I took my first medical anthropology course during the spring semester of my freshman year. I realized I was hooked to the field in the middle of a lecture in Professor Rivkin-Fish’s Comparative Healing Systems class. As I recall, we were discussing an anthropological explanation of the transition from the era of midwifery prevalence to the rise of obstetrics and gynecology as a male-dominated, biomedical “profession.” Previously, I had been drawn to the natural sciences and their steadfast faith in the scientific-method, evidence-based research and the like. Fortunately, my first medical anthropology class – and the many that ensued – opened my eyes and my mind to the extremely complex nature of human beings and the way the world works in general. Though we may like to view the world as regimented, consistent and predictable; this is rarely the case. I continued to learn this lesson throughout my college career and have carried it with me into what many call “the real world.”
Fortunately, I was given the unique opportunity to travel for four months after graduating from Carolina. Though international traveling experience is a blessing in and of itself, I was one of around 20 applicants who were awarded the Frances L. Phillips Travel Scholarship to fund his or her self-designed and directed international travel. The inspiration for part of my research topic was based on a medical anthropology lecture I attended during the spring of 2011. A medical anthropologist named Elizabeth Roberts visited UNC to discuss an anthropological view of Ecuadorian women’s ideas about certain scarring related to pregnancy and childbirth. It is not surprising to hear that procedures like in vitro fertilization and cesarean section births leave physical scars after the physiological healing process has ended.
What surprised me about the lecture, though, was the fact that Dr. Roberts’ research supported the idea that many Ecuadorian women view the scars in a positive way. In these instances, the scar from a c-section was not just a scar from childbirth that many women have all over the world. Rather, these scars represent the fact that women were, for a time, members of the world of private medicine – in which physicians perform significantly more caesarean births than natural births. Access to a private hospital, in turn, means having reached a certain financial threshold and/or having ties to a higher socioeconomic status. According to the lecture and her ethnography, God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes, Elizabeth Roberts argues that women reach a social position as “whiter reproducers… through being cared for the way whiter women are cared for… not through education or professional advancement” (75). I was fascinated by this apparent desire for “whiteness” and started thinking about other ways outsiders misunderstand practices relating to the way Latina women relate to their children.
Through my efforts to gather information about Latina mothers’ beliefs and opinions about parenting, breastfeeding and childbirth in South America, I started to realize to what extent medical anthropology had invaded my thought processes. For instance, I interviewed a woman named Elsa during my stay in Santiago, Chile. At the time of the interview, Elsa worked in a shoe store in the Capitol, but she grew up in Valparaíso – a small coastal city just northwest of Santiago. So far, Elsa has given birth to three daughters. Elsa breastfed her first two children until they were 2 and a half years old, and she breastfed the younger daughter until just before she turned one. Like many working women in Chile, Elsa started supplementing feeding her last child breastmilk with formula to give Elsa a little bit more flexibility in her daily life (to go back to work part time, to meet friends, to go shopping for groceries or clothes without a baby on her hip, etc.). Unfortunately, after she began mixing bottle with breast, Elsa’s last child stopped latching onto her breast entirely. Also, Elsa had a really interesting view of breastfeeding. She considered it an innately intimate experience between her and her children. She said that all women should treat it as such and should be calm, collected, sitting and quiet when dando el pecho. Elsa mentioned that it would be “selfish” and “disrespectful” if a mother breastfed in public. She also said that there’s no excuse to do so – la mamá debía haber planeado mejor si se encontrara tener que dar el pecho en público (“the mother should have planned better if she finds herself needing to breastfeed in public”). Though Elsa expressed slightly more stigma against openly breastfeeding mothers than other women I spoke to, she was not alone in her preference that breastfeeding remain a private act. Though some may consider breastfeeding a sacred and private act while others view breastfeeding in public as likely to cause discomfort to others as well as to the mother, one thing seems to be certain: breastfeeding is considered the best thing for a newborn child on one hand, but the act of feeding is better left at home in the eyes of most Chilean women.
Though I returned to the United States a few months ago, medical anthropology continues to influence my intuition, senses and cognition. In fact, I expect to use the analytic and critical thinking skills related to medical anthropology even more now that I am back home. On a broader level, medical anthropology has been helping me make sense of many aspects of the US that have been changing recently – e.g. trying to view the proposed modifications to the healthcare system in a more holistic, mindful and thoughtful fashion. On a more personal level, I currently coordinate a study at UNC that focuses on social cognition and social functioning in patients who have recently experienced their first psychotic episode. Medical anthropology gives depth to the rationale I provide for why some patients respond in certain ways to certain stimuli. For instance, it has been well established in the psychology research community that people with schizophrenia have deficits in social cognition. For example, they are less able to identify emotions and come up with appropriate responses to social situations. However, this may not solely stem from the neurophysiological effects of the illness. Other factors include poverty, the consequences of developing in an individualist or collectivist society, growing up in a culture that fosters suspicion of authority, etc. All in all, I believe that medical anthropology enables me to think more broadly about the world, both in my personal and professional lives.
Year of graduation: 2012
Profession/employment/ post-graduate study: Research study coordinator for the Department of Psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill
Most important “on the field” lesson: the quickest way to making a memory is saying “yes” when it’s easier or more comfortable to say “no.”
Who and what inspires you: genuine kindness
Favorite anthropology book: Dangerous Liaisons and Other Tales from the Twilight Zone: Sex, Race, and Sorcery in Colonial Java by Margaret Wiener
Favorite quote: “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” –Alfred A. Montapert