Society for Medical Anthropology
Retrospective - Roundtable
Abstract: As an engaged, medical anthropologist working in domestic and global settings for over four decades, Mark Nichter’s contributions have been far ranging--both geographically (in countries from the United States to Benin to India) and topically (from tuberculosis to tobacco use). Throughout his career he has looked to the clinic as a site of profound and productive social relationships, and to clinical encounters as moments in which patients communicate distress and clinicians can offer relief. Beyond the individual as the unit of analysis, his work examines the production of health and treatment of illness within families and households, within communities, and even within politics and policymaking spaces.
Mark has contributed seminal ideas based on these engagements with patients and health providers over the years, including for example the notion of “idioms of distress” --expressions of pain or other symptoms that index and communicate trauma, hurt, stress, marginalization, dysfunction, and dissatisfaction. Health crises, he argues, are windows into people’s lives and the social worlds they navigate. How individuals and communities respond to health crises reveal what matters most to them, how expertise and knowledge function, and how power, sociality, and social capital can affect individual bodies and body politics.
Mark’s process-focused approach to research is evident in his pedagogy. He has trained generations of anthropologists and clinicians to take seriously people’s complaints, recognize the value of local knowledge and experience, and build interdisciplinary communities of practice toward sustainable and adaptive health systems. He has encouraged his students to live lives that matter, do research that matters, and approach their interlocutors and colleagues with love and openness. At his last count, Mark has chaired the dissertation committees for 17 PhD students in the United States and Europe, including four from Indian Country, nine PhD students in Asia and the Pacific, four students from Africa, nine from Latin America, and a few more still completing their dissertations. He has also served on dissertation committees for an additional 44 anthropology, public health, and nursing students from the U.S. and around the world. Many of these students are contributing to the advancement of anthropology within academic, clinical, and policy institutions in the Global South and in underserved communities.
Through his career, Mark has built a strong and supportive network of practicing anthropologists at universities, research centers, clinical facilities, and nongovernmental organizations around the world. This panel is evidence of that work. We bring together anthropologists Mark Nichter identified as (in the words of Lévi-Strauss) “good to think with,” to honor his contributions to the field and consider how his devotion to field work and pedagogy continue to advance the fields of anthropology, global and domestic public health, medicine, and psychiatry. It is designed to reflect the expansiveness of his service to the discipline, and in so doing, it reflects the depth, breadth and values of medical anthropology and ethnographic contributions to the study of medicine, medical education, and health policy.