  Much of the skeletal research undertaken in biocultural health studies focuses on ethnically generalized groups, and historical studies in the United States have been carried out on African-American population samples and Euro-American population samples.  These studies highlight the importance of the environmental and historical context for understanding patterns of morbidity and mortality in skeletal populations.

However, the implicit generalization of Black or White blurs additional aspects of marginalization or resistance that may contribute to health disparities within and between groups.  Studies addressing the skeletal health of Whites in a historical context have not considered the stigmatization of many immigrants as ethnic ‘others’ and therefore failed to critically examine all aspects of social marginalization as it relates to health and stress.  Additionally, successful studies have challenged certain assumptions we carry in regards to health and status by showing there is not always a direct correlation between skeletal health and social marginalization. So this study will seek to demonstrate how expected health outcomes in marginalized population groups are impacted by various aspects of resistance, social support, and localized stressors.

 

New York City, c. 1840.

What picture of 19th century NYC emerged along the course of your research?

The City of New York had a complicated relationship with its immigrants.  On the one hand, the city was totally unprepared for several million new occupants and could not provide adequate housing, sanitation, transportation, job security, or medical care.  On the other hand, New York quickly became the center of American trade and industry.  The immigrant and U.S.-born individuals who were migrating to New York were literally building the city from the ground up, and were producing more goods and services than just about anywhere else in the world.  However, these individuals were expendable.  There was very little incentive for factories or manufacturers to pay heed to occupational hazards and health consequences.  If workers fell ill, they were replaced.  For some occupations, unemployment was a common occurrence for several months out of the year, every year.  Housing often meant small, cold apartments with no windows.  Tuberculosis was still the leading cause of death, particularly among the poor.  So the image I have of 19th century New York City is a very large number of people just trying to survive.  But I may be biased.  I spend most of my time reading about impoverished immigrants, so I cannot speak to how the upper classes were living.

 

Bilateral osteoarthritis of the knee

What’s one thing about NYC that you think New Yorkers would be surprised to learn?

I think it would surprise many New Yorkers to learn that various ethnic groups tried to use race and ethnicity against each other to gain control of certain industries.  For example, the Irish tried to take control of the docks by claiming the Germans were not white enough to work there.  Both the Irish and Germans were quick to racialize the Italians as ‘other.’  We tend to idealize New York as one big ‘melting pot’ in which everyone who worked hard was quickly assimilated into the American culture.  We often forget there were periods when Eastern European Jews and Italians and Irish were heavily discriminated against based on their ethnicities.

Another interesting fact about New York is that the poor were assigned the same punishment as murderers and traitors after death.  Cadavers were, and are, a necessary part of medical education.  As the number of medical institutions in New York grew, so did the demand for anatomical remains.  Since body donations were not common, early physicians relied on illegal grave robbing and the legally obtained bodies of executed criminals to supply their anatomy classes.  In the mid-19th century, the Act to Promote Medical Science expanded the legal acquisition of bodies to include unclaimed individuals from hospitals, almshouses, and other public institutions who would otherwise have been buried in a potter’s field.  This meant that anyone who lacked the money for a formal burial could be used as a dissection cadaver.  Essentially, the Act targeted and exploited the poor of New York, most of whom were immigrants with no political power to object, and many of whom had a very real fear of the dissection table for social and religious reasons.

 

What’s next for this project? Do you envision it expanding in any way?

There is more that I would love to do at the individual level with biohistorical data associated with each set of remains.  I think the overall picture would be so much richer if we could find these individuals within hospital records and have a better understanding of when they were treated, what they were treated for, and how they were treated, both medically and socially.  I want to know where they lived, and for the ones without recorded occupations, I want to know what they did.  How big were their families?  Did they board alone?  It might be impossible to dig up this sort of information, but I would love to try.  In terms of the skeletal remains, there is definitely more that I plan on doing.  I particularly want to look at bone lesions in relation to activity.  These remains exhibit a higher rate of periostitis than has been reported in other anatomical collections, and often the location of the periostitis is along an insertion site, such as where the fascia attaches between the tibia and fibula.  It seems to me that inflammation in that area is more indicative of muscle activity than infection.  But why is that reaction more pronounced in this particular selection of skeletons?  What does it mean?  I think future research for this project will delve more into fatigue, muscle overuse, and skeletal stress.

 

 

Wenner-Gren Symposium #149: The Death of the Secret

L-R: Don Kulick, Cristiana Giordano, Gwyneira Isaac, Tanja Ahlin, Birgitte Sørensen, Robin Boast, Ravi Sundaram, Junko Kitanaka, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Susan Erikson, Mark Davis, Sverker Finnström, Lenore Manderson, Sarah Nuttall, Kimberly Theidon, Leslie Aiello, Laurie Obbink

Wenner-Gren Symposium #149, “The Death of the Secret:  The Public and Private in Anthropology,” organized by Lenore Manderson (U. of Witwatersrand/Monash U.), Mark Davis (Monash U.) and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh (Denver Museum of Nature & Science), just recently wrapped up! It was held from March 14-20, 2014, at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal.

Read the organizer’s statement below, and stay tuned for a future Current Anthropology special issue featuring the papers of this symposium!

 

» Read more..

NYAS @ WGF 3/24: Audio Now Available!

Left to right: Columbia's Brian Boyd, Daniel Lende, Rutgers' Genese Sodikoff, Rayna Rapp

Monday was the penultimate 2013-14 meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology section lecture series at the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We welcomed Daniel Lende of the University of South Florida and the popular PLoS blog Neuroanthropology, and New York University’s Rayna Rapp to discuss Culture and the Brain.

 

Now you can Listen to the audio of the talk and the following Q&A.

April 21st will see the final session of this season’s talks! Stay tuned for further details.

Inside Current Anthropology: Petrobarter: Oil, Inequality, and the Political Imagination in and after the Cold War

The April edition of Current Anthropology is out now. In this issue, Yale University’s Douglas Rogers discusses how petrobarter – the exchange of oil for goods and services – had real implications for the political landscape of post-Cold War Russia, and how, as a practice on the rise, it continues to affect world regions and their populations.

Oil, perhaps more closely and more pervasively than any other commodity, is associated with the circulation of money. From corner gas stations to high politics, from funding for social and economic development projects to global economic forecasts, the relationship between oil and money seems to be everywhere in our societies. But oil and oil products are not always exchanged for money. A new article in Current Anthropology focuses on petrobarter: the direct exchange of oil for goods and services. Petrobarter has been a more common and more significant dimension of local, regional, and global exchange than has previously been understood, as examples from post-Soviet Russia and the global oil trade in the early Cold War illustrate.

Precisely because it avoids global monetary circuits and the political and economic institutions channeling them, petrobarter has often generated imaginations—both dreams and fears—of alternate global or regional orders. Petrobarter has also been an important generator of inequalities, and is a tool that corporations, states, and elites have used to corner markets and accumulate wealth and power. These petrobarter dynamics are especially clear when the examples are drawn from Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, as opposed to the much more commonly analyzed colonial and postcolonial states—from Nigeria to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia—where Western oil companies and their successors have long operated.

In the Perm Region of the Russian Urals in the 1990s, for instance, in the conditions of widespread economic collapse and demonetization that followed the end of the Soviet Union, petrobarter was central to the formation of a new regional political and economic elite. It was, in key part, through the barter of both crude and refined oil for foodstuffs and many other goods that the Perm Region weathered the crisis years of the 1990s and emerged as a significant oil-producing region by the early 2000s. The fact that these exchanges took place through very localized barter rather than through transactions involving state-issued monetary currency made petrobarter crucial to the creation of a new and specifically regional sense of Permian identity.

China, Ecuador, Ghana, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Russia, and a number of other counties have recently proposed or entered into petrobarter transactions, most notably oil-for-infrastructure deals between China and African states and oil-for-doctors exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba. With this type of transaction on the rise around the world, and in the conditions of ongoing global economic instability, it is especially useful to track petrobarter’s long history and its relationship to both patterns of inequality and varieties of political arrangements.

Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. The journal is published by The University of Chicago Press and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Lisa Overholtzer

 

Packing adobe mix into wooden molds

Dr. Lisa Overholtzer is Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at Wichita State University. In 2009, as a doctoral student at Northwestern University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Household Spaces and Everyday Practices at Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico,’ supervised by Dr. Elizabeth M. Brumfiel. In 2013, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and share her research findings with the descendent community.

My Wenner-Gren funded dissertation research investigated the Aztec imperial transition from the perspective of commoner households at the site of Xaltocan, capital of the pre-Aztec Otomí city-state. While ethnohistoric documents suggested that all of Xaltocan’s residents fled when their polity was conquered, and that the Aztec king sent taxpayers to repopulate the site some forty years later, my excavations of commoner houses provided clear evidence of continuity. Houses were constructed and burials were interred in the same spaces from 1240 to 1650 C.E., and radiocarbon dates revealed no gap in occupation. This analysis allowed me to reveal the exercise of power by imperial elites, which involved the silencing of ordinary people and the rewriting of their histories. A bottom-up contextual analysis of multiple lines of evidence—household architecture, domestic refuse, human skeletal remains, and ancient mitochondrial DNA—then offered an alternative narrative based on the histories that commoners inscribed in the material record. My dissertation project took a bottom-up approach not only theoretically, but also in practice. In line with the recent paradigm shift within the discipline away from exclusivity and colonialist modes of research and toward inclusivity and socially self-conscious models of investigation, I engaged descendants through community archaeology. This process culminated in a team-wide public symposium at the end of the field season.

Weaving reed mat for replica house (foreground) and building adobe wall (background)

As part of my continued efforts to ensure that archaeological research benefits members of the descendant community, I returned with several students and colleagues in July 2013 to create a more permanent and more accessible mode of dissemination in the form of a new exhibit hall. This extension of the local museum was funded by a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology grant, Wichita State University, the David and Sally Jackman Foundation, and the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology. This project was designed to fulfill community needs by attracting tourists, educating the public about the town’s history and archaeological record, teaching visitors about the archaeological research process, and serving as a permanent interface between archaeologists and the descendant community in Xaltocan.

Replica house in the finished exhibit hall

This exhibit hall, which opened in September 2013, presents narratives of Xaltocan history that are based not on the elite-authored and manipulated documentary record, but on the practices of the subordinated commoners who formed the backbone of the Aztec empire. The central feature of the exhibit is a Replica house, an authentically reconstructed adobe house featuring stone foundations and a thatched reed roof. The Xaltocan replica house brings ordinary people to life, but perhaps more importantly presents archaeological evidence of the occupational continuity revealed by archaeological research. We chose to reconstruct the house occupied precisely during the supposed vacant period in Xaltocan’s history, thereby highlighting the persistence and resilience of ancient Xaltocan families. Rather than presenting a history in which conquered residents had no other choice than to flee when their town was conquered in 1395 C.E., we narrate how Xaltocan families persevered, strategically adapting their daily practices according to their changing social, political, and economic context. We offer an alternative narrative that does justice to the practices of subordinated and silenced commoners in the past, thereby countering the exercise of imperial power.

Backstrap loom, and reed mat, and gourds inside the finished replica house

Building the replica house was an experimental archaeology project involving collaboration with an adobe consultant and reed farmer and weaver brought in from the broader region. It also involved experimentation with materials used in ancient times, but not today, such as cactus juice employed as a mortar binder, as well as avoiding modern materials, such as animal manure added as a binder in adobe blocks, that would not have been available to pre-Hispanic builders. We also replicated the patio and house mound via a wooden platform and displayed the burials of household members in their place under the patio, visible through plexiglass windows. Finally, we furnished the house and patio with replicas of the kinds of objects residents would have had. A backstrap loom, baskets filled with dried foodstuffs, gourds, and sleeping mats were placed inside the house. The grinding stone and griddle women would have used to make tortillas every day were placed on the patio, on top of the graves of their loved ones, demonstrating how ancient residents lived with their dead. The exhibit hall was painted with colors and decorative motifs found on spindle whorls recovered in my excavations.

Burials placed under plexiglass windows on the replica patio platform

Together with text panels in Spanish and English, photographs, and exhibit cases filled with excavated artifacts, the replica house teaches visitors about the distinct line of evidence that archaeology can provide. The exhibits highlight how archaeologists date deposits, from stylistic seriation to stratigraphy to radiocarbon dating; analyze human bone and identify sex, age, occupational activities, and chronic illness; and reconstruct gender norms and household philosophies using the material record. The new exhibit hall teaches residents to see the archaeological record not as obstacles to construction, trinkets with monetary value, or simple curiosities, but rather as useful testimonies of the cultural practices of their ancestors. Through this museum and educational programs planned in the Xaltocan cultural center adjacent to the museum—such as summer youth classes on archaeology, Xaltocan history, and technical drawing—local residents can begin to see archaeological resources as sources of history, identity, and possibly future professional study.

Replica museum exhibit hall opening

NYAS @ WGF: March Madness Double Feature!

March 2014 is a special month for our annual NYAS Anthropology Section Lecture series, as we’re offering a double-dip of great anthropological programming beginning Friday, March 21, when CUNY Graduate Center hosts Gavin Smith, Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto. And on the following Monday, March 24, join us at the Wenner-Gren offices for an after-work discussion with New York University’s Rayna Rapp and South Florida’s Daniel Lende on “Culture and the Brain”!

Here are the details:

 

Intellectuals and Counter-Politics: Between Reflexivity and Engagement

Friday, March 21, 2014 | 4:15 PM – 6:00 PM
The Graduate Center, CUNY, Room C415A

Dr. Gavin Smith (University of Toronto) argues that the forms capitalism takes is best seen in terms of the dominance of specific power blocs, rather than as an expression of neoliberalism — either as a form of governance or as a kind of capitalist market ideology. He suggests that in the major social formations the conditions for the reproduction of finance capital have to be secured by the hegemonic strategies of this fraction of capital. As a result, we have seen a shift from a kind of hegemony whose ideological authority rested on expansion through a population configured as ideally homogenous, to a kind of hegemony whose ideological authority rests on selectivity and distinctions among the population. The intellectual task for a philosophy of praxis has three foci: assessment of the conditions of possibility, of the potentialities for popular mobilization, and of appropriate strategic actions — identifying key points of leverage.

 

Culture and the Brain: A Panel Discussion

Monday, March 24, 2014 | 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM

The Wenner-Gren Foundation

Rayna Rapp, New York University — “Big Data, Small Kids”

Dr. Rayna Rapp, in collaboration with Dr. Faye Ginsburg, has recently been examining cultural innovation in special education and the rise of disability consciousness. Together they have carried out fieldwork in scientific laboratories on brain research about learning, memory, childhood psychiatric diagnoses, and epigenetics. In this talk, Dr. Rapp tells the story of how she began tracking one set of scientists in a pediatric neuroscience lab looking at Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Disability (LD), and ended up watching the scientists construct international Big Data coalitions as part of a massive undertaking in brain mapping now ongoing across several continents.

Daniel Lende, University of South Florida — “Hooked on the Brain? On Using Neuroscience in Anthropology”

Dr. Daniel Lende areas of expertise include medical anthropology, the synthesis of biological and cultural anthropology, and applied anthropology. His research centers on behavioral health problems, particularly substance use and abuse. Dr. Lende is the co-founder of the Neuroanthropology blog and co-editor of The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT Press). Neuroanthropology is a new field that draws on neuroscience to examine anthropological questions. Using the case study of addiction, this talk will examine both the promise and peril of such an approach, and demonstrate how effective use of neuroscience requires both synthesis and critique.

 

As always, it is FREE to attend these events, but REGISTRATION WITH NYAS IS REQUIRED. Visit the links provided or contact the New York Academy of Sciences for more information.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Emily Yates-Doerr

Emily Yates-Doerr is a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. In 2007, while a doctoral candidate at New York University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Weight of the Body: Changing Ideals of Nutrition, Health and Fat in Guatemala,’ supervised by Dr. Emily Martin. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to Guatemala and perform engaged activities on ‘Translation in Practice: Obesity, Fatness, and Dietary Health in Guatemala.’ Below, Dr. Yates-Doerr shares her experience working with the EAG and the workshops she conducted “discussing the social lives of nutrition programs and policies.”

 

Background to the Engagement Project

As reported deaths from heart attacks, strokes and diabetes in Guatemala have escalated, recent public health interventions have aimed to provide education about healthy eating and exercise patterns. My Wenner-Gren-funded fieldwork, which examined several of these interventions, explored how obesity science circulated within people’s lives.[i] Central to my research was the question of how Guatemalans who traditionally associated fatness with health and prosperity were making sense of education that linked weight to potentially dangerous metabolic conditions.

Many repertoires of health circulate through my fieldsite. Here, a GNC vitamin store connected to a local Walmart advertised “health for all your life.”

Frictions between diverse ideas of well-being were a focal point of the inquiry. During fieldwork I met diabetic patients who added sugar to their coffee because it was fortified with valuable nutrients; women with heart disease who avoided broccoli because they wanted to lose weight and were familiar with information about child health that linked vegetables and vitamins to (in this case desirable) weight gain; mothers, concerned about microbes in water and pesticides on vegetables, who fed their children chips and sodas to keep them from becoming sick; and so on. As different visions of health collided, the outcomes of interventions often differed from those anticipated by policy makers and educators.

I designed my engagement project to create a space within scientific and education centers to discuss the social lives of nutrition programs and policies. I wanted to share the results of my research with the scientists, nutritionists, and public health educators with whom I had worked, and who were themselves largely invested in an emerging genre of research labeled “translational research” which aims to make scientific results applicable to the population studied. Yet rather than simply report on my findings – a method of knowledge dissemination that I critique in my work as one-sided and, as a result, often ineffective – I organized workshops where various participants could collaboratively discuss challenges that arose through the practice of translation.  

 

The Workshops

I drew from my fieldwork to prepare questions – a scaffold for our discussions – but the participants came with questions of their own.[ii] Many come from a tradition of policy research that values anthropological insight[iii] and they wanted to discuss how ethnographic sensitivity to knowledge production can help evaluate, sharpen, and respond to problems of translation they were encountering in their own research.

Do qualitative methods differ from ethnographic methods? How do you know when you’ve done enough research to validate your claims to authority? How can knowledge based in critical reflexivity be replicated, and if it cannot be replicated, how can it confidently be used to shape policies?

This scale, photographed during a meeting with nutritionists, does not just report information but produces new kinds of knowledge.

Like much of anthropology, some of the workshops’ most poignant moments arrived in unexpected asides. One of the meetings was attended by a Dutch nutrition scientist. Though I hold a US passport, I have been working in Amsterdam for the past two years. I mentioned in passing the differing beliefs held by the public health systems of the Netherlands and the US when it came to both childhood illnesses and hand sanitizer. She didn’t disagree with the assessment, but she was aghast that I had framed her country’s science in the language of belief.

“Belief? This sounds so pejorative” she said. But then she also noted, reflexively, that our group had just been speaking about Maya views on diet and health as beliefs—a realization that brought to our conversation an introspective pause as we considered the shortcomings of this term.

At the largest gathering of roughly 20 doctors and scientists in Guatemala City there was an extended discussion on the difficulty of crafting a useful public health indicator for hunger.

While everyone who voiced an opinion recognized the political utility of such an indicator – the millennium development goals, in which hunger’s elimination figures prominently, have garnered far more media and policy attention than their architects imagined – they were skeptical about the deployment of a rhetoric of science for such unabashedly political ends.

This raised debate between policy and laboratory scientists about what, if anything, they might be able to say about health. Yet even those nutrition scientists whose research was technical – focused, for example, on the chemical binding properties of iron – recognized that the questions deemed worthy of funding, and the acceptance and dissemination of their research were interwoven into political agendas, muddling clear delineations between science and culture. (And there, of course, is a key lesson imparted by the critical reflexivity of anthropology).

I shared with the workshop participants something I had learned during my fieldwork in the highlands, where many Guatemalans hold fatness to be healthy. There is a tendency among (so-called) educated Westerners to hear this and dismiss it as provincial, erroneous knowledge—the backwards thinking of someone who does not understand the true consequences of weight gain. But this dismissal overlooks a regional distinction between fatness (a desirable sign of prosperity and abundance) and obesity (a measure of weight, that does, indeed, often correlate with illness). In this sense, those who held that fatness was healthy were not wrong;[iv] they were instead engaged in practices of health that differed from those of the (apparently not so) knowing Westerner.

The participants were intrigued by this finding. After all, a plan to combat fatness might easily come across as nonsensical to those for whom fatness is desirable—for whom health cannot be defined by measurable variables.

Several researchers were running into obstacles in their process of collecting data on eating and health. One group was studying how Indigenous beliefs impacted the consumption behavior of post-partum women and was investigating whether women were eating caliente or frio foods after giving birth.

Ethnographic literature makes clear that Indigenous classification of foods correlates to a situated quality of eating and not to a measurable temperature of food. But when coding their data, which had been translated into Spanish and would eventually become translated into English, the scientists could not easily discern whether the reference to caliente or frio was a reference to a quality or temperature. We discussed the problems of coding across languages—of forcing heterogeneous meanings into someone else’s lingua franca, be it Spanish, English or the language of measured calculations.

By the end of the workshop, the questions we had started with about the reliability of ethnographic methods had reversed upon themselves. Now at stake was the question of how to do good quantitative research given that translations do not hold stable.

 

Photograph of a mural on the researcher’s office wall

Translational Competency

During the workshops we encountered several situations in which information does not move smoothly from site to site, but becomes transformed as it travels. I want to offer a concluding story that offers a tentative idea of where to go from here.

It was the end of the day. I had accompanied a small group of scientists to a meeting of rural Mam women who had gathered to discuss things they found important, or beautiful, or challenging in their lives.

On other days the scientists collected clear plastic vials of spit, later analyzing this for a biomarker (cortisol) of what many health professionals call “stress.” But the scientists knew that these women did not use this concept and they were curious about the local meanings of the biomarker. The day’s meeting was a preliminary attempt to learn about the perspectives of the women.

As we walked back to the office along the busy road from the bus terminal, I asked the lead scientist what they were hoping to find. She said she wasn’t sure, but three small babies had recently died in a community where they were carrying out their study, and they wanted to develop a richer language for communication so as to better understand what might have gone wrong.

In particular, they wanted to know more about why the women, who largely depended upon midwives or received no formalized prenatal care at all, were afraid of the regional hospital. Many saw it as a space of death and the researchers wanted to better understand the women so that eventually they might more effectively encourage them to seek medical care while also helping the hospital to provide them with better services.

It is a testament to the power of anthropological insight well beyond the domain of the field of anthropology that the scientists recognized the relevance of narrative and cultural perspective to their work. Still, attention to translation in meaning, which is the terrain of cultural competency, can come with sometimes profound limitations insofar as culture, like meaning itself, is treated as “a reified, essential, static thing” (Taylor 2003:160)— a treatment that can elide, rather than engage with, the realities of others.

As Helena Hansen and Jonathon Metzl eloquently argue in their work on structural competency, a focus on difference in culture may not only fail to ameliorate stigma but may bolster the institutional forces that give it life. [v] In this case, I cautioned the scientists that concern for belief might divert attention – and resources – away from the material stratifications through which Guatemala’s landscape is organized. It struck me that beginning research out of a concern that women were not going to hospitals was itself a disquieting place to start. Why not instead ask why midwives and home deliveries are not better supported? Or ask what would change by taking seriously the women’s views that hospitals were a place of death and consider that they might know a better way?

My question was greeted with interest. But then we stumbled into another site of rupture. Fortification and nutrition campaigns are a recent occurrence in Guatemala, dating back no further than a generation or two. Many are directed at pregnant and lactating women, who are understood in public health terms as holding the keys to the doors of human capital. Emerging research suggests that when these campaigns are successful babies will be born much bigger in size. From the standpoint of public health nutrition this outcome is wonderful, just what they want— except for a caveat in which the health of nutrition is undermined by the specter of death.

You see, small women can certainly safely deliver large babies without needing to travel to hospitals, but the risks involved might very well increase. And the same researchers who have promoted the use of fortification to treat dietary deprivations in the past are growing suddenly fearful about what happens when women who measure as stunted in height give birth to babies whose size and shape has been buoyed by these nutrients.

“Genocide at an unimaginable scale” is how one scientist referred to the potential consequences of improving health in a way that neglected to consider its distribution across generational time. Even skilled midwives become weakened by these sclerotic translations.

 

I took this picture of a store in one of the rural communities I visted during my engagement project to illustrate how pervasive sodas have become in Guatemala. When on sale (which is often) the large plastic jugs of soda are cheaper than water—which must be bought or boiled.

Continuous Translation

In keeping with the findings of a rich tradition of anthropological scholarship on global, environmental, and health translations,[vi] my workshops emphasized the need not just for cultural competency – the respectful and attentive translation of meanings from site to site – but for translational competency, which entails the ceaseless work of staying with transformations in structures, and resources, and temporality itself.

A few times participants reframed the examples of the translation transformations I had highlighted as misunderstandings. But the idea that knowledge can ever be understood presumes there to be a stable and correct version of information to be known. Meanwhile the exchanges I drew attention to did not so clearly have a singular right or wrong valuation.

Women who give their children Pepsi because boiled water is expensive and tap water might cause diarrhea do not do so out of ignorance. In a region where stomach cancer among children abounds, eating chips instead of vegetables washed in pesticide run-off may not be a decision made from poor communication but a difficult trade-off of one kind of sickness for another. What is at stake is not – or not only – an exchange of correct meanings, but an exchange of resources.

Many of the scientists who participated in my engagement project were invested in “translational research” and cared about the practical results of their studies. Their work intersects in interesting ways with the Wenner-Gren’s commitment to engaged anthropology—a commitment made material through the development of the grant that made my project possible (see also Low and Merry 2010). But if there’s something other disciplines might learn from the longstanding attention to translation within our field, it is that translation is not a determinate process.

As the conversations that unfolded during my return to Guatemala illustrated, the work of engaging in translational research entails staying close not only to the jagged edges of meanings as they shift from site to site, but also to these meanings as they transform into practices, and to these practices as they endure or fall apart with time. The process is not linear (from the proverbial bench to bedside) but entails dialogue, and rupture, and silence, and further dialogue.

 

NOTE: This blog has been developed into an article focused on the process of engaged anthropology. See: Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2014. “Obesity Science and Health Translations in Guatemala: Engagement in Practice.” Anthropology Now. 6 (1) 3-14.

A photograph I took in a market in 2008 was recognized in the AAA photo contest. During my engagement project I brought copies of the issue of Anthropology News in which the image was featured to the people photographed.

 

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 Further Reading:

 

Adams, Richard N.

2010    Social anthropology in INCAP. Food & Nutrition Bulletin 31(1):152-160.

Low, Setha M., and Sally Engle Merry

2010    Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas: An Introduction to Supplement 2. Current Anthropology 51(S2):S203-S226.

Metzl, Jonathan, and Helena Hansen

In Press           Structural Competency: Theorizing a New Medical Engagement with Stigma and Inequality. Social Science & Medicine SSM-D-12-03037R1.

Mol, Annemarie, and John Law

2004    Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: the Example of Hypoglycaemia. Body & Society 10(2):43-62.

Scott, Joan Wallach, Cora Kaplan, and Debra Keates

1997    Transitions, environments, translations : feminisms in international politics. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Janelle S.

2003    The Story Catches You and You Fall down: Tragedy, Ethnography, and “Cultural Competence”. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17(2):159-181.

 



[i] For their support back in 2007 when I was writing the original Wenner-Gren grant, and still today, I thank Emily Martin, Tom Abercrombie, Rayna Rapp, Sally Merry and Renato Rosaldo and the anthropology department at NYU. I also thank my current colleagues at the Health Care and the Body Research Group at the University of Amsterdam.

[ii] Questions included: To what extent can scientists participate in the translation of their research about metabolic health into media reports and public health policy? How might health care workers address negative health consequences of metabolic illness without presuming that only slender bodies are healthy bodies? Can education about eating be developed in such a way that it avoids placing the burden of responsibility for health on individuals? What can educators do to acknowledge the role that women play in feeding their families without suggesting that dietary health is exclusively women’s domain? In what ways might strong and effective national dietary health curricula remain sensitive to nuances in Mayan terminologies? How can educators stay engaged with the effects of their policies and protocols about healthy eating?

[iii] See Adams (2010).

[iv] It should be noted that even from a more traditionally-biomedical repertoire of health they might not be wrong, after all. See http://www.digitalnewsrelease.com/?q=jama_3867.

[v] For more see Metzl and Hansen (In Press).

[vi] In a prescient volume edited by Joan Scott, Cora Kaplan and Debra Keates, Anna Tsing usefully describes translation as a continual negotiation, an “irregular haphazard process in which terms are appropriated from one context to another than then used to do different work” (1997). Annemarie Mol, who directs my postdoc, has also for some time illustrated the contingency of boundaries between meanings and bodies, machines and gestures (see especially Mol and Law 2004).