Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Brief comment: Nancy Scheper-Hughes and the "socially unborn"

By Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

“In the absence of a firm expectation that a child will survive, mother love as we conceptualize it (whether in popular terms or in the psychobiological notion of maternal bonding) is attenuated and delayed with consequences for infant survival. In an environment already precarious to young life, the emotional detachment of mothers towards their babies contributes even further to the spiral of high mortality-high fertility in a kind of macabre dance of death.” - Death Without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (pp. 325-326)

A classic example of a critical-interpretive approach in anthropology, Death Without Weeping illuminates the seemingly-contradictory notions of motherhood and 'passive infanticide' by contextualizing women's lives in a shantytown in Brazil. First describing how this 'lifeboat morality' is experienced by mothers through vignettes and her own reflections in decades, she takes us from the personal to the institutional, revealing at the end of the paper how the state and the church are complicit – or at least, apathetic, to what is going on. Filled with pathos for the babies, Scheper Hughes offers an indictment not of the mothers themselves but of the society that allows such "violence" to take place.

Scheper-Hughes’ work is associated with works on social suffering, “the "collective and individual human suffering associated with life conditions shaped by powerful social forces" (Kleinman) – a theme she pursued in latter works (Scheper-Hughes, 1998). In the latter  This reminds me of the position of Kleinman and Kleinman (1991) that “a central orienting question in ethnography should be to interpret what is at stake for particular participants in particular situations.” In the case of Scheper-Hughes, she privileges the death of infants – the ‘death without weeping’ as the thing at stake in this particular specific situation.

The title, 'Death without weeping', provokes us based on the underlying assumption that all of us expect death to be worth weeping over, and conversely, human life is important. But we know that this is not the case. Life and death, far from distinct categories, are bridged by states of liminality, which has necessitated the creation of terms like 'social death' (Sweeting and Gilhooly, 1997), and in the case, what we construe as the 'socially unborn'. How can anthropology help us reflect - philosophically, critically - on the differential values of human lives?

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