Bioethics Blogs

The “Good-Enough Anthropologist” by Elizabeth Durham

“Where are all the anthropologists?” The question came from public health worker Douglas Hamilton on the first day of the Princeton-Fung Global Forum on Ebola, held in November 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. There, the place of anthropology in the recent outbreak was touched on by the first speaker, and swiftly become one of, if not the, recurring themes of the conference. The question was addressed not to me, but to the panelists on stage — not an anthropologist among them, not that day — but as a graduate student working on issues of health in West and Central Africa, I could not help but take the question for my own. So in response, I suggest that anthropology was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in this context, a state of affairs that goes beyond this outbreak in calling for anthropologists to conduct both research and better public relations, and in calling into question the forms public anthropology can and should take.

From the moment Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of Ebola, gave his opening remarks, the question of anthropology-in-Ebola took hold of the Forum and its diverse attendees. “We have to listen far better,” Piot argued, “to what people think before we start putting in place measures… [involving social scientists in Ebola] helped a lot. Although I had some big discussions! Some anthropologists said, ‘Okay, I need to spend two years in that village to understand what people think’ [a statement that drew laughs from the audience].” He continued: “We don’t have the time for that… we needed more kind of social marketing people, people who can do a snapshot and understand it rapidly, what’s going on.” While I doubt that Piot’s setting of the stage in this way was truly mocking or malicious — I may have snickered too, and it is certainly not lost on me that it’s taken in sum several months for me to submit this piece, revise it and usher it to publication — the stage was nevertheless set, and so the questioning continued.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.