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.
Adam Koons and Jennifer Trivedi
Disaster Anthropology uses theoretical and methodological tools from across anthropological subfields to understand the effects of disasters. Anthropologists based in academia and practice, often working collaboratively or across disciplines, seek to understand the relationships among historical, social, cultural, economic, political, environmental, and climatic factors in every type of disaster and humanitarian crisis across the globe. Practitioners often work within disaster response agencies in such functions as policy reform, program design, and disaster response management. Academics work in anthropology and interdisciplinary centers and departments, studying and teaching about disaster and anthropological issues. Disaster anthropologists link closely with broader interdisciplinary disaster studies and practices. They contribute an anthropological, holistic, and long-term perspective, including the use of ethnography and participant observation, theories, and analyses. In the early 21st century there has been considerable, and constantly increasing, recognition of disaster anthropology. This area of work includes recognition of what disaster anthropology has to contribute and its place as an appropriate field of engagement for anthropologists. This recognition has been demonstrated by the publication of numerous books, chapters, articles, special journal issues, and hundreds of conference presentations. Disaster anthropology has gained the support of the major anthropology associations such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), resulting in the formation of specialized formalized bodies such as the Risk and Disaster Topical Interest Group (RDTIG) within the SfAA, and the Culture and Disaster Network (CADAN). Accordingly, there are also an increasing number of targeted university anthropology courses on disasters. Disaster anthropologists contribute to the overall understanding of how and why disasters have the impacts that they do and what the consequences of disasters can be. By examining disaster contexts, disaster anthropologists improve understanding of pre-existing circumstances that contribute to those disasters, including people’s perspectives on hazards, risks, uncertainty, inequality, and inequity. Disaster anthropologists have shown that disasters are the visible, explicit result of deeper and more complex processes. Anthropologists share this work in governmental, nongovernmental, academic, and public arenas. Disaster anthropology brings together critical lines of inquiry from the larger fields of anthropology and disaster studies, offering valuable perspectives not only on understanding but also on improving disaster conditions.
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.
Brian L. Foster
In major universities, research must be seen in many dimensions: the different disciplines, basic vs. applied, incremental vs. transformative, disciplinary or interdisciplinary, single researcher or collaborative, and much more. A fundamental difference that receives increasing attention is the distinction between incremental research vs. transformative research. Incremental research takes existing research results to the next step while transformative research opens up whole new ways of framing questions, often challenging what is “known,” and leading to new paths of knowledge creation that could lead to new academic disciplines or completely new approaches to practical issues/problems. Incremental research is critical to bring existing results to their most valuable ends. Transformative research has high impact in opening up new paths to important knowledge, but it poses daunting challenges in being unpredictable, long term, and high risk. Providing appropriate infrastructure is critical for all kinds of research (e.g., facilities, lab space, special equipment, staff support). To assure sustained access to these resources, effective planning is necessary, which poses a significant challenge given the long-term, high-risk, and unpredictable nature of transformative research. To address these planning challenges, it is necessary to explore ways of creating an environment and resources that make successful transformative research more likely to happen rather than planning for incremental research. Such strategies include supporting uniquely powerful facilities that fit with academic strengths (e.g., a strong research reactor, radio-astronomy facility). Another is to maintain a supportive environment for interdisciplinary research. Yet another strategy is to orient performance evaluation away from productivity, which is the enemy of long-term, risky, unpredictable research. And lastly, it is critical to have a positive mindset for challenges to existing knowledge.