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Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes Named First AAA Public Policy Award Winner

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is pleased to announce that its Committee on Public Policy has selected medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes as the first recipient of the new Anthropology in Public Policy Award. Dr. Scheper- Hughes is a nationally-recognized expert on several important health issues, including hunger, illness and organ trafficking.

Photo Courtesy of UC Berkeley

Photo Courtesy of UC Berkeley

The Anthropology in Public Policy Award (AiPP) was established in 2012 by the Committee on Public Policy (COPP) to honor anthropologists whose work has had a significant, positive influence on the course of government decision-making and action. Dr. Scheper-Hughes’ body of work and research, especially in the area of organ trafficking, has shaped how governments and international bodies address the issues of illegal transplantation.

In 1999, Scheper-Hughes helped found the Berkeley Organs Watch Project, an organization dedicated to research on human organ traffic worldwide, including examining the transnational networks that connect patients, transplant surgeons, brokers, medical facilities and so-called “live donors.” Almost ten years later, in 2008, her investigation of an international group of organ sellers based in the East Coast of the United States and Israel led to multiple arrests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In recent years, she has served as an advisor or consultant to the European Union; the United Nations, Division of Law Enforcement, Organized Crime and Anti-Laundering Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Human Trafficking Office of the World Health Organization in Vienna. She has also testified as an expert before the US Congress, the Council of Europe and the British House of Lords.

“We are pleased and honored to make Dr. Scheper-Hughes the winner of the first AiPP Award,” COPP chair Dr. Suzanne Heurtin-Roberts announced in a statement today. “Her work and research offer powerful examples of the contribution our discipline can make to larger public policy debates.  By recognizing her as thefirst recipient of the award, we are making a strong statement about the power and effectiveness our discipline can have with regulators and legislators worldwide. ”

COPP will honor Dr. Scheper-Hughes on during the 112th AAA Annual Meeting. The meeting is open to the public, registration is required.

Dr. Scheper-Hughes is a professor of anthropology and Director of the Medical Anthropology Program at the University of California at Berkeley.








Touch in the Classroom: Should Schools Teach Students to Give Each Other Massages?

Written by Elisa (EJ) Sobo

Every semester, I teach a college course exploring the interrelationships between human culture and biology. Feedback loops connecting culturally-patterned behavior and body chemistry, such as in the stress response, provide a handy example of our bioculturality. So, among other topics, I have a well-developed unit in my course (and related textbook) on stress. But lately, I’ve been wondering if I might counterbalance that unit’s focus with something more positive, such as the relaxation response, or the benefits of positive touch.

While I have been thinking about touch as s topic for my students to investigate in theory, many in K-12 education have considered the practical applications of touch in the classroom. That is, they have been thinking about having students actually touch each other in controlled ways. Before I explain this, let me briefly review what scientists have discovered about pro-social touch.

Experts from James W. Prescott to Tiffany Field have long touted the benefits of positive touch for people living in a pro-touch cultural setting and those who receive it as part of a therapeutic regime, for instance in massage therapy. The benefits of positive touch include overall increases in pro-social behavior and immune system function and decreases in depression, pain, and the expression of violence and aggression. In anti-touch cultures, people have real trouble getting along peaceably. Infants who are touch deprived often fail to thrive and even can die. Scientists have begun to show that biochemicals associated with aggression and cooperation—and aggressive and cooperative behaviors themselves—go up or down in tandem with whether or not people are engaged in or exposed to pro-social touch.

The benefits of positive touch have been leveraged in recent attempts to introduce peer-to-peer massage routines into classroom settings. The A Child 2 Child project in the UK, led by Jean Barlow, claims positive results in which “good feelings help to keep students calm, positive, focused and motivated.” Aware of the need for statistical proof of such claims, The Peer Massage Project, also in the UK, commissioned Gary Brown to undertake an outcomes evaluation; he documented improvements related to behavior, attitude, learning, calmness, and memory recall. The Massage in Schools Programme, founded by Mia Elmsater and Sylvie Hetu of Canada, has branches worldwide. As noted on their US division’s Website, which has links to a number of study write-ups, outcomes research on school-based massage is just beginning. But front-line testimonials are overwhelmingly positive.

Late last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Thea Blair, a US-based peer massage proponent. Her set-to-song routines include a back and neck massage in which students sing or listen to a peaceful song about nature, and a hand massage based on a calmly amusing story that details a fisherman’s workday. Only students who want to participate do so. Asking permission marks the beginning and giving thanks marks the end of each routine.

As innocuous as all this sounds, and despite the above-mentioned evidence, Ms. Blair has encountered some opposition. Resistance reflects widespread misunderstandings about touch and related anxieties that fuel, in some schools, ‘no touch’ ordinances. A key problem is that mainstream US culture positions touch as either inherently aggressive or intrinsically sexual—when of course there are many more dimensions to touch, including its nurturance and health-giving functions.

Although Ms. Blair designed her massage routines for a younger set, a group of students taking my biocultural course gave peer massages a try last semester during an extracurricular guest lecture that Ms. Blair gave to the class. As part of the presentation, Ms. Blair demonstrated some techniques on me, inviting students to find partners and follow along. Both she and I made it clear from the start that active participation—touching or being touched—was neither expected nor mandatory.

Despite this, exactly three-quarters of the class opted in for the first routine. By the end of the session, everyone was in on the act. Even the two students who missed class that day participated at a distance: some peers who attended treated them to massages and summarized Ms. Blair’s talk for them spontaneously before our next class meeting. Later, students urged me to include a message routine as part of the final exam. Such enthusiasm for peer message in practice can be read as one measure of success.

Other measures include quantified self-reports on well-being. Before beginning, Ms. Blair asked students to self-rate their sense of well being on a scale of one to ten. Twice during the lesson she asked them to reevaluate. Twice, increases were noted. Students said they felt calmer. At one point, a student sitting on the sidelines observed that his own sense of well being improved along with the participating students’. “Why do you think that is?” Ms. Blair asked. The mood of the room now simply felt good to him; even as a non-participant, he’d sensed a change in other peoples’ feelings and that, in turn, relaxed him.

Had we conducted a systematic evaluation or, better yet, a large scale, longitudinal, case-control study, including clinically and socially relevant measures, who knows what might have been documented. We could have measured changes in stress levels and interpersonal violence rates; we might have explored dose-response issues, sustainability, and so forth.  We might have collected data that supported a hypothesis regarding the value of pro-social touch—or that disproved it.

In reality, the gold standard study on peer massage has not yet been done. Moreover, the class that I described was not K-12. Nonetheless, all indications strongly suggest that we would be wise to set aside our culturally driven fear of touch so that we might give peer massage a real chance to prove itself. School program options should be elected—or rejected—based on evidence, not emotion.

Elisa (EJ) Sobo is a professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. She is on the editorial boards of Anthropology & Medicine, Medical Anthropology, and Medical Anthropology Quarterly. She has served as an elected member of the Society for Medical Anthropology’s executive board and as co-chair of the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Public Policy.

Dr. Sobo has written numerous peer-reviewed journal articles as well having authored, co-authored, and co-edited twelve books on various topics. Her latest books are Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity: A Unified Approach (2013), The Cultural Context of Health, Illness, and Medicine (2010), and Culture and Meaning in Health Services Research (2009).

Dr. Sobo’s current projects include a study exploring cultural models of child development as applied in classroom teaching, particularly in the Waldorf or Steiner education system.

Teaching Medical Anthropology

For faculty teaching medical anthropology courses this fall, the following materials may be helpful. I collected these lists with the assistance of Andrea Sankar, co-editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly, and Janet Dixon Keller, editor of Ethos, in order to save teachers time as they refresh their thinking about these oft-taught topics. Where possible, I linked to the source materials.

Note: In the case of AAA journals, content will be freely available for September, October, and November of 2011. AAA members always have access to these articles amid the half-million full-text items available freely to AAA members on AnthroSource.

Each discussion node includes textbook materials, videos, articles and ethnographies.

I’d be interested in your comments about the lists and any thoughts about medical anthropology classes you’ve taken or taught. Post your thoughts by leaving a reply (bottom) or tell me if you’d like to see any other lists developed by taking the poll.

“Aliceheimer’s” – one family’s journey through Alzheimer’s

AAA member, Dana Walrath is a medical anthropologist that tilts perspective on how to heal.

UVM News reporter, Lee Ann Cox describes Walrath’s work:

As a professor and anthropologist in UVM’s College of Medicine, as well as an artist and writer, Walrath advances ideas about what world cultures can teach doctors and other caregivers about nurturing patients, along with their families.

Walrath put her knowledge to work when her mother, Alice was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and moved in with Dana.

In a new blog, Walrath pairs narrative with her graphic representation of the stories that are recounted of her mother’s experience with the disease. Dana has named these encounters “Aliceheimers”.

For the complete UVM News article, click here.

Inside Looking Out, Part Three

Pamela Runestad, a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, continues her account from Japan. Here is an excerpt:

…[O]ne of my interviewees in Osaka told me on Friday: “Ms. Pamela, I really want to talk to you. But please understand that I’m not quite myself today. I’m from Sendai…”

Despite his initial note of caution, however, this man talked with me for four hours and then we talked over dinner for another two. Sometimes acting “normal” helps get you back to feeling normal.

To read the full “Inside Looking Out, Part Three,”  go to the Triangle Center for Japanese Studies. Also be sure to check out Part One and Part Two.


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