Medical Anthropology

The Joint UCB/UCSF Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology is one of the pioneering programs in the discipline both nationally and globally. The program provides disciplinary leadership and outstanding and comprehensive training leading to the Ph.D. degree. No other program offers the Joint Program's combination of excellence in critical medical anthropology, studies of science, technology and modernity, intersections of medicine and social theory, and cutting edge scholarship.

Topics of active research include:

  • violence and trauma
  • genomics and ethics
  • transplantation and organ and tissue commodification
  • citizenship, immigration, and the body
  • psychiatry, ethnopsychiatry, and psychoanalysis
  • youth and child survival
  • hunger, infectious disease, development, and governmentality
  • traditional medicine and its modernity
  • sexuality, gender, and the commodity form
  • geriatrics and dementia
  • death, dying, and the politics of "bare life"

The core faculty on the Berkeley side of the Joint Program form an organized research group called Critical Studies in Medicine, Science, and the Body. This group links medical anthropology, science and technology studies, postcolonial and psychoanalytic anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. There are seven faculty in the group: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Program Director of Medical Anthropology; Paul Rabinow, Director of the Project on Genomics and Society; Lawrence Cohen, Co-director of Medical Anthropology; Stefania Pandolfo (Interim Program Director for 2011-12), Charles L. Briggs, Stanley Brandes, and Cori Hayden. Together with colleagues at Berkeley and UCSF and with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the Joint UCB-UCSF Medical Anthropology Program and in the Department of Anthropology, these scholars have created both the most diverse and the most contemporary program in the field.

The expansion of traditional medical anthropology at Berkeley into Critical Studies in Medicine, Science, and the Body reflects several disciplinary breakthroughs associated with our faculty. Though variants of "medical anthropology" are almost as old as the parent discipline of anthropology, the organized field emerged in post-war North America as an effort to link international public health, ethnomedicine, and allied social science in the service of the anthropology of development. The field shared both the promise and the limits of modernization theory more generally. Both the critical Marxist and symbolic/interpretive challenges of the 1970s and 1980s thickened debate, along with closer links to historical analyses of the scholarly medical traditions and to the development of qualitative methodologies concurrent with the expansion of NIH, NIMH, and other governmental programs of research support.

Despite the rapid growth of the field at this time, most research remained auxiliary to the categorical if not the political and economic imperatives of biomedicine. With the arrival of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Berkeley became a leader in defining what she famously termed a "critically applied medical anthropology." Critically applied medical anthropology refused the theory/applied divide that characterized so many departments and programs, arguing the impossibility of separating "theoretical" debate in cultural anthropology and the human sciences on the one hand and more "applied" commitment to the health and survival of communities and groups, on the other. Scheper-Hughes's articulation of a critical anthropology of hunger offers a powerful example of the change in the field she was instrumental in creating.

The rise of this movement at Berkeley led to a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s with two dominant programs in graduate training, critical medical anthropology in the Joint Program at Berkeley and UCSF and interpretive medical anthropology at Harvard. Lawrence Cohen came from Harvard in 1992 to join Scheper-Hughes, and the teaching and joint research that has resulted from their collaboration represent a critical and ongoing conversation bringing together the leading formations in the field. Cohen has worked to link debates between critical, interpretive, and biocultural medical anthropologies to broader theoretical questions of materialization that have emerged in feminist and queer scholarship.

The rapid growth of science studies and the increasing centrality of both science and the body to contemporary debate in the academy posed new challenges to medical anthropology. Paul Rabinow has studied the new genomics intensively, work leading to three books and to the development of what he has termed an anthropology of reason. Against too-easy criticism of scientific and medical practice that did not question what Michel Foucault called the "speaker's benefit" of the critic, Rabinow offered a method and a form of analysis that offered a way out of the endless battles of the "Culture Wars." Berkeley anthropology emerged as the most powerful alternative to the dominant approaches to the sociology of science and science studies.

From the mid-1990s and on, these two streams of medical anthropology and the anthropology of reason have been in closer and sharper interaction. Scheper-Hughes wrote a famous article calling for a "Barefoot Anthropology"; Rabinow offered his own vision of a "Well-Heeled Anthropology," and Medical Anthropology Program affliliates Professors Laura Nader and Aihwa Ong both authored important responses to this debate. Far from pushing students towards either pole, the debate constituted a space for encouraging students to link critical, interpretive, and genealogic analysis. Charles L. Briggs and Clara Mantini-Briggs are studying challenges to neoliberal health policies and new understandings of health, citizenship, and the state emerging from revolutionary healthcare in Venezuela.

In a world of linking new genomics, bioinformatics, and pharmacotherapy to corporate medicine and public-private hybrid structures internationally, "bioethics" has become ever more ubiquitous and empty a critical practice. The question of ethics and more generally of human futures links the current work of Cohen, Rabinow, and Scheper-Hughes. To this question and to the related investigation of trauma, loss, and healing, Stefania Pandolfo brings a rigorous anthropological conversation incorporating contemporary philosophy and psychoanalysis and her research in a Moroccan psychiatric hospital.

Pandolfo's work provides a bridge allowing for analysis linking medical anthropology and recent social theories of language, melancholy and the body. Pandolfo has offered extensive training to graduate students in the anthropology of medicine, science, and psychiatry, linking a reexamination of existential psychiatry and a close engagement with the work of scholars from Benjamin and Blanchot to Freud, Lacan, and Binswanger to both Mahgrebi and European clinical and theoretical work.

By tracing genealogies of the unexamined imbrication of theories of language, knowledge, performativity, and representation with research on biomedicine, public health, and traditional medicine, the Joint UCB-UCSF Medical Anthropology Program enables students to critically synthesize linguistic and critical medical anthropology in such a way as to transform both realms of anthropological inquiry. Charles L. Briggs has explored these connections through research on narrative and statistic representations of epidemic disease Latin America; urban violence and its problematic representations; and a five-country study of how understandings of health, disease, citizenship, and the state are profoundly shaped by news coverage of health, all in collaboration with Clara Mantini-Briggs.

Other Berkeley anthropology faculty affiliated with the Medical Anthropology Program bring important resources to graduate student training in the critical analysis of medicine, science, and psychiatry. Laura Nader was instrumental in helping to define the field and remains a leading scholar of medicine and the state. Stanley Brandes has studied many topics of relevance to the field, including alcohol and culture and questions of death and the body.