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Medical assemblages, scales, structure

Joint workshop Freie Universität Berlin/Globhealth, Berlin, June 8th, 2018

Framework — With this workshop, we will examine the concepts of assemblages, structure and scales in relation to our particular empirical investigations. We welcome historians, political scientists and anthropologists who deal with issues related to health. This workshop aims to establish a fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue that

  • provides opportunity for PhD students, junior and senior scholars to present their research projects and engage in an intense exchange of ideas;
  • sets the scene to discuss/realize a joint publication project (e.g., Special Issue, Special series of posts in the Blogs Medizinethnologie or Somatosphere, …) following on from both workshops (including Paris, 2016);
  • provides time for networking beyond the thematic workshop and for the consideration of future collaborations between the Berlin and Paris teams.

Outline — Our research touches upon domains such as aspirations of caregivers and patients facing austerity; control of practices through paper technologies, indicators of performance and standardization; identity politics and DNA testing; intellectual property rights and access to therapies; circulation, reinvention and professionalization of traditional/alternative medicines; political triage defining priorities in policy-making and design of vertical programs; everyday gestures involved in the care of sick children, TB/HIV co-infected patients; maternal health; hospital building and Chinese medical presence in Africa; transnational (religious and “traditional”) healing processes & commodification of disease(s); importation of sophisticated technologies in settings missing the most elementary infrastructure to operate; reproductive technologies.

                    All these phenomena/features have gained visibility in social studies of health-related knowledge, practices and policies in anthropology and beyond. Notions like dispositifs, configurations, packages or arrangements are mobilized to render the heterogeneity and the interactivity the multiple ingredients and dimensions such complex targets of inquiry reveal. Furthermore, the concepts of im/mobility and dis/connectivity have been used to explore the way in which specific instances and processes of medical globalization come into being (or not). Beyond specific theoretical inclinations or contingent choices of vocabulary, all these concepts share the idea that what is at stake is simultaneously epistemic, social, economic, political and cultural. Contemporary health-related situations of action may thus be analysed as peculiar assemblages of people, techniques, institutions, forms of knowledge, affects, etc. that are shaped by the dynamics of power in an increasingly interconnected world.

                    Building on the priority given to actions and interactions in the making of social worlds, such assemblages are often apprehended at a local level. This is indeed the best way to approach interventions and their impact on the lives of the people they target, but also to render assemblages analysable in spite of the putative endlessness of the connections they reveal. As the fashionable “glocal” term points, locality does not mean that assemblages do not span across national, regional and continental territories in an interconnected world. It however means that connection (or connectivity) is our Occam's razor making possible to decide what comes in and what falls out.

                    The “local” turn in anthropology, history or social studies of science has a price; namely the difficulty at rendering effects of scales and structures. Two gaps are involved here. The first one is spatial reflected in the caricatural but nonetheless real tension between “micro” and “macro” that for instance surfaces when following actors involved in local, national or international activities. The second pertains to the relations between stability and change, to the fact that stability or long-term processes are associated with structures that display logics of their own — that persist while they change.

Thinking and working with assemblages, structures and multiple scales is therefore at the same time necessary and not an easy path. To the challenges created by the combined fluidity and necessity of scales, assemblages and structure in our studies, there might be both theoretical and methodological answers. Any of them implies making choices in terms of prioritizing certain perspectives and actors (i.e. excluding others), as well as applying certain methodologies (case studies, archival research, etc.).

The workshop will discuss the ways in which we navigate the resulting tensions in our current research. For instance: current explorations of health globalization tend to juxtapose two registers: studies that look at global health as a field made of experts, programs, institutions, investments; studies that focus on processes of globalization through local action and circulations (of goods, persons, tools).

Program: tba