Anthropology of Suffering

I’ve been pursuing my research since 2003 when I was volunteering in the Gambia in West Africa. It was the “hot” topic then, quite unfamiliar and intriguing to the average America and to scholars alike. I have been reluctant to publish or publicize my research in the past because I did not think I could fully capture the complexities of people’s lives intertwined with political, historical and economic forces. However, since 2003, particularly in the past few years, scholars and journalists have jumped at the chance to publish a plethora of literature — some thorough and others very superficial.

I have so many qualms about my research, and today’s talk by a journalist who spent 5 weeks traveling through Africa, using the platform of “telling Chinese migrant’s stories” reminds me why I have so often wanted to abandon this research. First, I strongly believe as anthropologists, we are compelled to tell people’s stories. In telling people’s stories, we must not neglect history, politics and economy in which people’s lives are embedded. Thus, for me, the quandary has always been how to balance people’s stories with insightful analysis that accounts for what Paul Farmer calls, “historically given social and economic structures.” Journalists have their forte, but going somewhere for several weeks, collecting data, and telling people’s stories does not provide adequate complexity and depth. Lately, I’ve been experiencing personal qualms about going forth with this research, precisely because it’s been over-sensationalized by journalists. I’ve also been plagued with doubts about the capacity of my research to effect change. As development anthropologists like to assert, there are too many stakeholders, all with their own individual interests that may impinge upon the well-being of the collective. I am also very cautious about playing into the sensationalism that has permeated the media with regards to this topic, but I persist because there are problems of injustice that need to be witnessed, told and rectified.

Alas, the struggles of the anthropologist and weary path of emotional toil…

When I think of models of anthropologists I aspire to be, my favorites are Paul Farmer and Philippe Bourgois. Both tell people’s stories — stories of suffering — while recognizing the economic, historical, and political structures manifested in temporalities that interact with and shape their lives. Farmer writes, “The debacles of contemporary Haiti…are not really ‘Haitian’ problems at all, but international ones.” The US Government played a significant role in the removal of Duvalier and the history of Haiti cannot be understood without an analysis of the historical relations between the US and Haiti. Farmer analyzes and critiques the forms of accusation and blame that “impute to human agency a significant role in the propagation of a dreaded sickness.”

How much to attribute to structure and agency is always something that has to be carefully thought out by the researcher because placing an emphasis on the latter may bear the implication that individuals are to blame for their circumstances. This is most evident with reactions of community members to those afflicted with the sickness. Farmer calls this the blame-the-victim ideology, which locates poverty and suffering at the individual level within the Haitian people. This ideology was quite prevalent among some of my informants, who espoused it as a way to blame those who were less fortunate than they were and to justify their agenda in making endless profits at the expense of others. I believe a consideration of the underpinnings of this ideology is absolutely critical to studying some of the injustices occurring among Chinese and Zambian labor relations. Furthermore, Zambia’s problems amid heightened unemployment, increasing numbers of orphans affected by HIV, lack of funding in public sectors due to neoliberal policies, and feelings of resentment of politicians must be analyzed holistically against its colonial past and position within the global order.

I pause, reflect and conclude with a quote by Paul Farmer: “To live in a village is to witness the struggles of the poor as they confront the deepening economic crisis that currently grips Haiti. Anthropological research conducted there is inevitably mired in a world of want, and ethnographic texts should reflect hunger and fear and sickness that are the lot of most Haitians. But describing suffering, no matter how touchingly, is not a sufficient scholarly response to the explanatory challenges posed by the world pandemic of HIV disease. AIDS in Haiti fits neatly into a political and economic crisis in ways that demand explication — patterns of risk and disease distribution, social response to AIDS and prospectives for near future are all illuminated by a mode of analysis that links the ethnographically observed to historically given social and economic structures. Our ability to confront and prevent HIV infection in a human and effective manner demands a holistic understanding of this new sickness.”

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