This post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in San Jose. Check for other posts from the conference.
By Alyshia Gálvez, author of Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico
The theme of this year’s AAA Annual Meeting could not be more relevant: Resistance/Resilience/Adaptation. As the discipline converges in San José, it is worthwhile to ask ourselves how we are responding to new challenges in our country and the world, but also closer to home in our departments and academic institutions. The role of anthropologists as public intellectuals has never been more urgent.
In my new book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policy, and the Destruction of Mexico, I had to venture far outside of my comfort zone. Researching the health consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, now the USMCA) on the health of Mexican citizens required me to engage with policies on trade, economic, poverty-remediation, and health. My two decades of research with Mexican migrant communities in the US and their families in their communities of origin led me to the hypothesis that chronic disease is a kind of structural violence, shortening and claiming lives in ways determined by the hard material contexts and social factors far beyond any decisions individuals were making about diet and exercise. But my hunch was not going to convince anyone if I did not become versant in the vocabulary and worldviews of policymakers and precisely chart the ways the policies they create contribute to the problem. The “slow death” of chronic disease can be difficult to see, ethnographically, but a structural violence frame allowed me to frame it as a product of human, bureaucratic decision-making, omission and commission.
Once the structural contours of the growing epidemic of chronic, noncommunicable diseases revealed themselves to me, the question became: how to communicate this knowledge and analysis in a way that could lead to better policies? Structural problems require structural solutions. This is especially so when we think about issues like chronic disease that are too often framed as products of individual behavior and responsibility rather than of policy.
Communicating our analysis and advocating for better structural conditions requires bridging within and between anthropology and public policy. Looking for like-minded colleagues, I was surprised to see that so few anthropologists seem to be working on chronic disease (leading Emily Yates-Doerr and Megan Carney and I to propose two sessions at this year’s Annual Meeting). Those of us working in the intersection of anthropology, public health and public policy must put to use all the strategies available to public scholars, including blogs, podcasts, op-eds, presentations, and more. An “all of the above” strategy for engagement with the public and with policymakers can make anthropology and the insights of anthropologists more visible, relevant, and applicable.