Ebola and the Case for Anthropology

As the Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to grow, global fears are rising above the level of murmur.  Will the disease morph and become airborne?  Why do some local communities, who have literally never encountered this illness in the past, continue to deny its existence?  What can world powers throw at the problem to fix it – money, research, experimental drugs, or even military assistance?

These are all questions about containment, and much of the media coverage feeds on and foments public fear.  At its core, we should be asking one key question of both moral and practical importance: how can the international community work with local institutions to halt the spread of Ebola?  Within this question, there is a critical space for anthropologists and related specialists to illuminate the social and cultural facets of transmission.  Such knowledge can have critical and, indeed, lifesaving power to transform the current reality of containment efforts.  Rather than living up to its popular image as a purely academic pursuit – albeit an adventurous one – with little real-world value, the Ebola outbreak throws into high relief the continued need for anthropological insights on a global scale.

Here are a few recent articles that speak to these issues.  It’s a partial list, so please let me know if you have additional sources.  These would make an excellent addition to an introductory course in cultural or medical anthropology, and an excellent tool to wield against anti-scholarship naysayers.

Notes from Case Zero: Anthropology in the Time of Ebola
Almudena Marí Sáez, Ann Kelly, and Hannah Brown
A fantastic piece for Somatosphere, the leading medical anthropology blog, from three medical anthropologists working in West Africa.  This article gives readers a look at the challenging realities of ethnographic work during an outbreak, as well as anthropologist’s critical ability to identify the everyday cultural dimensions of epidemics.

Why Anthropologists Join an Ebola Team
A profile of Dr. Barry Hewlett, an American medical anthropologist who assisted on Ebola response teams during past outbreaks.  See also this piece from Savage Minds.

Ebola ‘Fear-Mongering’ Critiqued by Medical Anthropology
Science writer John Horgan interviews medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail about realistic versus imagined fears in the American public imagination.

What’s Missing in the Ebola Fight in West Africa
Jim Yong Kim and Paul Farmer
Important Washington Post op-ed by two of the world’s leading experts in infectious disease.  No introduction needed.

Guest Column: Big Questions Stem From Ebola Outbreak
Mike Callaghan
An interesting look at public responses to and fears of Ebola in Canada from a doctoral fellow in medical anthropology at the University of Toronto.

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