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Lecture 12

ANTHROP 3HI3 Lecture Notes - Lecture 12: Postcolonialism, Eugenics, Biomedicine

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Dr. Rebecca Plett

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Colonialism and biomedicine
There are several "critical events" (historical moments that reshape individual existence and the
social order) that "linked global and local realities, crystallized new forms of knowledge and
action, and realigned social relations in historically significant ways"
o Epidemics, infertility and childbirth, and nutrition all linked biomed with colonialism
Biomed was found to control epidemics - especially in the "new" contexts where European settlers
found themselves - and was mobilized to address other problems like fertility and famines
o These were "problematized"; only biomed intervention could solve them, and the
effectiveness of biomed then proved its worth
BUT - these approaches were mired in moral assumptions about European superiority
o Sometimes even eugenicist ideas about improving the "quality" of "natives" or different
The "project" of biomed was to improve the health of colonial populations to maintain them as
workers to extract the wealth of the colonies more efficiently
Once epidemics were under control, biomed (and the colonists) remained in place, through
struggles over how other "critical events" are defined and managed continue to this day:
o The imperative to save biological lives
o The deployment of medical humanitarian interventions
The "entanglement of European colonialization" and biomed can be seen in 4 phases:
o Phase 1: the use of biomed and technologies in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a "tool
of empire" to protect health of settlers and soldiers
o Phase 2: between the world wars, when "native" labour increased in value and "their"
bodies were understood to be similar to white bodies
Colonial governments used biomed to manage the health of subject populations
o Phase 3: 1960s, when biomed was used as an "emblem of nation-building and
modernization" by independent states in Africa and Asia; most states, however, were
unable to afford care for all but the wealthiest
o Phase 4: ongoing: biomedical globalization carried out by development agencies, NGOs, and
humanitarian efforts to improve the health of the global poor
Postcolonial disorders
We now find ourselves in a "postcolonial" context, and some medical anthropologists are
attentive to what this context entails for health
o Postcolonialism points to the relationship between powerful political, economic, and state
entities and those that are marginalized
Postcolonial disorders: "everyday modes of experience, the social and psychological dimensions of
individual lives, the psychological qualities of social life, the constitution of the subject and forms
of subjection"
o Political violence and how it shapes people's lives
o Labour migration and social displacement
o The links between international health and political efforts of pandemic controls (and how
they are resisted in postcolonial settings)
o Colonial trauma and memories, and the humanitarian and medical responses to them
Shows how multiple regimes of power, knowledge and authority (the family, welfare system,
medical profession and the state) can become so disconnected from someone's suffering that
they produces forms of "social abandonment"
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