Elevate Difference

Anthropology and Public Health: Bridging Differences in Culture and Society, Second Edition

With the space allotted, I couldn’t render the titles and names of the fifty-some authors of the twenty-five chapters that make up this exciting collection. It is called a second edition of the earlier volume edited by Robert Hahn, but it is entirely new. It overlaps only by the still-compelling final chapter, George Foster’s 1987 critique of international health bureaucracies (which I read in grad school). Each new contribution is clear and accessible, founded upon ethnographic study, and informed by multiple theoretical developments. Each is as depressing to read as is the state of global health...and just as hopeful.

The editors selected these contributions carefully and arranged them into four broad sections: anthropological understandings of public health problems; anthropological designs of public health interventions; anthropological evaluations of public health initiatives; and anthropological critiques of public health policy. The editors’ introduction implicitly explains the purpose and scope of the book and the treble entendre of the change from Anthropology in Public Health to _Anthropology and Public Health. Much has changed in a decade. Owing to new public health crises and resurgence of old ones, anthropological research methods and ethnographic insights about health, wealth, suffering, and sickness are dining at the policy table as never before.

There’s no sense trying to pick favorites from two dozen highly polished essays. If I highlight four, it is only to suggest the range, scholarship, and humanity of the entire volume. Eric Stein’s “’Sanitary Makeshifts’ and the Stratification of Health in Indonesia” is a first-rate contribution to “toilet studies,” to the political economy of human waste, the other end, as it were, of “Development.” I could have written Mark Padilla’s essay, “The Limits of ‘Heterosexual AIDS,'” so close to my thoughts was his ringing critique of heteronormativity in studies of HIVab seroprevalence. The provocative chapter by Inhorn, Kobeissi, Abu-Musa, Awwad, Fakih, Hammoud, Hannoun, Lakkis and Nassar, “Male Infertility and Consanguinity in Lebanon,” probes the genetic and physiological outcomes of social preferences for marriages between genealogically close relatives. As with STDs made the more resistant by antibiotics, some outcomes are made worse by the Western technology of intracytoplasmic sperm injection, which can reproduce male infertility. Karen Moland and Astrid Blystad’s essay made me cry and think of infected mothers everywhere. “Counting on Mother’s Love: The Global Politics of Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV in Eastern Africa” is best essay I’ve read in years.

Anthropology and Public Health will remain the standard of collaboration and reportage for a long time. Around it could be wrapped upper-division undergraduate courses in medical anthropology and sociology, just as it could anchor graduate-level seminars in anthropology, public health, and maybe even epidemiology. Each essay is first-rate.

Written by: Lawrence James Hammar, Ph.D., May 8th 2009