Africa has (always) been separated from the rest ofthe world, although being the starting point for everything (and everyone). In 2013,the world woke up to an Ebola epidemic and consequential crisis, that came toprove such clear distance. And, as to not oppose this, the history anddevelopment of Anthropology, and its relation to the African country, onlystrengthens yet another disparity. Africa, Anthropology, and Colonialism areobjects (and subjects) with such an interdependent and embedded ecosystem thatone can’t help to relate, at least, two as being the same. Through the yearsand efforts of the anthropological doctrine to detach itself from theColonial(ism) shadow/weight, and through the introduction of development (andother contemporary subjects, such as activism), this three-part(y) relationstill persists in the eyes of the world.
“From a historical perspective, theprofoundly disruptive relationships between Africa and the world are additionalrelevant upstream casual factors (…).” (Benatar, 2015: 2). And the eyes of theworld were opened when the dangers of an African epidemic came “too close tohome”. “The epidemic is one of many manifestations offailed human and social development” (Benatar, 2015: 1)Although being present in the modern world since 1976,the virus family of Filoviridae, mostcommonly known as Ebola, came to light during an outbreak in 2013. Unfortunately,the presence of the virus doesn’t correspond to the (lack thereof) knowledgesurrounding it. “Despite more than 25 documented outbreaks of Ebola since 1976,our understanding of the disease is limited, in particular, the social,political, ecological, and economic forces that promote (or limit) its spread.”(Richardson et al., 2016: 115).
In this article, Richardson and other scholarsanalyse and describe what they believe to be the main causes for a virusoutbreak, and directed them to the understanding of the Ebola one. “Bausch andSchwarz describe a three-tiered cascade that results in sustained outbreaks: 1)poverty drives individuals to encroach deeper into forests, making zoonotictransmission more probable; 2) infections are then amplified by a dysfunctionalhealth system; and 3) containment is hampered by poorly resourced governments.(…) Climate change may be another ecological mechanism that contributes toEbola outbreaks.” (Ibid:). Another explanation comes from an article dedicatedto “Health, security and foreign policy”, by Colin McInnes and Kelley Lee(2006), that defend that poor health can contribute to internal instability,and thus making it harder to control an epidemic, such as Ebola. According tothe authors, “Poor health undermines the economic and social structures of thestate; confidence in the state is reduced if it cannot provide a basic level ofhealth care and protection against disease; poor health provision maycontribute to social disorder by highlighting inequalities.” (2006:16). McInnesand Lee also reinforce the idea that “the attention given to the spread ofinfectious diseases speaks more to the concern of Western foreign (includingeconomic) and security policy than it does for the concerns of global publichealth” (2006: 12), subject I will discuss further on this essay.
Taking Richardson concept of «biosocial» analysis – “(…)represents a fluid space between the disciplines of economics, anthropology,political science, history, ecology, epidemiology and physiology” -, andapplying it to the 2013-16 Ebola crisis, “it allows us to interrogate claims ofcausality while insisting on the importance of the right to health.”(Richardson et al., 2016: 121). Which brings forward the work ofanthropologists in such situations. “It is certain that the cultural traditionsof the people most affected by Ebola, and these charged with responding to it,have shaped the current pandemic in significant ways; these traditions haveincluded ways of understanding illness, of seeking care in the absence of afunctioning health system, and in funerary practice in the absence of almostanything in the way of assistance for family members.
” (Ibid: 124). As it common knowledge in the social sciences,anthropology plays a part in mediation between cultures/societies. Working astranslator (of language and rites), as well as interpreter (of cultures),anthropologists have the dual responsibility of being “true” to the culturetheir working in, and maintaining a “professional” distance for their employingagency. In this specific case, western anthropologists working for health aidand humanitarian agencies needed to balance these relationships, as opposed toAfrican scholars (including anthropologists) which “took advantage” of thespecial situation to start emancipatory movements – that will be analysed lateron this essay.
For now, I’ll focus on the primarily concern of this health, aswell as anthropological crisis: the conception of health and illness (ordisease).In the anthropologic doctrine, as we know, there’s atendency to see everything, every aspect, as separated whilst at the sameseeking connexions (or comparative grounds) between the society, culture, orcommunity in analysis and the anthropologists own culture and values. Takingthe example of the different conceptions of health V illness, Gwyn (2002) explainsit as a “kind of dualistic framework (health = inner; illness = outer) thatis familiar from a wide range of anthropological studies in many societies (…)and forms the empirical basis for witchcraft accusations; that is, theindividual will not be sick unless someone is making (the?) sick” (2002: 19).
This”attribution to illness itself of an ‘otherness'” (ibid: 23) reinforces theideology of health (or illness) is something that happens outside of the body,without the will or control of the individual.Gwyn, again, clearly defines “Health beliefs are culturally located andculture-specific.” (2002: 17, emphasis added). In the same way that Gwyndefines health, he does the same to illness, characterizing it as “a socialphenomenon, defined through the interaction of the patient with his or herrelatives, the doctor or health care worker, and society at large:consequently, it is a behaviour that has to be learned.” (2002: 33). Let’s now focuson the concept of belief – if health is the oppose of illness, how can there beany type of belief system in this, apparent, simple dichotomy? “Individuals’responses to questions about health and illness (…) are constituting a kindof belief system, categorizes mentally by respondent in such a way as to makesense of illness and health issues.” (Gwyn, 2002: 59).
Another key distinction is between disease andillness, best described by Eisenberg as “Patients suffer «illnesses»; doctorsdiagnose and treat «disease»” (1997: 9). These concepts and the rites (orcultures) adjacent led to the development of a new field of anthropologyresearch: medical. “Medical anthropology had been concerned primarily with thecross-cultural understandings of health and sickness and the pluralisticpractices of healing and medicine (…).” (Ticktin, 2014: 2). Robbins (2013)explores the (more) human side of this social analysis, stating that it is “away of writing ethnography in which we do not primarily provide culturalcontext so as to offer lessons in how lives are lived differently elsewhere,but in which we offer accounts of trauma that make us and our readers feel inour bones the vulnerability we as human beings all share.” (2013: 454).
For,what is the point of (specially and specifically) anthropology if notunderstanding others as they are ourselves?Medicalanthropology is, therefore, connected to the health aid industry, as well asNGOs – that try to establish a particular non-profitable dynamic of help -, andhumanitarian movements and work. The problem lies in “that health aid should be linked not to need –reflecting the humanitarian motives supposedly underpinning development aid –but to good governance and democratic reforms. Health aid is thereforepoliticised in a manner which may disadvantage yet further those at greatestneed.
” (McInnes & Lee, 2006: 17). This brings to the next topic ofdiscussion: politicisation of health and help. “Rather than reinforcing different worlds, the endgoal was ultimately the realization of a shared humanity.” (Ticktin, 2014: 4) Taking advantage of and, at the same time, growingwith medical anthropology, in recent years there’s been a big leap (of development)in the humanitarian industry. Also in close relation to development issues,humanitarianism is a changing process (and still in a project phase) that ishelping anthropologists understand – not only, but also – past and presentsituations and, once again, their place in all of it (see Ticktin, 2014).
Oneof the past’s paths that anthropology had to follow was, as aforementioned,colonial imperialism over societies and their cultures, which influenced deeplythe work of social scientists. “(…) this anthropological position is adifficult and fraught balance being critical and yet accepting the principlesof justice that drive humanitarianism. By situating themselves at thisthreshold, anthropologists have offered some of the most potent analyses of theoften unintended or unexpected consequences of humanitarian interventions.”(Ibid: 5). Ticktin (2014) criticises, in name of anthropologists, the part that”humanitarian interventions in conflicts zones”, although being of greatimportance, “actually restructure the political order rather than keeping thestatus quo, as their principles would suggest.” (2014: 7).
And from theacknowledgement of the involvement of politics in subjects of health, grew awave of social movements and activism. “A great deal of contemporary activismis constituted by experimental, reflexive, critical knowledge-practices, all ofwhich are meant to reflexively, and even recursively develop «better» or moreeffective politics.” (Osterweil, 2013:600). But, “(…) a good deal of work done by social movements can be consideredtheoretical, analytical, and critical – mirroring many academic practices andvalues – the divide between academia and activism blurs, creating a novel spacefor rethinking the boundaries of engaged or political anthropology, in turnbroadening our view of efficacious political action.” (Ibid: 601).
Charles Hales (2006) brings to light a cleardistinction in the work (and workers) in this ‘situation’: activist research and cultural critique. The first is define as “amethod through which anthropologists we affirm a political alignment with anorganized group of people in struggle and allow dialogue with them to shapeeach phase of the process, from conception of the research topic to datacollection to verification and dissemination of the results” (Ibid: 97). Thelatter are “driven by the search for ever-greater analytical complexity andsophistication, (…) focusing on how political commitments transform research methodsand at times prioritize analytical closure over further complexity” (Osterweil, 2013: 602). Continuing his own analysis, Osterwiel statesthat the creation of “both activistresearch and cultural critique “wasone of need of response to “the increasing recognition of anthropology’s rolein maintaining systems of oppression and colonization that were unintentionallyharming the marginalized communities’ anthropologists were working with.”(Ibid: 601); and the relationship that bloomed out of this new part was mostlyconsidered an “intersection – of knowledge and practice where the recognitionthat a great deal of political practice today involves their work, and (…)where our potential for new forms of engagement lies” (Ibid: 618).But there are alsosome hard critics to the humanitarianism “boom”, and what it changed.
Forexample, Haskell (1992) states that “some have argued that humanitariansentiment came into being in its modern formation with the rise of capitalismin the eighteenth century” (see in Ticktin, 2014). This apparent relationbetween humanitarianism and political grounds (and growths) puts, once again,anthropology and all areas that “follow” the humanitarianism trend into abiased situation, not being able to fully detach themselves from politicalideologies and conflicts. Osterweil defends that, unfortunately, we persist ondifferentiating “the textual and the real, political action and intellectualwork, failing to take seriously the other worlds, ways of knowing and alternaterealities deconstructing dominant entities as the state, economy, and theindividual both entail and require” (2013:613). But, in that same year, Robbins assumes and defends that what we shouldfocus on is on learning through cultural models of change that “people are attimes able to construe the realization of the good as a genuine possibility”(2013: 457). This is, besides analysing all sources, anthropologist, activist(or any other) researchers should concentrate on the main subject – the people-, and their ability to create «good».
“When it came todefine a humanity without borders,(…) anthropologists found a foundation fortheir science that allowed them to dispense with the notion of the othercompletely.” (Robbins, 2013: 453) Through the courseof time, somewhere along the way, a new branch of anthropology grew. With itsroots set on humanitarianism, “(…)anthropology of the good can (…) helping us do justice to the different wayspeople live for the good, and finding ways to let their efforts inform ourown.” (Robbins, 2013: 458). This collation between anthropology andhumanitarianism developed into a new doctrine, was established long before theepidemic crisis, referenced throughout this essay. “The decolonizing movements inthe 1960s and 1970s and the various postcolonial critiques of anthropologicaland other representations of Otherness threw the field of anthropology into aform of crisis and self-doubt. The turn to the «suffering subject» in the 1990sresponded to this crisis, giving anthropology a new, politically and ethicallyacceptable object of study, while simultaneously responding to reflecting thegrowing presence of discourses and institutions that represented and protecteda universal, «global humanity». Looked at through this lens, the study ofhumanitarianism plays a central role in the direction of anthropology, givingit new life.
” (Ticktin, 2014: 3).However, “intrying to understand humanitarianism, earlier anthropological work attempted todistinguish between humanitarianism and other projects that want to «do good»,such as human rights and development, even while showing that the boundariesare slippery and always being reworked” (Ticktin, 2014: 8). So, as in everyrelationship, anthropology and humanitarianism depended, to some extent, oneach other, and developed together. Although therehave been improvements and an awareness, in academia, regarding the best way toanalyse and treat – in all senses – health, in anthropology, there’s still someproblems with the political world.
McInnes & Lee promptly wonder how(recent) attention to public health issues is going to make any difference inthe world, as the “social policy and development agenda puts it into therealms of foreign and security policy” ? (2006: 6) Firstly, we need toundercover and understand the actual agenda, to which the authors provide uswith the next explanation:1) “the agenda hasbeen dominated by two issues, the spread of selected acute and potentially epidemicinfections and the risk of bio-terror” (2006:9)2) “the increasedattention to infectious disease as a ‘new security risk’ has largely beenfocused on selected infections that have the potential to move from thedeveloping to industrialised world” (2006: 11)3) “The spread ofacute and potentially epidemic infections from the developing world moregenerally, including Ebola (…) has also heightened concerns within the securitycommunity over risks to the health and economic well-being of citizens and communitiesin Western countries.” (2006: 8) According to this,the authors defend that the way that these issues regarding public health havestarted to blossom among the “foreign and security agendas reflects more theconcerns of the latter than those of public health” (2006: 9), specially thewestern countries. Lastly and, to my understanding, McInnes & Lee, assumethat “(…) by constructing the link between infectious disease and security inthis manner, the global health agenda risks becoming inappropriately skewed infavour of the interests of certain populations over others.” (Ibid: 11), whichwill hinder, and perhaps damage, anthropologists, as well as humanitarians orany other type of social research and/or movements, work and ability to helpthose in need. Conclusion”Ratherthan allowing our theorizing and analysis of radical alternatives to remainlocked in the troubled dichotomy between textual practices and practices in thereal world, we need to develop a better understanding of how these practicesintersect and overlap.”(Osterweil, 2013: 616)As it has been mentioned over time – and over thisessay -, there’s a close and dangerous relation of anthropology tocontroversial topics, and eras, like colonial imperialism. One of the constantfears among the academia is the relativity and subjectivity – contrasting withthe hard sciences accuracy – that the social sciences face.
And so, concernsregarding the real production of knowledge, and truth, perpetuate and forceanthropologists to detach themselves from everything, whilst trying to be apart of everything. The relation between humanitarian work and the aid industryis only separated by the role of anthropologists. “The aid industry thus servesas an «anti-politics machine», which effectively casts problems of outbreakcontainment in apolitical, ahistorical, techno-managerial terms, whiledisguising the underlying political and economic causes.” (Richardson et al.,2016: 122).
But, is it completely detached from colonial purposes? “Is currentEbola aid (…) enough to redress the path-dependent influence of colonialinstitutions that have facilitated the current pandemic? Is this aid a form of reparation disguised as altruism?” (Ibid: 122,emphasis added) In trying to answerthis demanding question, “my” best option is to declare the development of an “anthropologyof the good” as the most suited solution. “The construction of notions of the good, the attempt to put them intopractice in social relations, and the elaboration of models of time and changethat support hopes for success in such endeavours (…); if the light of the great cultural problems shines just a little morebrightly on this terrain, we might be able to draw a route that connects themall, and that in doing so we might add a new way of doing anthropology to thosewe already have.” (Robbins, 2013: 457, emphasis added).
So, in accordancewith Robbins, I believe that the path of anthropology is forced to take is toalways renew and improve itself, in order to transform the doctrine for thebetter – of cultures and people