Each year, the Critical Anthropology for Global Health (CAGH) special interest group of the Society for Medical Anthropology gives out the Rudolf Virchow Awards, which recognize papers that reflect, extend, or advance critical perspectives in medical anthropology in the general area of global public health. In keeping with the legacy of Virchow’s work, which recognized advocacy as an essential part of health practice, the award encourages work from scholars at all levels that combines critical anthropology with rich ethnographic data to understand the complex factors that influence health. Each year, CAGH selects winners in three categories: professional, graduate, and undergraduate.
This year we are particularly grateful to our committee of scholars who judged the award: Michelle Parsons (chair), Jennifer Carroll, Ashish Premkumar, and Nora Kenworthy
This year’s Virchow Award Winners are:
- Undergraduate award: Chris Magana of the University of California San Diego, for “Beyond Family Separation: The (Anti)Politics of Care and Pathways of Resistance within U.S. Immigration Detention” Chris Magana’s paper offers a stunning and particularly timely look at contemporary US immigration policies. With a laser-sharp analysis of policy documents, public statements, and investigative reports, Mr. Magana brings into stark relief the hypocrisy of moral outrage over family separations that places children in detention at the apex of a “hierarchy of suffering” that “delegitimizes the overtly political suffering—and agency—of people in immigration detention engaged in hunger strikes.” These questions of whose suffering matters—and is recognized—become all the more important as Magana examines the response to COVID-19 within detention facilities and resistance efforts among detainees. Written at a particularly uncertain time for detained immigrants and for in-person fieldwork, this paper offers a remarkable example of how anthropologies of policy and politics can tackle tough subjects intimately, humanely, but from a (physical) distance.
- Graduate award: Emily Vasquez of Columbia University, for “Detecting diabetes risk: Philanthropy, technology, and epistemic power in Mexico” In this tightly crafted ethnographic analysis of public-private partnerships for public health in Mexico, Emily Vasquez shows how the philanthropic activities of the financial elite can alter the scientific landscape of health. Rather than adopting the holistic approach to health endorsed by a public health approach, private foundations set up to distribute the financial largess of contemporary oligarchs—in this case the Carlos Slim Foundation—succeed in shifting biomedical inquiry away from structural drivers of health disparities and onto the microbiology of non-communicable disease, seeking to discover and leverage genetic testing strategies and metabolic biomarkers to build a public health system that privileges the individual—rather than the social and capitalist forces at play around that individual—as a site of illness. This paper paints a stark picture of what happens to public health when vital research funding is controlled by private interests—subverted from public coffers through lucrative tax laws and exempt from public accountability as it is spent. For elite philanthropists, this is a double win: their public reputation is improved through their charitable work and the broader public health agenda is drawn away from the structural features of the capitalist system that both produce health inequity and enable the financial success of the Foundation’s primary namesakes. Ironically, therefore, public health is made remarkably poorer by the injections of cash from these foundations, as necessary work in public health science is often left “undone” when private capital drives the agenda.
- Professional award: Talia R. Weiner of the University of West Georgia, for “Billable services and the ‘therapeutic fee’: On the work of disavowal of political economy and its re-emergence in clinical practice” Weiner has captured a unique and innovative perspective: that of the role of transaction and capital within psychotherapy in the United States. Her meditation on the structure of exchange and the structuring of clinical therapy has important implications for how we, in critical medical anthropology, consider examining the experience of treatment – both from a phenomenological and a political economy perspective. Reviewers felt that this piece hailed from the best traditions of anthropological writing, describing it as “classic” in that it used a minute detail to deftly describe wider consequences of healthcare restructuring, governmental retrenchment, and, importantly, the economy of care. The work has crucial implications for how we think about repair, recovery, and the state of treatment of mental health not only in the United States, but also globally given the increased awareness and use of mental health professionals in a variety of clinical settings. This piece truly embodies the spirit of Rudolf Virchow by connecting social theory and critical public health in a nuanced and crucial way. (This article was recently published in Anthropological Quarterly – https://muse.jhu.edu/article/734037/summary)
Congratulations to this year’s winners! As always, please encourage students and colleagues to apply for this award in 2021.