Kinetic Art by Carlos Cruz-Díez. Photo courtesy Tomás Fano

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

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Jaymelee J Kim
Amanda J Reinke


Anthropology of Disasters, Displacement and Human Rights

“I want to do human rights and forensic anthropology, not just forensics.” Political and legal anthropologist Tricia Redeker Hepner and forensic anthropologist. Murray K Marks had heard this before. The student, like others, stood before them frustrated and discouraged by the seemingly insurmountable subdisciplinary divide. While both knew that holistic training was the direction of not just forensic anthropology, but other anthropological arenas as well, they also knew that the University of Tennessee (UT) department “wasn’t there yet.” But it is now.

Kinetic Art by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Díez. Photo courtesy Tomás Fano and wikicommons

Kinetic Art by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Díez. Photo courtesy Tomás Fano and wikicommons

Graduate students persisted, taking courses “outside of their field,” and pursuing research projects that required knowledge not only from multiple subsets of anthropological specialization, but information from other disciplines as well. Growing student interest coalesced with the partnership of Gregory Button, specialist in disasters studies, and Tricia Redeker Hepner, resulting in the gradual development of the Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights (DDHR) program, which promotes collaboration across anthropological subfields and with those outside anthropology. The program consolidated when Amy Z Mundorff, Bertin M Louis Jr, Marisa O Ensor and Dawnie Wolfe Steadman came on board.

While the department has long been recognized for its forensic anthropology program, demand for multidisciplinary and intra-disciplinary approaches to DDHR-related topics has increased dramatically in recent years. Perhaps this is because those involved in DDHR-themed research recognize that relevant questions, implementation concerns, and socio-cultural and environmental impacts of disasters, displacement, and human rights do not act in subdisciplinary isolation. Rather the complexities of on-the-ground situations often require biological understandings, cultural considerations and archaeological assessments. Areas of focus include post-conflict reconstruction and investigations; transitional justice; (un)natural disasters; human rights and human rights law; internal displacement and refugee crises; identity and discrimination; social causes and impacts of wars, disasters, and climate change; and the environmental and public health impacts of natural resource extraction and pollution.

The DDHR program is founded upon the belief that cross-training and inter/intra-disciplinary collaboration allows researchers and practitioners access to nuanced information and insights into possibly otherwise unknown complexities. Partnerships have been built with the university’s College of Law and the Department of Religious Studies. For instance, Robert Blitt of the College of Law regularly sits on anthropology graduate committees and encourages anthropology students to enroll in his international human rights law course. The head of the religious studies department, Rosalind Hackett, has partnered with Tricia Hepner to launch the Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program (GSSAP), an intensive five-week program in northern Uganda.

The DDHR graduate certificate and undergraduate concentration draw from all three of the department of anthropology’s subfields. It should be noted that while linguistic analyses have been employed by both professors and students, UT anthropology unfortunately does not house a linguistics program. Required DDHR courses include Anthropology of Human Rights, Forensic Science and Human Rights, and Disasters. Students then have the option of choosing three electives such as Archaeology and the African Diaspora or Anthropology of Warfare and Violence to name a few. The Molecular Anthropology Laboratories, Archaeological Research Laboratory, Forensic Anthropology Center, and McClung Museum all provide institutional and laboratory support for various research projects in the Department of Anthropology.

Perhaps the best way to illuminate the demand for cross-training and collaboration is to briefly mention some of the on-going DDHR research being conducted by students and faculty. Master’s student Adrianne Kembel is currently conducting an investigation in northern Uganda alongside the director of the UT Forensic Anthropology Center, Dawnie Wolfe Steadman and a DDHR founding member, Hepner. Together they are researching the cultural, political, and economic implications of the presence of mass graves and whether excavations are appropriate. Julia Hanebrink, a doctoral candidate and Uganda site director for the Minority Health International Research and Training program, is exploring health disparities in marginalized societies both internationally and domestically. Cross-trained in biological and cultural anthropology, Hanebrink studies health-seeking behaviors, health perspectives, and psycho-social healing among war-affected populations in Uganda. Further cross-disciplinary research includes that of graduate student Frankie Pack, and assistant professor Graciela Cabana, who are using anthropological genetics and perceptions of identity among US and Argentine populations. Last, but not least, doctoral candidate Erin Eldridge is using political ecology to assess health and environmental impacts of the Tennessee Valley Authority ash spill.

The research is at UT, and the research is happening, but faculty and students knew the concept of DDHR would resonate among a larger community of researchers and students. This desire led to the creation of the anthropology department’s Inaugural Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights Symposium, which was supported by 12 departments within the university as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee and featured two keynote speakers, Richard Wilson and Stefan Schmitt. Wilson, co-director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut commented on the program, stating:

[F]orensic anthropology and the anthropology of displacement and human rights have been fascinating areas of anthropological research and with the arrival of the DDHR program, have become more so. The DDHR program brings a new dimension to this field, admirably combining the expertise, methods, and theories of premiere cultural and forensic anthropologists. This is one of the most exciting and innovative programs at a US anthropology department promoting international, interdisciplinary conversations on the cultural dimensions of conflict.

With widespread international and domestic participation, the symposium concluded with a roundtable discussion on future directions of DDHR, holistic anthropological approaches, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Dawnie Steadman, Barbara Heath, Gregory Button and Tricia Hepner each discussed the future of anthropological engagement with DDHR issues and the use of collaborative intra/inter-disciplinary research. During discussion with the audience, key topics of concern included: applied versus academic dissonance; deepening divisions between anthropological subdisciplines; and a lack of communication between researchers, the public, and academia. All of these concerns reflect a fragmented discipline in a time when studies into DDHR topics require the insight of the whole. Using just that—a holistic approach—the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology is excited to announce its Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights program formally begins in fall 2013.

Jaymelee J Kim has her MA in biological anthropology and is a PhD candidate in the University of Tennessee’s department of anthropology. Her current research focuses on the use of transitional justice mechanisms to address human rights violations against Indigenous peoples during Canada’s Indian Residential School Era (1876–1996).

Amanda J Reinke received her BA in anthropology and is a PhD student in the University of Tennessee’s department of anthropology. Current research focuses geographically on East Africa and topics of interest include human rights, militarization, peacebuilding and youth.

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