Withering of Critique: Facts, anyone?

On September 16, 2014 Almudena Marí Sáez, Ann Kelly and Hannah Brown published a report on Somatosphere, “Notes from Case Zero: Anthropology in the time of Ebola.” I read it early in the morning and wanted to know more about a core but unsubstantiated claim, so I “commented” on the piece with a question:

“A very interesting piece and serious questions: thank you for publishing it. I am curious to know more about the following: [the authors write]:

where transmission has slowed [they don’t say where or across what time scale], it is mainly in areas where afflicted populations have put in place their own protective measures.”

How is this known? Is it possible to say more about these practices and “protective measures” of afflicted populations?

With thanks,

Anthony Stavrianakis

Indeed, the claim that I picked out is followed in the piece by the following self-congratulations for the practice of anthropology:

“With the hopes of garnering these community resources, anthropologists have been increasingly brought into the containment response and their ethnographic insights sought out.”

One of the authors was (perhaps still is) in Guinea at the time. Collectively, this is a big claim, especially as the series of episodes around Ebola infection (temporally, geographically, social structurally differentiated) are beginning to be narrated as “an event.”

They did not see the need to repond. 

The simple point I wish to make is that if anthropologists have a position and a practice in the unfolding of these episodes at least they should be responsible for the truth claims made in relation to them. I was surprised not that my request for further information was ignored, but rather, that the piece was published in the first place without the anthropologists, or the editors, seeing the need to specify how large claims with big effects can be justified. To their credit, the editorial team contacted me to let me know they had prompted the authors to respond to the query, to no avail.

Journalists have norms and practices of accountability. Wither anthropology? 

1 comment

lyle wrote 3 years 6 weeks ago

Seeking anthropologists?

Thanks for this, I saw your comment on somatosphere and thought it was right on. Curiously, another anthropologist writing on Ebola on Somatosphere claimed that anthropologists were NOT being allowed to participate.  Of course this too was a claim to anthropological importance, for anthropologists apparently "remained untapped as resources for understanding and creating innovative new approaches to attacking the Ebola outbreak at its source."

 "SA: Hi. I’m a medical anthropologist with 14 years of experience studying healthcare, health systems, and humanitarian aid in Guinea, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire. I heard your director put out a call for help on Ebola on NPR today, and I really think I can help you.

MSF: I’m sorry, but we don’t work with medical anthropologists in general, except for under very rare circumstances. If you really want to help out Doctors Without Borders, you are going to have to go to our website to register as a volunteer. The process takes nine to twelve months, and even if we decide that we need your skills, we still won’t guarantee that you will go to the county where you have done research. But please understand that it’s extremely rare that we ever have a need for a medical anthropologist."

In fact, I know personally that anthropologists are being invited to assist in research projects about Ebola.  Hopefully they will be more careful with their truth-claims and less confident in their ideology.

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