Falling in love: the reductive seduction of social entrepreneurship

Or is it the seductive reduction of social entrepreneurship? I’ve seen Courtney Martin’s essay circulating for the past few days; I read it amongst a slew of development articles popping up in my Twitter timeline. The point of the essay appears to be: don’t go to work on development/social change projects in other countries simply because it sounds like their problems are more interesting and easier to solve than the ones in your own backyard. She provides this (and several other nuggets of) pithy advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs and aid types:

  • … don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.
  • Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.
  • Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.

Perhaps by design, the essay manages to reduce social entrepreneurship to its core virtues and values: a story featuring “you” as an agent of change, who, above all, travels (“go”), falls in love (“is passionate”), acts (“does something”), talks (“engages in conversations”) and solves (“complex”) problems.

It seems that the underlying premise is that if you expect the work to be difficult and complex and you at least act like you don’t have the answers, then … the work you set out to do will be successful? In some ways, it’s circular logic. Why go if you don’t have a “project” or business in mind? What are you listening to (and to whom), if not just for a place to slot in your idea? Why assume that there’s something for YOU to do and to FALL IN LOVE with?

There’s a lot more to say about the essay, including the Tostan case study (which raises questions of temporality vis-a-vis development-type projects and whiteness), the notion of the “unexotic” and her insistence that “reduction” isn’t malicious, but there is other writing to be done.

David Bowie and Sonic Parody

For most of my 20s and early 30s, I was an avid –some friends might even say rabid — karaoke singer. I often sang Bowie songs, even when I knew it was a terrible idea. (“Ziggy Stardust,” anyone?) “China Girl” was a staple when I sang weekly at Deon’s karaoke gig at the now-defunct Irish Eyes, in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The other day, I was walking my daughter to school, when we began to sing together. I drifted from ABCs to “China Girl.” As the words came out of my mouth, I cringed and immediately switched to what she calls “The Number Song.” (That’s the pinball song from old school Sesame Street). It should be obvious why that happened. I mean. On its face, the song just feels like your typical Pinkerton bullshit.  (Yeah, sorry-not-sorry, Weezer.)

I suck at writing about music, but the essence of my admiration for Bowie’s version of that song is that feels like sonic parody. It pokes fun at orientalism. A close friend who sang it at one of our karaoke spots in Atlanta said it always unsettled her to sing the “…visions of swastikas…” line because it was “the highest note in the song.” Is that the point? Or am I imagining it?

It’s in the white of my eyes.

Finally, I keep referring to “Bowie’s version” because, as you know, there’s an earlier Iggy Pop version. They co-wrote the song. And it wasn’t until I thought to play them back-to-back, that I could even begin to think of Bowie’s version as parodic. Both have the pseudo-Chinese lick/riff, but in Bowie’s version it feels so stark, clear, intentional. The music video doesn’t hurt. (Or maybe it does).

Anyway, this whole post is me trying to deal with my feelings about Bowie’s death. I am at a loss as I try to reconcile how gutted I felt about the death of someone I did not know, and who, like his musician cohort, did crappy stuff. But I did know his music, and it’s glorious.

Two videos. The first (h/t Erin McKeown) involves one of my favorite vocalists, Luther Vandross, who did the vocal arrangements on the Young Americans album. The second is the infamous “China Girl.”




A curious conversation about ‘the war on obesity’ and biopolitics

This month, I am using the blog to work through some sticking points I encountered during my month off of writing. This one is about biopolitics and race.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to attend two presentations by Susan Greenhalgh about her new book, Fat Talk Nation.  (How one ends up at the same presentation twice in a year is basically a story about scholarly obligation and ‘face’ that I don’t need to get into, but yeah).  I’ve been prompted to write about it because it’s a series of talks that has *bugged* me, so much so that I found myself talking about it over lunch with colleagues, riffing off it in the office kitchen with graduate students, and having this sort of ongoing monologue with myself about it. Yet, I haven’t found myself running to the bookstore or library to read the thing. A shame, because it might be even more generative than the talks. So little time.

The first time I heard Greenhalgh’s Fat talk, I was stuck on her methods. Greenhalgh calls the research ethnographic, but in her hour-long presentation, she primarily describes a bundle of essays her students at UC Irvine wrote in a course about gender and the body. It seems that she asks her students to write ethnographic essays about body image (but her presentation doesn’t exactly cover her precise methods. I assume the details about the terms of the assignment are in the book). During her talk, she read heart-wrenching accounts by students — largely Asian-American women from southern California — about having their weight and eating habits “policed” by their families, and their worth and value being strongly associated with body size. Based upon her presentation, it also appears that she analyzes US government documents and anti-obesity campaigns (and when prompted in Q&A, she suggests that she analyzes the policy discourse related to black and Hispanic youth. See also: how critics responded to the film Precious and Gabby Sidibe).

But of course, I was left wondering what she really knew about her students’ lives vis-a-vis these stories (which she asked them to write for class (an extra credit assignment?)) The stories were moving. But what do we learn from them about the so-called ‘war on fat,’ except that it sucks to be treated like shit by your parents, grandparents and friends — especially when that shitty treatment appears to be motivated by their dissatisfaction with your weight, body size, etc. Some members of the audience wanted to know if preoccupation with weight and body size were proxies for *other* familial and social dynamics to which she had (or, at least, appeared to have) little to no access. I wondered the same thing. She never quite answered that question. But I do think this book covers some of these issues quite well.

There’s also anthropological literature about eating disorders, body image, beauty and obesity that covers this ground. (Even as Greenhalgh suggests that there’s not.)

The second time I heard the talk, I got stuck on her theoretical framework. If I understood her correctly, the US ‘war on fat’ is essentially a war on fat people — one that divides people into good and bad citizens, based upon their body mass index and appearance. Individuals internalize these designations, and deploy them to assess and berate/praise others. During Q&A, I posed a question about race: how does this ‘war on fat’ articulate with racialized and gendered notions of citizenship in the US? Are there other ‘wars’ on segments of the population that disturb or complicate her good-bad citizen binary? Are there segments of the population for whom the ‘war’ never comes? Is it possible to talk about a US at war with itself without grappling with the specific populations under siege (fat or not)?

She responded with some examples of how poor black and Hispanic children have been the targets of anti-obesity campaigns and how their parents are vilified and blamed in the literature. She addressed the anxieties about immigrants’ health that may be wrapped up in obesity anxieties (e.g. Haitian diabetes, or whatever). But, no, she quickly added, there’s no race theory in the book.

Right there. That’s where I got stuck. I wasn’t really asking whether she was using critical race theory. I was telling her that she was. By virtue of engaging ‘biopolitics’ to talk about connections among US public/population health, the health, fitness and beauty industries, and the state ‘at war’ with its citizens, it seemed that it would make perfect sense to address questions of race. In other words, biopolitics *is* a critical race theory. To subsume that element in her analysis was to ignore not only what is explicit in biopolitical theories about race (state racism), but also to (unwittingly) negate the intellectual genealogy of Foucault’s ideas about biopolitics (Black Panther Party and prison abolition movement literature).

That is all.

(well, not really. an update: I meant to link to Welehiye’s fine book about race and biopolitics.)


It has been a while. I haven’t written here for a year, mostly because I began to write for other outlets about a range of things: from the Ebola crisis; to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and recent pledges to get to zero; and the guinea worm eradication campaign, as it also winds down. I also had my hands full with teaching, lecturing and the other bread-and-butter academic things.

My first book came out. And I chatted with Kelly Hills at Virtually Speaking Science, Amy Costello at Tiny Spark and Anita Chary at Global Health Hub, and a few others about it.

I traveled to lots of wonderful places to talk about the book and its resonance for other health crises, development aid, and humanitarian assistance. (One of my recent favorites was at the University of Oklahoma).

I accepted a job at Northwestern University, based in the department of anthropology and the Program of African Studies. I’m excited to start in a place with a rich tradition in African Studies, anthropology and African American Studies.

But before I go there… I am on sabbatical at Harvard Medical School, as I write up research on the global surgery movement, the guinea worm eradication program (with my colleague Amy Moran-Thomas), and anthropological theory in times of crisis (case study: Ebola).

One day, I will write about the National Football League. (Go Bears?)


“It don’t take a semiotician…” Or, what we talk about when we talk about bush meat.

This weekend, Newsweek published a relatively controversial article about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Here’s the cover:

chimp ebola

Let’s just say it’s not exactly an original piece of journalism either.

I found myself frustrated not only by the cover and the article, but also by the editor-in-chief’s condescending response to his critics:

Not exactly the kind of response you want from an editor-in-chief, right? I vented to Facebook friends about the magazine cover, the thin claims of the article and its editor-in-chief’s rude response to critical tweets. One of my friends pointed out that the magazine has been propagating race-baiting click bait for a while now. (Yes, I used the word ‘bait’ twice, and we, the scholars, have bitten). So it shouldn’t be surprising to see the old trope of apes standing in for black folks or sexually charged Grubb Street prognostications regarding ‘back door’ entry of Ebola into the US gracing its front pages. (As one tweeter noted, It doesn’t take a semiotician to see what’s going on here).

Nor is surprising to see ‘exotic foods’ as the site for the latest in what journalist Howard French calls ‘ooga boogah’ writing on the Ebola epidemic. As French recently wrote,

He has also referenced Chinua Achebe’s biting criticism of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to bring attention to how Western media continue to write about Africa.

There are some pretty standard “Africa” tropes in the article, which incidentally, takes place in the Bronx: a Ghanaian interlocutor speaks with a “thick accent”; the “heat and stench… assault” the authors in a (Bronx) market. The authors seem to mock the irrational fears expressed by Donald Trump while also trafficking in them. But the article is mostly a superficial account that overstates what is known about the trade in bushmeat and the biological and public health implications of an unregulated industry. The scientific studies it cites are small and cautious about the implications of bushmeat traffic at the borders of the US. The experts to whom they speak provide their best guesses about the public health stakes of loose border controls. The article also raises as many questions as it answers:

1. What the heck are they talking about when they are talking about bush meat? While the scientific literature is clear about what they mean by bushmeat, the article seems to lump all kinds together. “Bushmeat” has become a catchall for every kind of meat that one might transport across international borders, including the mollusks, grasscutter and dried fish found in a variety of West African cuisine. None of these are culprits in the Ebola outbreaks. But the article also made me wonder about how I should think about the locavore/hunting-for-food lifestyles that are increasingly en vogue among a certain class of Americans. Should American hunters be worried about the animals they kill and prepare for eating? (Seems so.)

2. So, let’s say we want to focus on threats from current outbreak of Ebola, as the title of the piece suggests (but isn’t really done in the article, except to say that Ebola was not found among animals in one of the studies cited). Which animals are coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia? How many of them are capable of harboring deadly viruses like Ebola?

3. By the authors’ own account, dining practices have already changed because of the outbreak. The authors can’t even find any bushmeat. Their Ghanaian source is telling them that it’s increasingly difficult to find bushmeat these days. Isn’t it worth explicitly noting that people’s fears might be prompting all kinds of rapid change? Now that we know that, might we ask what other kinds of change is possible: are hunters, butchers and merchants now handling bushmeat with greater caution?

I leave with Dave Chappelle’s hilarious bit on race and food:

On gender, the case data and why an anthropologist cares

Last night, I was talking to a reporter with the Washington Post about gender and Ebola. She contacted me because she saw a tweet I wrote asking about sex disaggregated data for the outbreak. None of my ‘Ebola tweeps’ — some of them data wonks — knew of any good sources. I looked at the ministry of health updates and WHO data, but found nothing about sex or gender. It seems that much of what we hear, and much of what we know, is based on conjecture and speculation. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf apparently reported that 75% of the cases were women (I haven’t found the link but it’s one of the things that prompted the reporter to request an interview). It is not clear where these figures come from, but I suspect it is an educated guess related to who takes care of sick people at home and within health facilities, who deals with bodies in funerary rites, and other factors involving the differences between women’s and men’s daily practices. It might even be a hunch that frontline workers have communicated. I can’t be sure. But this article suggests that Ebola is affecting ‘breadwinners’; who are these people?

After my conversation with the reporter, I decided to look more carefully for data that might provide some clue about transmission and infection patterns as they relate to gender. I worry that because we have so little numerical data beyond these cases and their location (or maybe it’s just not available for public consumption?), however, the numerous consultants deploying to the region run the risk of basing many of their decisions about containing the epidemic on speculation and conjecture. Apparently, MSF has some anthropologists on staff now; I am hoping that the anthropologist has the willingness and foresight to not only provide fine-grained analysis of social and cultural practices that place people at risk (our work tends to be valued for being arcane, esoteric), but also to mine the numerical stuff for other clues. Perhaps s/he can suggest better ways to slice and dice the numbers.

But back to the original question: Why does gender matter? It might not at all. But my sense is that we might not know whether it does or not if we don’t have sex disaggregated data to look at how the epidemic has developed over time. And we don’t just need gender data for the cases, but for the health workforce, hospital cleaning staff and the like. This is how messages get targeted. This is how people follow contacts, trace movements, contain patients. Knowing how people do the work that they do, where they do it, and under what context they may be at risk for infection, is paramount as the new infections and cases show no sign of slowing.