On sickness and being an ‘insider’

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, there’s a field of anthropology that deals with medicine, health and health care. I have no intention of working in this particular sub-discipline, but I’m currently just a wee bit curious about it. You see, I’ve been sick for the last week (hence the relative blog-silence) and it’s got me thinking.

In the representations of anthropological fieldwork that I have read so far, there is an assumption that the objective is to fit into the community you are working with. To become like them. It makes me wonder how you could do that if your ‘community’ are unwell? Must you also become unwell?

I recently heard a very interesting presentation from a student colleague who is about to start her fieldwork in an aged care home, where her community of interest suffers dementia, alzheimers and other degenerative diseases. She can’t possibly share their full experience as an ‘insider’. In fact, we’d probably question the reliability of her anthropological work if she did enter into dementia herself. Yet I trust that, even as an outsider, she will do good anthropological research in her chosen community.

I suspect that most anthropologists are cut off from a truly ‘insider’ experience in much the same way that medical anthropologists are. Sleeping on a gurney doesn’t make you sick and sleeping in a mud hut doesn’t actually make you part of the tribe. Of course, this is only a problem if you think that the aim of anthropology is to acheive an ‘insider’ experience. So, I’ve found being sick a helpful reminder that none of us can really acheive that, but that we can and do produce useful anthropology in spite of our ‘outsider’ status.

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