Friday, April 28, 2006

Body redefinition & new social statuses.

Some thoughts from and about my syllabus in SOSANT2550.

Together with medical improvements both social and body ideologies have changed. Medicalization of our lives has made people to change image of themselves as humans and as social actors. Human body has gotten a new dimension and individuals have began to experience themselves in a new way. We have got new statuses we have to cope with.

My reading of Das is that the emergence of discipline of geriatrics has brought about new definition of a healthy and “normal” body and has caused confusion between individual and social identities. It has also created a new category of sick people – the older ones. New definition of health has caused that aging has been reconceptualized as a disease and the ideology of the perfectly ordered body, which can be achieve through medicaments, as a sign of normalcy dominates the image of life cycle. Behaviour and health conditions, once normal and even noble (Kawagley, Turnbull), have been transformed to disability and this one to sickness that requires medical treatment. Due to dominant ideology in which there is no place to age dominated weakness both bodies and minds of the older are going through radical transformation. It has shaped difficulty with maintaining definitive boundaries between “the normal” and “the pathological”. The old do not feel as they feel but often as they are told to feel. They have to redefine their self and body images and this redefinition concerns the individual body as well as social one. This is another aspect of medicine as a power. Modern welfare state intervenes not only in social space and the economic cycle but also in the life cycle. This kind of total and often brutal medicalization and hospitalization in the contemporary world has also changed our images about the successful life and made health to be one of the determinant of social status. And this status is seen rather as achieved than ascribed one (Scheper-Hughes & Lock 1987: 25). Health designates success while sickness is a failure. Susan Sontag writes about shame and social ostracism that follows for instance getting a cancer diagnosis.

The story of the disaster in Bhopal (Das) shows the conflict that has aroused between expert knowledge and individual, “private” knowledge. While the latter was treated as a “subjective” in nature, medical staff’s expertise was seen as the only objective way to “measure” people’s health. People were said that this is only through laboratory test and modern technology the “real” and “objective” statement about health could be done. People in Ukraine were also told that their recognitions of symptoms and abnormality of their bodies were not “real” (Petryna). Victims of both disasters were deprived of their rights to make statements about their condition and symptoms that said them that obviously something wrong happened to their bodies. Ordinary people’s definition of health is refused to being valid. Victims of these disasters are also victims of the institutionalization of health. Their social position prevents them to take benefits from medical development and this contributes, according to Das, to social distribution of disease. This is a new kind of powerlessness that is being put into effect.

To exemplify how policies make use of property of new knowledge Das uses body politics in India. According to her, family planning, birth control and vasectomy are pure execution of power upon the poor, uneducated and people that do not have access to this knowledge. Medicine reduces these people to unaware receivers or often “slaves” of the new regimes. “The poorest, and the most vulnerable sections of the population become the object of this new exercise of power and see it in continuation with other kinds of power to which their lives are routinely subjected” (Das 1990: 42).

Examples Das uses emphasize both Foucault (The Birth of Social Medicine), Armstrong, Flikke’s points about ideologies which prefer the social body to individual body. They also show that at the same time medicalization has brought about a missed identification between the individual and the social body and caused transformation of the social into the biological (Scheper-Hughes & Lock 1987: 10). Medical developments change people’s perception, introduce new social landscapes and categories, and have an actual influence on both individual, social and cultural identity.

references without links:

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret Lock 1987. The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. In: Medical Anthropology Quarterly. International Journal for the Cultural Analysis of Health, 1 (1). pp. 6-41