Counting bodies? On future engagements with science studies in medical anthropology

Thirty years ago, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock outlined a strategy for ‘future work in medical anthropology’ that focused on three bodies. Their article – a zeitgeist for the field – sought to intervene into the Cartesian dualisms characterizing ethnomedical anthropology at the time. Taking a descriptive and diagnostic approach, they defined ‘the mindful body’ as a domain of future anthropological inquiry and mapped three analytic concepts that could be used to study it: the individual/phenomenological body, the social body, and the body politic. Three decades later, this paper returns to the ‘three bodies’. It analyses ethnographic fieldwork on chronic illness, using a rescriptive, practice-oriented approach to bodies developed by science studies scholars that was not part of the initial three bodies framework. It illustrates how embodiment was a technical achievement in some practices, while in others bodies did not figure as relevant. This leads to the suggestion that an anthropology of health need not be organized around numerable bodies. The paper concludes by suggesting that future work in medical anthropology might embrace translational competency, which does not have the goal of better definitions (better health, better bodies, etc.) but the goal of better engaging with exchanges between medical and non-medical practices. That health professionals are themselves moving away from bodies to embrace ‘planetary health’ makes a practice-focused orientation especially crucial for medical anthropology today.

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