Looking Back at “Anthropology on the Front Lines”

On May 1 and 2, University of California Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology hosted a conference, “Anthropology on the Front Lines,” in honor of Nancy Scheper-Hughes and in celebration of barefoot anthropology. In what follows, two conference participants, David Napier Meira Weiss, reflect on the conference, and the impact of engaged anthropology and Scheper-Hughes on their own work and lives.

“Anthropology on the Front Lines.” Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes
“Anthropology on the Front Lines.” Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes
“Anthropology on the Front Lines.” Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes
“Anthropology on the Front Lines.” Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes
“Anthropology on the Front Lines.” Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes
“Anthropology on the Front Lines.” Photo courtesy of Nancy Scheper-Hughes

David Napier

On May 1st and 2nd, 2017, an unusual group convened in Berkeley to honor Nancy Scheper-Hughes—“unusual” in the sense that we each had worked with Nancy on one or another of her forays into applied anthropology. But we all came from widely diverse backgrounds and rather different corners of the earth: indigenous advocates, gender rights advocates, investigative reporters, academic reformers, civil rights activists, family members, university administrators who had supported Nancy over the years, and anthropologists mostly not tied to one or another theoretical bench. I met some very engaged people during those two days, and that fact, to me at least, says quite a bit about the person we were there to honor.

Though Nancy and I had been involved in various projects in applied anthropology over our professional careers, our work together on the Bellagio Task Force on Epidemics and Xenophobia forced me to face existential questions about my own career choices and trajectories. That work on the Task Force made me think back on my first anthropological experience as as a medical volunteer in Guatemala and Honduras in the 1960s. There, for the first time I saw innocent people die brutally for nothing more than wanting a better life, but also die, in some cases, because they had vested their futures in the promises of those who came to help them, only to suffer the more once those advocates disappeared to their offices in London, New York, and Boston. At Nancy’s event, many were aware of the need to sustain a commitment to vulnerable peoples, and listening to them speak reminded me of just how hard it is today to develop and keep long-term commitments to those who depend on freedoms we have that they don’t.

What kind of person does it take to withstand hostility from so many quarters while doggedly trying to do the right thing?  I ask this question because working with Nancy has also meant asking myself that.

Nancy was also aware of this dilemma, as I have learned over our years of friendship. While most of us can find ample cause to support the victims of inequality, Nancy is also a master in finding ways of approaching those with whom she fundamentally and at times profoundly disagrees. I call Nancy’s approach xenophilic (as opposed to xenophobic) because of her ability to engage those she could easily dismiss as morally misguided or in some way perhaps even as evil.

More personally, what has always fascinated me about Nancy’s view of her anthropological obligation is her willingness to get into the bones of people whose actions she might have easily dismissed as “sociopathic.” She works with otherwise liminal populations while her professional loyalties are sometime challenged even by anthropologists who find her either too radical, or not focused enough on our disciplinary mainstream. Anthropology has not always been on her side.

What kind of person does it take to withstand hostility from so many quarters while doggedly trying to do the right thing?  I ask this question because working with Nancy has also meant asking myself that. Indeed, this emotion (of having hope in the face of unacceptable suffering among those we care for) emerged genuinely at Nancy’s event in the aspirations of nearly every speaker, for whom the salvation narratives of so much of medical anthropology seemed off target. Rather nearly every speaker expressed a desire to reframe overt social inequality through a deeper hope in the human enterprise.

Martin Luther King once famously said that “human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” King’s view more or less encapsulates the passion and devotion of Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

Sharing two days with Nancy and so many others who had risked their careers and even their lives for what they believed in made for an event I will never forget. So thank you, Nancy, for wanting to be on the sorts of front lines that can show what anthropology might become. And thank you also for remaining xenophilic enough to learn from what you find out there.

David Napier is professor of medical anthropology at University College London and Director of its Science, Medicine, and Society Network.

Meira Weiss

No one but Nancy Scheper-Hughes could bring all these people together, I mused, looking around, at the conference—“Anthropology on the Front Lines,” April 30–May 2—honoring her work. They were fascinating intellectuals one and all, holding moral agendas of creating a better world, complete with the self-risk involved. The intellectual energy would surge up to heaven in over the days of the conference.

For my own contribution, I presented my research on the politics of the body in Israeli society. Israeli society regulates bodies as part of its ongoing construction of collective identity. Since the early days of nation building, the “privileged Chosen Body” has meant the   Jewish, white-Ashkenazi, strong, masculine, secular, healthy, and physically perfect body epitomized by the soldier. The concept of the Chosen Body exists together with a hierarchy of bodies that excludes “other bodies.” Immigrants to Israel receive a very low rank in the Israeli body’s hierarchy, especially when it comes to non-Jewish immigrants or those from Islamic countries. A state of emergency, in effect since Israel’s establishment, facilitates this process. It excludes certain peoples the definition of human, denying them their civil rights. The fact that nowadays these categories mainly comprise of Muslim immigrants makes it easy (for the state) to perceive them, symbolically, as enemies of the state.

There is an ever-growing tendency in the US and Europe to declare a state of emergency that allows denying the basic rights of entire social groups. We, as anthropologists, are often the first to respond to these trends.

The combination of immigration and perceived threat of Islamic terrorism may lead to the far-reaching exclusion of immigrants from their human rights, making them a transplant organ pool; a pool of prostitutes and children, all left to fend for themselves. As in Israel, there is an ever-growing tendency in the US and Europe to declare a state of emergency that allows denying the basic rights of entire social groups.

We, as anthropologists, are often the first to respond to these trends. Yet, in Israel and many other places, censorship grows stricter as time goes on, making it difficult for researchers to publish their findings.  We have to find ways to try to overcome the Iron Wall of censorship and make our work known. One of my strategies has been to publish fiction. I wrote a novel based on the top secret materials I discovered in my MA research on the 1973 war, which specially incriminate Ariel Sharon. I came to this decision after 39 years of military authorities denying me permission to publish these materials.  I wrote a novel, in which the names were disguised with the exception of Ariel Sharon’s name and my name Released three years ago on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war. The book has been included in the bibliographies of a number of courses in anthropology in Israel, even though the universities in Israel still do not recognize novels as a legitimate genre for the advancement of scientific knowledge.  

We can learn a lot from the Israeli case in regards to what we already have experienced, and what we are to expect in the world at large in the near future. As Laura Nader has noted, this distinction between the “chosen body” and the “body of the other” can now be found all over the world. In the face of mounting censorship, we may have to discuss a few alternative genres of writing in order to make our research known.

Meira Weiss is professor emeritus specializing in anthropology of medicine, science and the body. Her publications include “Conditional Love” (Bergin @Garvey) and The Chosen Body: The Politics of the Body in Israeli Society (Stanford University Press). Recently she published the novel, Semblance of Absence.

Did you also attend the conference? How does barefoot anthropology inform your own work? Readers are welcome to participate in this conversation in the comments section below.

Cite as: Napier, David, and Meira Weiss. 2017. “Looking Back at ‘Anthropology on the Front Lines.'” Anthropology News website, August 9, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.570

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