This is the third post in our blog series designed to help you link your teaching with the 2016 Annual Meeting theme, Evidence, Accident, Discovery. The series offers relevant teaching resources to instructors of undergraduate and graduate courses on methods, ethics and theory. Think of it as a week’s course readings in a (virtual) box…
This week’s post comes from César Ernesto Abadía-Barrero.
Finding evidence for slow destruction
I am an anthropologist first trained as a clinician. A year after I finished dental school in Colombia in 1992, Congress approved one of the most aggressive market-based social security reforms in world history. The neoliberal Colombian reform not only incorporated insurance companies into the health care system as powerful intermediaries, but also guaranteed them years of steady profits by forcing all Colombians into the new health insurance market, either via direct purchases or state subsidies. Corruption scandals and innumerable problems with the new system resulted in systematic infringements of the right to health of Colombians, denounced by the Office of the Attorney General and the Constitutional Court. Meantime, the country’s public health care network was defunded and forced to adopt for-profit principles.
I did my dissertation research with social organizations that promote the rights of children affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Brazil, then returned to Colombia in 2005 and got involved in a variety of activist-oriented research projects. One collaborative research project has been with workers and professors of the oldest children’s and maternity university hospital in Colombia, El Instituto Materno Infantil. After 10 years of collaborative research, I decided to write an ethnography of El Materno’s defunding, hospital workers’ struggles to keep it running, university professors’ efforts to continue teaching medical students and residents in gynecology, pediatrics and neonatology, and the eventual closure and privatization of the hospital.
While the links between the healthcare reform and the end of the hospital are unquestionable, I approach this case study with greater confidence also because of the conceptual tools that anthropologists have recently developed to account for such processes of slow destruction. I frame my current book project in dialogue with the emerging literature in anthropology that takes a long durée perspective, challenging the idea that violence is always highly visible and spectacular, or only manifests as human conflict or warfare.
New concepts are enabling us to research the “almost invisible” destruction that is produced over decades or centuries of economic, political, and colonial violence. Anthropologists who research the “slow violence” of environmental degradation, resource extraction and agribusiness have shown how populations are marginalized while their former lands are ruined. This research indicates that overlapping processes of historical destruction are part of a continuum, blurring lines between past and recent, man-made, capitalist, and ecological disaster (Li 2014; Nixon 2013; Tsing 2015; Gordillo 2014). The concepts of ruins, debris and rubble warn against thinking of destruction as the result of a past violence (Gordillo 2014; Stoler 2013) but point rather to intersecting and ongoing processes of material, human, and symbolic degradation, decay, and exhaustion, which emerge within longer emotional and political histories.
Other ethnographies unveil how “new” public policies can make people’s relationships with their territories (Povinelli 2011), homes (Adams 2013), or working environments (Abadía-Barrero 2015), even more tenuous, unstable and precarious. These ethnographic accounts illustrate new forms by which the state governs precariousness, while markets continue to profit from disadvantaged populations thanks to the transferring of public funds to private businesses, the legal maneuvers that force people to continue paying for services even after they have been disentitled, and the new global labor chains that make workers previously expelled from any production process vulnerable to heightened capitalist exploitation.
These ethnographies demonstrate the continuing value of anthropological research in revitalizing much needed political debates and offering alternative possibilities for presenting and conceptualizing evidence of historical processes of destruction. According to this literature, however, nothing is fully destroyed. The purpose of our work, as I see it, is also to convey what remains, both as potential for further attack or as seed for a different future, so that our ethnographies can also speak to what is yet to exist.
Abadía-Barrero, César E. 2015. “The Transformation of the Value of Life: Dispossession as Torture.” Medical Anthropology 34 (5): 389–406. doi:10.1080/01459740.2015.1048859.
Adams, Vincanne. 2013. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Gordillo, Gastón. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Li, Tania. 2014. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.
Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. Economies of Abandonment : Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stoler, Ann Laura, ed. 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.