Critical Medical Anthropology

My Critical Medical Anthropology class has blown my mind into pieces. Throughout my experience at Lawrence, there has never been a class that has forced me to think this deeply about issues surrounding health, power and identity. During the first day of the class, my professor showed a video about social determinants of health. One of the speakers in the video said “Our history is engraved in our bodies.”

In this class, we talk about the normalization of the white male body through the use of medicine. Much of what we know about science in terms of medicine is based off studies done on white men. The white male body became the standardized body in which all other bodies were compared to—many of the pharmaceutical drugs and treatments will not work on a North African or Middle Eastern bodies. What I have learned is that many American governmental organizations have tried to utilize the same medical techniques used on American citizens on poor marginalized people living in periphery, or poor underdeveloped nations.

Critical Medical Anthropology has made me critical of my body and its social context. There are different parts of my identity that decreases my life expectancy, such as being black and gay in a racist, homophobic society. There is a reason why queer men of color have the highest HIV infection rate or why black people are likely to developed hypertension in their lifetimes. We live in a stratified society where certain people have access to different resources than others. In most black communities, all you have access to for food is fast food restaurants, while you will find the healthier options such as Whole Foods in much more affluent neighborhoods that are predominantly white. Healthier foods tend to be the most expensive and if you are a poor person you will not have access to the nutrients you need. I have come to understand that different people have different life expectations. Not everyone can aspire for the white picket fence with children, grandchildren or a successful career. The reason why certain populations do not have access to this dream is because of systemic barriers, such as not having access to health care, education or food.

Medical anthropologists have shown that stress causes health complications in life. The more marginalized you are, the more likely you are to be under chronic stress. Compared to a rich white man in Tennessee, a poor white male living in a rural town in Tennessee will have limited access to healthy food options and a safe place to exercise. One of my favorite theoretical frameworks that we have analyzed in the class is the political-economic framework. Paul Farmer says that economic inequality and the lack of medical infrastructure is why so many treatable diseases in the West have claimed so many lives in poor nations. Many medical anthropologists such as Merrill Singer and Margret Lock believe that healthcare should be a human right.

What I find fascinating about this class is not about how it illustrates the connection between colonization, medicine and power; what is truly interesting to me is how biomedical technologies are changing the way that we experience our bodies and our ideologies about certain concepts. For example, in vitro fertilization is changing our understanding of conception, which is also bringing up questions about fetus subjectivity. I remember a few of my friends got into a debate about the purpose of sex—is it for pleasure or procreation? When evaluating that heated debate I could not help think how our understanding of sex would change if one day we develop the technology to develop babies in artificial wombs—which is very possible. We now have medical technologies that help keep brain dead patients alive for a long period of time, which has led medical professionals to redefine our ideas of death.

What I have learned in that class has helped me understand how structural violence manifests itself in the realms of medicine. The class has also helped me see how theory can meet practice, and how some of the research done by medical anthropologists has helped shape health programs and policies.