Reviewed by: Association for Africanist Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Materiality
Secondary Theme: Health
This roundtable celebrates and interrogates ideas presented in new medical anthropology book publications focused in Southern Africa: Crystal Biruk's Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (Duke, 2018), Casey Golomski's Funeral Culture: AIDS, Work and Cultural Change in an African Kingdom (Indiana, 2018) and Ramah McKay's Medicine in the Meantime: The Work of Care in Mozambique (Duke, 2018). Historically, this region was forever changed by colonialism, structural adjustment, HIV/AIDS, and myriad global health entities' research and interventions. Anthropologically, these books show these shared histories give rise to similar sociocultural and epistemic processes that animate contemporary practices of life, health, and death.
This roundtable puts these authors in conversation with other medical anthropologists to focus on a set of similar themes that emerge across the three books--materiality, chronology, and culture--all of which speak to enduring concerns in both medical and cultural anthropology and African studies. As for the culture, the concept has remained burdensome for many anthropologists to use following criticisms that it obfuscates more than it reveals. These books instead foreground the continuing analytic and descriptive value of culture over and above its problematic articulations in biomedicine, and consider how culture is multiply produced within and beyond health systems in postcolonial societies.
Second, each book takes materiality as a critical source of evidence for understanding social life and knowledge production. Anthropologists cannot make claims about a sociocultural world before counting that which tangibly makes up their globally-connected field sites. For this theme, we consider how the research projects' interlocutors attribute qualities or ontologies to their material surroundings, as well as how the authors' field research potentially transformed those surroundings (through sponsorship, aid, gifts, and presence, for example). These widen our vision to suggest that in field research, materiality is not a given but mutually constructed, in situ, around imperatives of health and livelihood.
Finally, these books open up further conversations about time. Amid calls for "slow research" in global health and the transformative effects of HIV/AIDS-medications in this region, anthropology's long-standing theoretical focus on temporality has been instrumental for these ethnographies. We consider one specific form of temporality that emerges from these cases: chronology. Meaning peoples' lived experiences and discursive ordering of events, our roundtable participants aim to think through the concept or chronology to disrupt presumptions about the scope, immediacy, and efficacy of medical knowledge and treatment and cultural production through time.