leaving the ivory tower

a major criticism of the field of anthropology has been that it lacks practicality and a use in the “real world.” this, of course, has been countered by development of the field of applied anthropology, with anthropologists using their research for purposes other than getting published. i fully support this shift from the ivory tower, and have always felt the purpose of pursuing a higher degree – for myself – would be to use it in a practical way.

in the past weeks, i have attended several talks that have taken components of anthropological work and applied them to improving the quality of life for people in different parts of the world. today, i had the opportunity to hear Dr. Jacob Songsore, a professor from the University of Ghana, speak about health conditions in major residential areas in Ghana. the research done by Dr. Songsore and his colleagues was focused on the greater accra metroplitan area (GAMA) of Ghana, one of its most populous areas, with 2.7 million residents. basically, the research drew from three major sources: community-based/local clinic records, reports from local medical practitioners, but more commonly pharmacists about which diseases were most common, and a community survey of “female homemakers,” women who were basically taking care of those who were sick at home. from all of this research, certain proxy indicators were identified, and nine environmental risk areas were identified. the largest risk appeared to be access to potable water, with other risks including contamination of food, indoor/outdoor air pollution, and hygiene behaviors/access to medical services, among others. additionally, there are underlying population trends which the researchers found, including correlates with age, sex, race, wealth, knowledge of risks, and possibly, predispositions to different medical conditions.

it may seem a little obvious to state that this research found that the poor were most affected by all of these risk factors most. but someone else at the talk brought up an important point that i had overlooked – the fact that research like this has quantified such statements is important. health reports such as this one, linking environmental risk and access to care with economic status are extremely important. additionally, such reports highlight the effects of seasonality on the impact of diseases such as malaria, and the key problems such as poor drainage in communities that lead to accumulation of solid wastes and pools of still water where mosquitoes, which are the vector for malaria, may breed.

Dr. Songsore mentioned in his introduction that he would discuss “environmental justice,” a seemingly elusive and vague term that even after this talk, i am positive i do not fully understand. but he and his colleages quantified it in an interesting way. they measured environmental justice in terms of “excess environmental burdens,” calculating preventable fraction of environmental burdens, which could have been avoided, and thus, i think, being able to determine which fraction of such burdens could not be avoided by reasonable means. they found that 67% of Accra, a low to medium class region of GAMA, lived in areas that had excess mortality rates. it seems tragically, that the poorest populations have the least enviromental justice – the most environmental burden. thus, as i have found, Dr. Songsore makes it clear that disease and health conditions do not derive outside of the social context of the individuals being considered. as he stated, it is true that, “The poor stay sick and die young.”

maybe this all seems obvious to you, that poorer groups of people tend to have it worse in terms of many conditions, such as health status. but what i think this discussion has made clear to me is that there is a place for anthropologists in the sufferings of people in our world. throwing money at the problem is clearly no solution. towards the end of his talk, Dr. Songsore said, upon coming to the United States, he still cannot believe that there are homeless people on the streets, and sick people with no access to medical care in the richest country in the world. there is a real disconnect here between the institution of medicine and medical practice, and ensuring people are actually treated and cared for. additionally, it seems to me that many international, or large-scale, medical initiatives that have been attempted to combat horrible diseases such as HIV and AIDS, are largely unsuccessful. and i really think this is because there must be a true understanding between caregiver and the receiver of that care.

perceived cultural boundaries can not hold us back from putting an end to suffering. as anthropologists, we have a duty, a responsibility, to serve the people from whom we gain so much – the populations we research, the field guides that help us to excavate our field sites, or the people that tell us their life stories which we later write into ethnographies. i grasp the value of academic work in the pursuit of knowledge. but for myself – not just as an anthropologist, but a human being – i do not think it is tolerable to engage in such work unless we uphold that sacred responsibility to our fellow wo/man. and given the troubled history that anthropology has had, it is the least we can do. but honestly, the least we can do is not nearly enough.

One thought on “leaving the ivory tower

  1. That’s why I don’t wanna study people, because I don’t want to give back, and I’m a bastard. Just kidding. You raised some very good ethical points, about which I hope more field workers are becoming the more aware.

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