Cancer is a relatively new subject for the discipline of anthropology, but scholarship on the topic has already yielded a distinct and important body of literature. In biomedical terms, cancer can be thought of as the wide range of conditions characterized by the uncontrolled (and ultimately pathological) proliferation of cells. It is a disease that is responsible for the deaths of millions of people worldwide each year. As such, it is the focus of a vast number of discourses and practices in multiple areas, ranging from scientific research and media discussion to health insurance and government regulation, to name just a few. Anthropologists concerned with cancer typically use the methodology that is a hallmark of the discipline, long-term ethnographic fieldwork, in order to investigate these discourses and practices. This involves conducting participant observation among doctors, patients, nurses, family members, scientists, politicians, policymakers, and pharmaceutical representatives. Cancer is examined as a lived experience, revealing the numerous ways that local, regional, national, and transnational histories and politics shape the embodied realities of disease. Anthropologists also investigate the regimes of risk and statistical analysis to which bodies are subjected and the technologies around cancer, such as methods of screening or vaccination that aim to prevent it and the different ways in which these and other interventions and technologies fit into—or push uneasily against—the local words in which they are implemented. Anthropologists aim to look beyond the problem as simply one of biology and medicine, instead investigating cancer as pervasive within multiple dimensions of social, cultural, political, and economic life. Anthropological studies displace the prominent biomedical notion that cancers are the same in diverse locations and reveal the incoherence and intractability of cancer as an object. In paying close attention to this object in varied settings, anthropologists offer a critical account of discourses and practices that destabilize and decenter some of the assumptions on which global oncology is based.
Nickolas Surawy-Stepney and Carlo Caduff
Glenn Davis Stone
In 1958, a Nobel laureate predicted that one day scientists would be able to use “biological engineering” to improve all species. Genetic modification of viruses and bacteria was performed in the early 1970s. Genetic modification of plants was announced in the early 1980s, followed by predictions of revolutionary improvements in agriculture. But nearly forty years later, the improvements brought by genetic modification are meager: few crops have been modified and 87 percent of all area planted to genetically modified (GM) crops contains traits for herbicide tolerance (HT), which increases use of herbicide but not productivity. The only other widely used modification, which causes plants to produce insecticide, has improved agriculture in some areas but not others. Debate on why genetic modification has fallen so short of expectations have centered on three factors. Public resistance to GM crops and foods is blamed for slow progress by some. Excessive regulation is cited by some, especially those involved in the development of GM crops. But the main factor has been patent regimes that concentrate the development of marketable GM crops in the hands of a small number of companies that hold large patent portfolios and that can afford to enforce the patents. New technologies for genetic modification such as CRISPR-Cas9 are being heralded as offering revolutionary change in agriculture, much as genetic modification was in the 1980s.
Doug Henry and Lisa Henry
This article details the contributions of applied anthropology to public health, focusing on complementary and divergent interests, orientations, and methods. We emphasize areas where productive collaborations have occurred around convergent topics such as infectious and chronic disease, policy, interventions, and analysis of the social, political, and economic contexts that structure the conditions of health. Public health’s emphasis on community and advocacy provides a natural entry point for anthropology’s ethnographic method that emphasizes spending time with a community and understanding aspects of culture and health from its peoples’ perspectives. When a multidisciplinary team meets on a common interest, such as improving public health, everyone’s interests become better served if each discipline’s perspectives and values are recognized. Anthropologists with careers in public health can expect to engage in formative research to help develop the most appropriate health interventions, evaluate community uptake or rejection of public health initiatives, or critically examine the effects of national or global policies on local populations.