27 April 2017

Applying an anthropological perspective in health

We recently came across this interesting article about "Teaching medical students to challenge ‘unscientific’ racial categories." Anthropologists and other critical social scientists have long known that even though race is a social construction, it can have very real impacts in people's lives -- including in accessing health and healthcare.

This article explores how medical students continue to be taught to use racial stereotypes based in biology as shortcuts for diagnosing and treating illness. It also follows the work of Dr. Brooke Cunningham, a physician and sociologist, who challenges these harmful practices in teaching medicine. For Dr. Cunningham and others, the point of these reforms is to push medical students and future health professionals to think critically about race, and how these social categories impact individual health through lived experiences and structures of inequality.

“It’s not that race is irrelevant to health, but it’s not relevant to health because of innate differences. It’s relevant because racism affects people’s health.”


Although medical students are often repeatedly told throughout their education that race should be approached critically and understood as a social not biological construct, what's telling are the reactions of students to Cunningham's lecture based on the authority of medicine over social science:
Students who attended her recent lecture on race said Cunningham’s medical degree gave her added credibility.
“I think if she was just a social scientist, I would be more skeptical of whatever perspective she would bring to the conversation,” said Mac Garrett, a first-year medical student.
These insights raise some important questions to consider in how anthropologists and other social scientists might consider communicating their findings in applied contexts. How might we think about how social science evidence and arguments are interpreted by those we wish to influence, in order to be more persuasive? In order to create social change in applied contexts -- like medical students' training -- should we draw more on the the authority of critical social scientists who also have the clout of a medical degree?

Quick links and further reading:

24 April 2017

Bringing anthropological ethics into the classroom

With the Canadian Anthropology Society Conference next week comes CASCA's Spring issue of the network's newsletter, Culture.

One item that caught our eye in this issue was Eric Henry's description of a case-study discussion activity he created for students to work through some of the potentially thorny issues anthropologists and linguists face in the field: Targaryen Ethics: A Case Study in Linguistic Appropriation Using “Game of Thrones”

Henry writes that in his linguistic anthropology course,
language appears to students to be a relatively uncontroversial topic of research – in what possible way could listening to an oral history or eliciting verb conjugations harm someone?
I wanted to get students thinking about some of the thorny ethical issues surrounding linguistic heritage, appropriation, and ownership.
In this short piece, Henry provides the short text of his case study, where the linguistic anthropologist is approached by the producers of the hit television program about adapting a local (endangered) language to fit one of the show's mythic peoples. Henry also reflects on the outcomes of working through this case-study with his students, including some of the unanticipated issues that students themselves raised about the case, and the role of the anthropological expert in terms of language revitalization, representation, development, and what ethics means in these moments.

Henry's case-study is a great example of an activity to bring an experiential learning element into the classroom through role-playing. How might you adapt this style of case-study exercise in your own teaching?

Quick links and further reading:

20 April 2017

Media, language, and social relationships

In teaching anthropology, I always find students to be exceptionally interested on the days that we talk about media. Many of my students consider social media to be an important part of their lives and social interactions, from how they connect to others to how they spend their leisure time. And, in many ways this engagement has actually changed the ways through which students interact with us, as well as the language and forms of address we see in email communications.

To many of us who really care about writing well (and try to teach this skill and sensibility), these shifts are occasionally taken as doomsday signals of the downfall of the English language, or even the future of society in general (when we're being melodamatic, anyway). Yet, to take an anthropological approach, it's interesting to think about how these different forms of media actually mediate social relationships... including between ourselves and our students.

I often like to show the first 12 minutes or so or Michael Wesch's lecture "An anthropological introduction to YouTube" to students when we first discuss media. Wesch really brings home this idea that media is more than just content, and that media mediate social relationships.

So, really, it shouldn't be surprising that engagements through new forms of media have lead to interesting (if annoying) cultural changes in language use and meaning. An interesting example of this is observable in this piece from Newsweek: "What it means when you end your emails with a period." Here, David Crystal opens by remarking how "Regular emailers will have encountered the new styles, and may use all of them. The omission of punctuation marks, avoidance of capitalization, and the use of nonstandard spelling is commonplace." Yet, this kind of language use is also part of our learned cultural context:
These styles are characteristic of informal e-communication. The more formal the interaction, the less they are likely to occur, and the more they will be construed as inappropriate. So it's important for youngsters experimenting with internet styles to realize that breaking the conventions of the standard language is dangerous in certain settings.
Another interesting example of shifting meanings -- this time within and across social media platforms -- comes from this The Sociological Imagination piece, "“Liking” it on Facebook." Javier de Rivera explores the sensibility and standardization of feeling connected to the "like" function on platforms like FaceBook and Instagram. Consider the following statement about the shifting and standardizing meanings associated with functions such as the "like" or "fav" across these different platforms:
The evolution of Twitter seems to be going in the same direction, by experimenting with the Favs and changing them to Likes, establishing the trend – that started several years ago – for using this feature to show appreciation rather than for archival purposes. Here, overlapping is not possible, by choosing Hearts as a mean of social interaction we are deploying its value as an archival resource: our list of bookmarks would be flooded with the less memorable tweets we chose to mark as an expression of appreciation.
How might you bring these examples into your classroom discussions of cultural change, community, meaning, and language?

Quick links and further reading: