From Phenomenology to the Politics of Human Suffering

Although the phenomenology of health and illness has been a central strand in medical anthropology's development over the past 25 years, in recent times there has been a decided shift in emphasis, away from studies that are limited to immediate experience and toward studies that encompass the political and economic ramifications of human suffering. M. Jackson (1989, 1996) and Abu-Lughod (1991) have used phenomenology to challenge basic constructs associated with Western thinking by questioning their relevance for cross-cultural work. M. Jackson (1996, p. 18) asks how might European thought (such as phenomenology) address a non-European world, and how might phenomenology outstrip its European origins by revalidating the everyday life of ordinary people and thus contribute to cross-cultural understanding, with direct implications for subaltern studies. Examples of such work include a focus on the toll in human suffering created by conflict, war, and hegemonic structures (Bourgois, 1995; Bourgois & Schonberg, 2000; Daniel, 1996; Das, Kleinman, Ramphele, & Reynolds, 2000; Das, Kleinman, Lock, Ramphele, & Reynolds, 2001; Farmer, 1996; Kleinman, Das, & Lock, 1997; Scheper-Hughes, 1992); an emphasis on collectivities, resistance, and action (G. Becker, 1997, 2000; Csordas, 1993, 1994b; Green, 1999; Ong, 1995; Root & Browner, 2001), the effects of public policies (Becker, Beyene, & Ken, 2000a), and recommendations for the alleviation of suffering in specific situations (Ablon, 1999; Bluebond-Langner, 1996).

In conclusion, conceptions of what constitutes a phenomenological approach in medical anthropology have emerged within a short period of time, with many theoretical developments. There has been a burgeoning of work in a great variety of directions. As medical anthropologists rethink and reshape the phenomenology construct, further theoretical developments are likely to be concentrated increasingly on the linkages between embodiment, the political subject, and political and economic effects, in both their global and local contexts.

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