(Dis)embodied Knowledge and Getting Out More

I recently presented a paper titled (Dis)embodied Knowledge and the ethics of engagement at the Royal Anthropological Institute Post Graduate Conference held this year (conveniently for me) at the University of Manchester. The last time I presented at this conference it was at the University of Kent in 2012 (paper in Anthropology Matters forthcoming) I was just about to go into the field and at a very different stage of thinking about my Phd. At the time I presented a paper based on some pre-doctoral fieldwork carried out in Chiapas which focused on antenatal care and midwifery practices, I made some rather grand arguments that have since been worked through, refined and reviewed many times over (thanks to the great support from the editing team and Anthropology Matters) related to environments of conflict in connection to obstetric violence.

During my thesis write up I’ve moved away from that focus slightly, though in a chapter on clinically managed maternity I revisit a much less convoluted (and probably much improved) argument surrounding the prevalence of obstetric violence in public institutions in Mexico, and it is in part this subject that I chose to present in the panel of Embodied Knowledge at this years’ conference. The theme chosen by the conference organising theme was Anthropology and the Politics of Engagement and is part of a necessary and ongoing debate on the role of anthropology outside of academia.

My paper discussed the complexities of positionality in the field and the ethics of obtaining narrative accounts of obstetric violence from women in Chiapas, Mexico. The brief presentation touched upon two aspects of my fieldwork: 1) a methodological approach that allowed field actors’ discretionary practices and boundary work to guide ethnographic inquiry and which forced an act of maternal disembodiment (on my part) in order to separate women’s experience from that of my own and 2) the problems inherent in representing a form of violence that is not recognised as such by the people who experience it.

The latter has been an ongoing development in my struggle to work ethnographically with the political concept of obstetric violence and I’m finally beginning to gain some clarity. It is in this respect that I am beginning to see the value of ethnographic narrative and the problem that anthropologists have in convincing other parties that ‘small data’ counts in that it can reveal something very specific about a complex situation. I have struggled for a long time with what I felt where inadequate descriptions of occurrences of violence in clinical settings – in that my data was not matching the detailed observations in other literature and the discourse in reproductive health activism both globally and locally. I felt I was failing to provide evidence for the cause of improving women’s access and experience of maternal health services when all the time I was undermining what was important to the women I spoke to. In looking for the ‘big data’ breakthrough I was failing to notice the nuances provided by what Talil Asad refers to as the ‘inequality of language’. I was not understanding the practice and place of obstetric violence in women’s daily lives as they appeared in local expression.

Through taking a step out of my thesis writing bubble and talking about an aspect of my research to others who do not spend 24hrs a day thinking through the lens of reproductive anthropology and in writing something that I originally intended as separate from any chapter I’m working from, I have inadvertently forwarded my thinking on a topic which has confounded me for a long time.

I really should get out more often!

The paper should be written up in neat and referenced at some point and post or uploaded to the relevant sites. I hope to explore these ideas further over the next few weeks and be able to develop more thinking on boundary work and discretionary practices in particular.

To help inform my thinking for the conference paper I drew inspiration from the following texts:

Butt, L. (2002). “The suffering stranger: Medical anthropology and international morality.” Medical Anthropology 21(1): 1-24.

Donath, O. (2015). “Regretting Motherhood: A Sociopolitical Analysis.” Signs 40(2): 343-367.

Ingold, T. (1998). “From complementarity to obviation: on dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology and psychology.” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 123(1): 21-52

Montgomery, A. (2014). “Voice, Boundary Work, and Visibility in Research on Sex Work in Morocco.” Medical Anthropology 34(1): 24-38.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology Vol 36 (3): 409-440.

Strathern, M. (1987). “An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology.” Signs 12(2): 276-292.


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