Society for Medical Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Undergoing pediatric painful and invasive treatment involves not only physical and intellectual effort but also collectivized forms of emotional work. In the Argentine healthcare system, particularly at public hospitals, medical residents are key actors in producing, sustaining, and witnessing the painfully invasive everyday therapeutic interventions over children’s bodies. In this role, they are the main interlocutors of ill children and their families. In this article, I analyze how medical residents, children, and their caregivers use humor as a way to navigate stressful cancer and immunological treatments. The role of humor emerged as a rich topic while conducting one year of participant observation, qualitative interviews, and informal talks. In three critical ways, humor was tactically used by the participants in order to deal with feelings of powerlessness: when medical residents had to inflict pain on children’s bodies (gallows humor), as a critique of power (children laughing at residents), and as a collectivizing practice (children laughing with others). I conclude by examining the role of powerlessness in relation to humor and why it can help us better understand the kinds of relations that are created among children, caregivers, and medical residents doing the difficult work of caring for children undergoing cancer and immunological treatment.