Beyond the Limits: Medicine, Healing, and Medical Anthropology

Laura A. Meek and Abigail H. Neely

This collection contemplates that which resides at the limits of the anthropology of health and medicine. By “limit,” we mean that “outside which there is nothing to be found” and “inside of which everything is to be found” (de la Cadena 2015: 14, citing Ranajit Guha 2002: 7). Our work takes place within many kinds of limits: epistemological frameworks, ethical and moral commitments, disciplinary norms, ontological certainties, political economies, writing conventions, and the ends of life, to name a few. In this collection of essays and accompanying conversations, we consider how medicine and health are performed in ways that appear beyond such limits—as impossible, unreal, unscientific, irresponsible, unthinkable, nonacademic, non-replicable, fictitious, unethical, unruly, or untrue—but which, nonetheless, are. In so doing, this collection moves toward the speculative to examine the potential it holds for displacing our sedimented ways of thinking and producing knowledge in and about medicine, health, and healing. Our speculative orientation draws on and augments broader anthropological interventions that experiment with doing, thinking, and writing otherwise.1,2

This collection also attends to how multiplicity takes shape by following and tracing relations, tensions, convergences, and divergences between worlds of health and healing. We maintain that recognizing such multiplicity requires that we create conditions for tellability that “push up against familiar understandings of ‘reality’ and take us beyond a division of the world into rational/irrational, real/imagined, and either/or” (Mittermaier 2011: 29). The essays in this collection draw on disqualified types of knowledge and minor practices (including incantations, oracles, and witchcraft, care and gentleness, and fugitive science) and “play them out against the regimes of knowledge on whose terms we have come to understand them as anomalous, irrational, unrealistic, or simply implausible” (Palmie 2002: 20, see also Klima 2019; McLean 2017).

Such interventions have been important for thinking more capaciously about medicine, health, and healing, yet they do little, directly, to unsettle medical anthropology itself—to help us rethink how we tell stories that are legible to the subdiscipline and the institutions in which we are employed. To do that work—of storying otherwise—our collection takes the form of a conversation, quite literally. This conversation took place among all the authors as we explored the various limits that shape our fieldwork and writing. In producing this collection, one of the trickiest limits we came up against is that of the conventional journal article, with its norms of discrete vignette followed by separate analysis. In this convention—and there are some examples of this form among our essays—authors build on the work of others through citational practices. As critical recent interventions by groups like #CiteBlackWomen (Cite Black Women Collective 2022) and The Ancestors Project (Pouchet 2020) have demonstrated, these citational practices have a politics; one that frequently excludes and marginalizes (Smith and Garrett-Scott 2021; Vaughn et al. 2021). Changing our citational practices is one way to disrupt conventional scholarly practices within our discipline, dismantling the norms that reproduce patriarchy and white supremacy (Mariner 2022; Ogden 2021: 130–32; Yates-Doerr 2020). Allied with this move, our intervention here seeks not merely to broaden the conversation, but rather to shift it: to change how we recognize and value the collaborative co-laboring and co-thinking that is often hidden by the conventions of academic publishing.

This Introduction also resists normative academic conventions according to which we would be expected to condense, outline, synthesize, and capture the multifarious speculations that follow. Instead, we invite readers to join us in conversation, to sit with its excesses and unruly (undisciplined) meanderings, and to relinquish the idea of closure. As co-authors of this Introduction, we opt not to grant ourselves the authority to write that closure. Instead, our approach with this collection’s structure is to make our collective conversation explicit, transcribed, and interspersed among the pieces that follow. This conversation is not linear and is not meant to speak specifically to the pieces it bookends, but rather to offer a space to speculate together about the possibilities and limitations of our work in medical anthropology.

Together, our conversation examines the core concepts that our individually authored pieces grapple with—limits, multiplicity, and the speculative—building, learning, and thinking collectively about what our contributions do and do not do, can and cannot do, given the structures of the discipline and the situated nature of our individual experiences and positionalities. These limits include—but are not limited to—how we produce knowledge; give credit; join and exist within disciplinary hierarchies; assess, take, and bear the costs of risks; divide and parse the work of medical anthropology; attend to our interlocutors honestly and ethically; interpret (or not) what we learn in our field sites; and write for medical anthropology and beyond. Our aim is to foreground the collaborative and dialogic nature of knowledge making, the thinking together that goes into all of our work. We hope that this unconventional and undisciplined approach opens up ideas, conversations, and provocations that unsettle the current limits of medicine, healing, and medical anthropology.


1 Laura Meek and Abigail Neely convened the collection’s authors first for a double panel at the 2019 joint American Anthropological Association and Canadian Anthropology Society Annual Meeting in Vancouver. Since then, Laura and Abby have organized an ongoing collaborative project in which we have each read and commented on one another’s pieces, such that the individual essays that follow grew out of this collective co-thinking and co-laboring together. Laura and Abby also suggested the more overt conversation that appears below and developed prompts, in consultation with the other authors, for this dialogue. The conversation grew out of our reflections and shared challenges as we worked together. Laura and Abby transcribed and edited the conversation for this collection, and Tatiana, Sienna, and Casey contributed further clarifications throughout the process.

2 Recent speculative moves in anthropology are diverse and wide-ranging, not all of them explicitly using the term “speculative.” Those works that we read as speculative and that we are in conversation with here are most often grounded in an ethos of imagination and experimentation, liberatory social transformation, and the unsettling of disciplinary norms and hierarchies. Much of this scholarship has sought to broaden anthropological praxis, opening up new methods or forms of analysis (Ballestero and Winthereik 2021; Pandian 2019), sometimes through explicit engagement with speculative fiction (Anderson et al. 2018; Haraway 2013; Shange 2019). Others experiment with modes of writing that disrupt epistemological and/or academic hierarchies—e.g., through refusing the bifurcation of the real and the fictional (Akomolafe 2017; Craig 2020; Klima 2019) and dismantling the unmarked whiteness, heteronormativity, and masculinity of ethnographic research, writing, and theorizing (Bear 2020; Berry et al. 2017; Shange 2019). We join these and aligned efforts to write worlds otherwise by potentiating latent possibilities (Meek and Morales Fontanilla 2022), attending specifically to those which lie beyond the normative limits of medicine, health, and medical anthropology (see also Pasco et al. 2016; Tickin 2019; Wolf-Meyer 2017).