“Doctor, Why Didn’t You Adopt My Baby?” Observant Participation, Care, and the Simultaneous Practice of Medicine and Anthropology

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Medical anthropology has long appreciated the clinical encounter as a rich source of data and a key site for critical inquiry. It is no surprise, then, that a number of physician–anthropologists have used their clinical insights to make important contributions to the field. How does this duality challenge and enhance the moral practice and ethics of care inherent both to ethnography and to medicine? How do bureaucratic and professional obligations of HIPAA and the IRB intersect with aspirations of anthropology to understand human experience and of medicine to heal with compassion? In this paper, I describe my simultaneous fieldwork and clinical practice at an urban women’s jail in the United States. In this setting, being a physician facilitates privileged access to people and spaces within, garners easy trust, and enables an insider perspective more akin to observant participation than participant observation. Through experiences of delivering the infants of incarcerated pregnant women and of being with the mothers as they navigate drug addiction, child custody battles, and re-incarceration, the roles of doctor and anthropologist become mutually constitutive and transformative. Moreover, the dual practice reveals congruities and cracks in each discipline’s ethics of care. Being an anthropologist among informants who may have been patients reworks expectations of care and necessitates ethical practice informed by the dual roles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)614-633
Number of pages20
JournalCulture, Medicine and Psychiatry
Volume39
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015

Keywords

  • Fieldwork
  • Incarceration
  • Observant participation
  • Physicians
  • Pregnancy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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