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Journal: Medical anthropology


This commentary calls on medical anthropology to become programmatically non-secular. Despite recent anthropological critiques of secularity, within and outside of anthropology, most contemporary medical anthropologists continue to leave deities and religiosity out of their examinations of healing practices, especially in their accounts of biomedicine. Through a critical, relational constructionist lens, which traces how all entities are both constructed and real, a non-secular medical anthropology would insist that when deities are part of medical practice, they are integral to analysis. Importantly then, within the symmetrical nature of this same constructionist lens, biomedical entities like germs and petri dishes need to be accounted for just as much as deities.

Concepts: Medicine, Sociology, Anthropology, Social sciences, Cultural anthropology, Social anthropology


Social scientists studying toxic epidemics have often endeavored to shed light on the differences between scientists' and non-scientists' epistemic perspectives. Yet, little attention has been paid to the processes through which a toxic epidemic emerges as a phenomenon. A Luoi Valley of Central Vietnam was extensively sprayed with chemical defoliants (including Agent Orange) during the Vietnam War. The latent toxic effects of these chemicals, however, went largely unnoticed until the late 1990s. By juxtaposing the history through which the notion of “Agent Orange Sickness” emerged in the United States with an ethnographic study of A Luoi, I explore the notion of poison under which Agent Orange became recognizable as a poison.

Concepts: United States, Vietnam War, Agent Orange, Operation Ranch Hand, Defoliant


In this article, I analyze the practices of a group of Catholic nuns who run shelters for ‘victims of human trafficking’ in Italy, and are thus involved in state-funded rehabilitation programs for former foreign prostitutes. This case shows how the state and the Church are deeply implicated in each other’s projects of redemption and the creation of new forms of life. In Italy, the legal model for rehabilitating foreign prostitutes is avowedly secular yet also deeply shaped by a Catholic impetus to purify sinners. At the same time, however, the nuns themselves develop an understanding of redemption as a secular life-saving project in line with the state’s project of recognition, and thus inscribe their practices within the biopolitical effort to transform lives. Ultimately, I argue, leading by example becomes a specific Catholic instantiation of biopolitics that characterizes both the state’s and the Church’s approach to foreigners.

Concepts: State, Project, Christianity, Human trafficking, Biopolitics, Christian terms, Catholic Church, Nun


Often described as “masks” face-worn devices are employed as personal protection equipment by health workers and the general public and considered to be an indispensable technology against epidemics. Simultaneously, they are potent symbols of existential risk. Could these material and visual aspects be more than simply indexically connected? In this article, I examine these apparatuses through a historical anthropological approach of their invention during the 1910-11 Manchurian plague outbreak. Arguing that they should be taken seriously as masks, I demonstrate that their emergence was rooted in their configuration as transformative agents of medical reason.


In the context of transnational family life, everyday information and communication technologies (ICTs) are key members of transnational care collectives. Through the approach of material semiotics to care as a relational practice between people and nonhuman entities, I explore frequent calling as one aspect of these collectives. I analyze the practice of frequent calling on phone and webcam between elderly parents living in Kerala, South India, and their adult children who work abroad as nurses. When family members are scattered around the world, frequent calling becomes a way to enact “good care” at a distance.


Communication plays an important role in the non-copresent care that is increasingly prevalent today. Drawing on long-term research with transnational Salvadoran families, I explore how one multigenerational kin network managed a health crisis: a family member had been diagnosed with a new form of chronic kidney disease that is epidemic in rural Central American communities. The family used cross-border communication to simultaneously enact care and consolidate a particular register of care. I suggest that everyday communication is a powerful force that works both within and beyond immediate care work encounters in ways that have far-reaching consequences for ethical and moral life.


Global climate change is contributing to a range of adverse environmental and weather shifts, including more intense and more frequent heat waves and an intensification of the urban heat island effect. These changes are known to produce a set of significant and differentially distributed health problems, with a particularly high burden among poor and marginalized populations. In this article, we report findings from a qualitative study of community knowledge, attitudes, health and other concerns, and behavioral responses regarding mounting urban temperatures and related environmental health issues among Latinos living in the city of Hartford, CT in northeast US. Findings suggest the need for enhanced participation in knowledge dissemination and preparedness planning based on the co-production of knowledge about climate change and community responses to it. The special role of anthropology in such efforts is highlighted.

Concepts: Climate change, Global warming, Urban heat island


Recently HIV has been framed as a ‘manageable’ chronic disease in contexts in which access to effective care is reliable. The chronic disease paradigm emphasizes self-care, biomedical disease management, social normalization, and uncertainty. Data from a longitudinal study of patients (N=949) in HIV care at two sites in Uganda, collected through semi-structured interviews and ethnographic data, permit examination of the salience of this model in a high burden, low resource context struggling to achieve the promise of a manageable HIV epidemic. Our data highlight the complexity of the emerging social reality of long-term survival with HIV. Participants struggle to manage stigma as well as to meet the costs involved in care seeking. In these settings, economic vulnerability leads to daily struggles for food and basic services. Reconceptualizing the chronic disease model to accommodate a ‘social space’, recognizing this new social reality will better capture the experience of long-term survival with HIV.

Concepts: Medicine, Epidemiology, Infectious disease, Medical terms, Sociology, Chronic, Disease management, Ethnography


Anthropologists have long known how perceptions of contagion play out along the lines of xenophobia and racism. Months after the beginning of the global Cover-19 pandemic, predictions by anthropologists of xenophobic ideologies and actions have come to pass. In the United States people understand the global pandemic not as biology, but as the manifestation of political affiliation, difference, connection, and disconnection. COVID-19 is, according to public perception, dangerous because it maliciously mutates to attack. It is “a guy we don’t know.” Relationships between the mysteriousness of the virus and heightened visibility of longstanding inequality in the United States form new contexts for existing social tensions. These dynamics provide a backdrop against which the ongoing commitment to uprisings connected to the Black Lives Matter movement unfold. Here I draw on analysis of 50 semi-structured interviews we conducted from March to August of 2020 demonstrating how understandings of the biology of a virus are woven into perceptions of politics, inequality, and the fractures of a divided nation. To understand social and political responses to the global pandemic it is essential that we continue to investigate xenophobia, inequality, and racism alongside the biological impact of SARS-CoV-2.


Medical anthropology has a vital role in identifying health-related impacts of policy. In the United States, increasingly harsh immigration policies have formed a multilayered immigrant policing regime comprising state and federal laws and local police practices, the effects of which demand ethnographic attention. In this article, I draw from ethnographic fieldwork in Atlanta, Georgia, to examine the biopolitics of immigrant policing. I underscore how immigrant policing directly impacts undocumented immigrants' health by producing a type of fear based governance that alters immigrants' health behaviors and sites for seeking health services. Ethnographic data further point to how immigrant policing sustains a need for an unequal, parallel medical system, reflecting broader social inequalities impacting vulnerable populations. Moreover, by focusing on immigrant policing, I demonstrate the analytical utility in examining the biopolitics of fear, which can reveal individual experiences and structural influents of health-related vulnerability.

Concepts: Medicine, Population, United States, Immigration, Anthropology, Immigration to the United States, Police, Ethnography