Book Review: Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium

Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium. Veena Das and Clara Han, eds., Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016, 896 pp.

The word compendium comes from the Latin com (together) + pendere (weigh), and indeed Das and Han’s volume takes up the hefty task of weighing together and taking stock of contemporary work in medical anthropology. Their title, Living and Dying in the Contemporary World, sums up both their approach and their central claim that a contemporary, critical, sociocultural medical anthropology takes living and dying as its subject matter, or that medical anthropology is anthropology of living and dying. The volume compiles chapter-length essays that address persistent themes in the field: health and healing, illness and disability, biopower and biopolitical citizenship, shifting norms and institutions in the context of postcolonial globalization, neoliberalism, the moral implications of individualism, legal and pharmacological spaces, reproduction, gender, and the body, and the precarity, suffering, and disparity perpetuated by systemic poverty.

The volume is a feat of compilation and editing; the quality and evenness of editorial style across a wide array of subject matter in the 44 research-based chapters is remarkable. The chapters are arranged into five thematic sections. Each section opens with a brief essay by the editors engaging the content of the chapters and knitting together the section’s theme. The compendium itself begins with a substantive “Introduction: Concept Note” essay by Das and Han. While conventionally the introduction to an edited volume stands chiefly to orient the reader and to preview the chapters, the introduction here is somewhat different. The editors save the discussion of specific content for the section introductions, and instead the Concept Note offers a 38-page argument that might stand independently of the rest of the volume. In it, Das and Han posit a theoretical vision for medical anthropology as a field that by definition departs from a biological understanding of life and death. The introduction is presented at once as a response to the chapters enclosed, an expansive statement about medical anthropology as a whole, and a theoretical framework for the volume.

The volume is intended as “a medical anthropology handbook suitable for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students” (p. xiii), and it would indeed be of particular use for an upper-level undergraduate seminar, or to give graduate students an overview of recent themes in the field. Colleagues in social medicine, medical humanities, medical sociology, global health, or those interested in the social dynamics of death and dying might likewise find the volume useful, if not in full, then in excerpts. Priced at over $100 for a hardcover edition, the book, if assigned in full, would likely serve the role of textbook (given the price and the weight of the physical volume, students would likely find a digital edition a welcome option). The compendium will serve as a useful reference for the educator who would like to quickly refer upper-level undergraduates to examples of work on a particular subject.

The articles collected in the volume represent contemporary work by scholars of medical anthropology (and a few of its near-neighbors, including Talal Asad, Harry M. Marks, and a team of World Bank researchers). Most chapter authors will be familiar to those following the field, ranging from rising medical anthropologists to distinguished scholars. The medical anthropology represented here is primarily oriented toward conversations unfolding in the United States, with contributors from a variety of global locations. The chapters present research conducted in China, Botswana, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere. The volume includes very few reprints—only five out of 44. These include essays by Asad, Marks, Petryna, Napier, and Stevenson. Several entries advance ongoing disciplinary conversations, offering the “next chapters” in unfolding global health conversations (e.g., DOTS in tuberculosis policy, Botswana’s after-HIV cancer crisis, care in post-disaster Haiti). The chapters represent the diversity of research in medical anthropology and its many influences: interdisciplinary intersections with science studies, d/Deaf and disability advocacy movements, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial studies, and critical race studies can each be found.

The five subsections represent categories of investigation that will be familiar to medical anthropologists: (1) natality, sexuality, reproduction; (2) medical, legal, and pharmaceutical spaces; (3) healing: religious and secular bodies; (4) precarious lives; and (5) death and dying. The genre, overall, is empirically driven ethnographic study. Chapters in the volume deploy a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches to ethnography. The collection foregrounds research findings and does not include an explicit discussion of the method and the practice of ethnography. However, most authors describe the scope of their research, and some authors offer brief reflexive analysis of their own positionality in the field. For instance, while Julie Livingston’s chapter focuses on pain management in an under-resourced oncology ward, she also describes the ethical concerns of negotiating the role of foreign researcher in a hospital setting in Botswana, and troubles the potential for creating a spectacle of suffering when relating the grisly details of one set of events she observes there. The volume is defined by rich moments of ethnographic witnessing that link all the chapters, for example Sameena Mulla’s poignant recollection of a moment sitting on a dock in Maryland with a young woman deciding to drop sexual assault charges against an assailant, saying, “I just want to live” (pp. 289–90). Only one chapter—Marks’s Chemonotes (pp. 675–96)—breaks from the researcher–researched relationship to offer first-person reflections.

The volume has very few images (most are charts, with just a few are black and white photos), reflecting the current convention in the field to retain text as our primary form of communication. In perhaps an odd oversight, the chapters offers surprisingly little in the way of ethnographic engagement with digital worlds—either ethnography of online spaces, or ethnography that considers everyday practices in relation to the ways that digitally and technologically networked lives interface with health, life, death, and ritual practices.

In relation to other medical anthropology readers, Living and Dying is perhaps most similar in framing to Martha Inhorn and Emily Wentzell’s Medical Anthropology at the Intersections (2012), although that volume includes fewer chapters. Living and Dying differs from Byron Good et al.’s (2010) reader in that it does not include reprints of foundational articles in the field, but rather focuses on current works. The compendium differs quite significantly in framing from a text like Margaret Lock and Vin-Kim Ngyuen’s An Anthropology of Biomedicine (2010), in that this volume does not bound its subject matter in relation to biomedicine.

Rather, the compendium serves as a snapshot of this moment in medical anthropology and the vision that its editors have for the field. It depicts a discipline defined by the craft of witnessing, analyzing, and writing. As its title suggests, the volume offers a particularly in-depth attention to the ethnography of death and dying, devoting 10 chapters—all of Section 5—to the subject, arguing, in the words of Cecily Saunders, that “dying is not mere loss” (p. 700, in Chaterjee’s chapter). Life and death, the editors propose in their introductory essay, are interwoven in the fabric of experience, rather than absolute states demarcated in linear progression.

In this way, a focus on the expansive dimensions of contemporary medical anthropology emerges. Together, in the 44 chapters the editors present a field that has come of age. Medical anthropology no longer needs to stake its claim that medicine or health and healing occupy a particularly rich theoretical territory. With this historic center shored up, the field attends to its margins, sketching ever more complex and diverse elements of human experience, while engaging the medical anthropological canon.

 

References Cited

Good, B. J., M. J. Fischer, S. S. Willen, and M.-J. DelVecchio Good, eds. 2010. A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Inhorn, M., and E. Wentzell, eds. 2012. Medical Anthropology at the Intersections. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lock, M., and V.-K. Ngyuen. 2010. An Anthropology of Biomedicine. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

 

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