Cross Cultural and International Concerns

Medical interactions, including discussions of consent, are mediated by language—and the use of interpreters—and cultural beliefs about health practices, decisional authority, and professional roles (Kaufert and Putsch; Marshall et al., 1998). These interactions are complex in any environment; cross-national research projects present particular challenges. Marshall (2001b) describes the profound influence of cultural context on informed consent to genetic epidemiological studies conducted in urban and rural settings in Nigeria. Her ethnographic work highlights the challenges of translating difficult scientific concepts in cross-cultural settings; the very idea of consent may be unknown in rural settings where participants are not literate and have little experience of research. Ideal notions of individual consent, as practiced in the United States or other resource rich countries, do not easily incorporate the significance of family and community relationships for the process of obtaining consent in diverse social environments across the world. In their work on community involvement in genetic research, Sharp and Foster outline potential strategies for representing the views of the larger community, suggesting that this may be an important component of the overall process of seeking and obtaining consent. Community consultation does not override an individual subject's right to decline or accept participation, and may serve to make individual consent more authentic. When working with international research teams, the role of the anthropologist is not simply to facilitate a particular study through in-depth knowledge of the local community, but rather to tailor the broad objectives of informed consent to fit local needs.

Issues of social justice in healthcare across the world— until recently neglected in traditional bioethics debates focused on individual choice and the dilemmas created by new technologies in resource-rich countries—are being addressed by anthropologists, particularly those working in the arena of public health (Levin and Fleischman). Anthropologists working in bioethics are deeply concerned about global health disparities, including class-based inequities in the United States (Levin and Schiller). Farmer (2003) levels a harsh critique against the narrow focus of bioethics, arguing strongly for greater attention to structural inequities that maintain health disparities in many areas of the world. The need for broadening the boundaries of bioethics beyond the confines of Western medicine and its limited attention to the political economy of social suffering is increasingly recognized by anthropologists engaged in discussions of global medical morality (Kleinman, Das, and Lock; Farmer, 1997; Kleinman, Fox, and Brandt; Das). Ethnography, which unifies the work of anthropologists, is more than a methodological orientation allowing fine-grained attention to local social and cultural processes. Rather, its theoretical foundation requires that the ethnographer draw connections between local suffering and global social and political processes.

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