Conference Brief: 4th Cascadia Seminar, “Ethnographic Adventures in Medical Anthropology” held at Western Washington University
Sean Bruna, PhD, Western Washington University

On Friday, April 21, 2017, attendees gathered at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, to hear the keynote for the 4th Cascadia Seminar, “Ethnographic Adventures in Medical Anthropology.” The Cascadia Seminar is an experiment in creating a new kind of intellectual space for medical anthropology in the “Cascadia” region (i.e., the US Pacific Northwest and British Columbia). The Cascadia Seminar is a small, intimate, high-interest, low-cost weekend conference organized collaboratively by medical anthropologists on faculty at a number of different universities and colleges in the US Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The event was sponsored by the WWU Anthropology Department, the WWU Gordon H. and Alice C. Fraser Lecture Series from the Office of the Provost,Aslan Brewing Co. and the Hotel Bellwether.

The Cascadia Seminar Keynote Address was given by Dr. Amade M’charek, Professor of Anthropology of Science at the University of Amsterdam. Four papers were presented on Saturday April 22nd, and three on Sunday, April 23rd, with no concurrent sessions. Each paper presenter had forty-five minutes to present a substantial, well worked-out paper, with ample time for discussion. Abstracts were reviewed by a committee of medical anthropologists on faculty at our various institutions.

On Friday, Dr. Amade M’charek, opened the event with the talk, (Sur)Face: Notes from forensic identification on race and sameness. In this presentation Dr. M’charek explored the production of sameness and its relation to race by attending to the bioligization of the phenotype in forensic identification.  As she explained, it has been widely observed that while the human genome speaks to the communality in the genes, the alleged 0,1% of genetic difference has become the prime object of attention in the life sciences. And as these things go, the 0,1% of difference has also caught the attention of an ever-growing scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities. It has been argued that while genetics is not upfront about racial classifications, its technologies and methods are contributing to the molecularization of difference and the production of race. Race thus dived under the sur-face.  In the talk, Dr. M’charek made two related interventions. First she argued that rather than a molecularization, a zooming-in into the body, we are witnessing a growing interest for the surface of the body and the return of the phenotype.  She drew on examples from forensic genetics and showed the growing interest in the biology of the phenotype and particularly the biology of the face. She also argued that the giving of a face to an unknown individual (suspect or a victim), the aim of DNA-phenotying technologies, goes hand in hand with the doing of race.

Second, she argued that genomic research on human variation and its emphasis on “markers of difference”, contributes to an idea that differences are produced while similarities and sameness are given. Indeed, an emphasis on difference seems to suggest that in the context of race, differences might be political or a negative while similarities are curiously apolitical. The well-known case of Marianne Vaatstra was used as as her prime example to unpack the politics of sameness.

Over the course of the weekend, seven additional scholars shared their presentations:

  • Dr. Aaron Denham (Macquarie University) presented “Causing Death or Prolonging Lives: Illness, Infanticide, and the Discourse of Euthanasia in Northern Ghana” which engaged the Nankani peoples perspectives on infanticide alongside the development discourse and interventions enacted to prolong life.
  • Dr. Iben Gjødsbøl (University of Copenhagen) presented “Melting Moments, Magical Moments: Temporalities and (Dis)continuous Personhood Across Dementia Diagnostics and Dementia Care in the Danish Welfare State.” This talk explored ethnographically how personhood and time are intertwined in the face of dementia, building on over a years fieldwork in memory clinic and nursing home care in Denmark.
  • Dr. Jenna Grant (University of Washington) presented “Fixing The Image,” where she follows doctors and patients concerns with the aesthetic qualities of medical images, such as color and clarity, to explore how imaging intervenes into medical practices and understandings of the body.
  • Dr. Katherine (Tassie) Hirschfeld (University of Oklahoma) presented “Unstructured Violence: Rethinking Critical Medical Anthropology in Post-Soviet Space” and proposed to revisit and update key assumptions in Critical Medical Anthropology by using post-socialist scholarship to explore the political economy of inequality and health in post-Soviet spaces.
  • Dr. Joyce Millen (Willamette University) presented “Diasporic Medical Philanthropy and the Politics of Care” and shared results from an investigation of ten large-scale philanthropic health initiatives implemented by Ghanaian and Senegalese individuals living in North America and Europe whose aim was to improve the health of their compatriots back home in West Africa.
  • Dr. Cristina Pop from Montana State University presented “The Winners of Communism: Fighting Infertility in Ceau_escuÍs Romania,” which considered a few atypical recollections of women’s reproductive experiences during communist Romania enforced pronatalist policies.
  • Dr. Chelsea Wentworth (High Point University) presented “Hunger in a Time of Obesity: Revealing Links Between Under-nutrition and Over-nutrition in Vanuatu” and examined how understandings of under-nutrition and over-nutrition among health care practitioners and families differ both in definition and diagnosis, therefore perpetuating the health problems associated with malnutrition in Vanuatu.

Full abstracts are available at the Cascadia Seminar webpage:

The long presentation format provided an opportunity for lively discussion and debate, a luxury we often do not have at many of today’s fast paced conferences. The next conference will be held in 2019, again in the Pacific Northwest, and we encourage SMA members to visit the Cascadia Seminar webpage for updates or to subscribe to announcements.

Sean Bruna
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
Western Washington University

2017 Conference Brief

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