Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Medical Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Health
Secondary Theme: Violence
Part II of two-part panel. Chronic, non-communicable, diet-related illness is different from many other kinds of public health concerns in that its etiology— the way people understand the pathways for becoming sick— is firmly rooted in personal behavior or “lifestyle.” Even though overwhelming evidence indicates that social and economic disparities, trade regulations, food sovereignty, and access to preventive care, play the biggest roles in rates of chronic disease, popular discourse and public policies continue to center the individual in discussions of diet-related disease. Diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic conditions are described, often even by those who suffer from them, as a “failure” of knowledge, habits, self-control, diet and exercise. So long as people understand chronic diseases to be rooted in failures of knowledge and behavior, the political and economic remedies that are posed focus on the individual. Technoscientific solutions aiming to address an individual-level lack, take the form dietary advice, food labels, and micronutrient supplements. Prevention and treatment center on micro-level behavioral change rather than equity, social justice, sustainability, or community-centered development.
In this panel, we propose that we instead consider the massive proliferation of diet-related illness as a kind of structural violence, resulting from policy decisions and priorities, and tethered to histories of conquest, settler colonization, and dispossession. Structural violence offers a way to understand the social, historical, and political contexts of epidemics that differentially impact the rich and the poor, the powerful and the marginalized. We can deploy this theory to think not only about infectious diseases and abrupt causes of death such as accidents, violence, and disasters, but also about chronic disease. Chronic disease is a slow-moving, never-natural disaster. Berlant describes this as a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life-- a "slow death" that is especially insidious because it is not-urgent and often invisible. It is, however, visible to many. This is a death that is not indiscriminate. Those with wealth and status are often spared, leaving those without to bear the burden of the disaster. We point to how chronic disease is often exacerbated by the very policies that claim to be treating it and ask what forms non-individualized policy, activist, or other community responses to chronic illness might take.
This panel seeks to reimagine chronic illness as structural violence. We welcome proposals for presentations that address chronic disease in global contexts, examine how structural factors shape the definition, diagnosis and treatment of chronic disease, and critically analyze the ways personal behavior is so often centered in the framing of chronic disease globally.