3rd Cascadia Seminar, “Ethnographic Adventures in Medical Anthropology”: Conference Brief

On Friday, April 24, more than 50 attendees gathered to hear the keynote—and kick off a weekend of stimulating talks and discussion—for the 3rd Cascadia Seminar, “Ethnographic Adventures in Medical Anthropology.” Taking place every two years, the Cascadia Seminar brings together a diverse group of medical anthropologists: scholars at all stages of their careers, from graduate students to postdocs to full professors, and from a variety of institutions within (and beyond) the United States.

As a scholar who has been based in the UK for the last six years, and who has recently moved to UCLA, I relished the opportunity to meet new colleagues on the West Coast. But it was the particular format of the Cascadia Seminar—which made for lively discussions after each presentation, allowed for continued discussion throughout coffee breaks and meals, and facilitated new friendships and collaborations—that made this event so worthwhile, particularly as the traditional conference format is under increasing debate. Unlike larger conferences such as the AAA, where the volume of people and papers makes engaging with scholarship in a deep and meaningful way impossible, the seminar is intimate and single track. There are no concurrent sessions, and all participants attend all papers. Presenters are given 40 minutes to speak, and thirty minutes for discussion, giving the speakers ample time to flesh out ethnographically-rich and theoretically-shaped arguments, and allowing the listeners to provide meaningful commentary.

According to Janelle Taylor, one of the founding members of the event, the Cascadia Seminar emerged out of informal conversations among medical anthropologist colleagues at several universities in the region. It was an experiment in creating a model for a different kind of intellectual space for medical anthropology: a small, intimate, high interest, low-cost weekend conference organized collaboratively by medical anthropologists on faculty at a number of different universities and colleges in the US Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, known as the Cascadia region.

The Cascadia Seminar kicked off with a Friday evening keynote by Mette Svendsen (University of Copenhagen) on “A life worth living: negotiating life worthiness in humans and animals.” Exploring how fetal pigs are used as research models for babies in intensive care units, Mette raised questions about how the value of life is negotiated in multi-species, translational settings. This ethnographically sensitive talk set the stage for the rest of the seminar beautifully, by raising questions about what it means to configure animals and humans as persons versus resources, what it means to provide care in ethically-fraught contexts, and how it is possible to link ethnographic data to the broader contexts of contemporary biomedical science.

The rest of the seminar showcased how scholars are pushing the boundaries of the topics and contexts that are considered relevant to medical anthropology. Several scholars described projects in “classic” settings like India, Sierra Leone, and Native American reservations, while other scholars honed in on the biomedical discourses surrounding abortion counseling, transgender clinics, and data-intensive research on metabolism. Many of the papers engaged with and troubled the notion of “care” in relation to changing economic relationships, neoliberal market regimes, and information-driven societies.

During the first half of Saturday, Nadine Levin (UCLA) presented “What is metabolism after ‘big data’? Unearthing the norms, values, and politics of bodies and populations” which explored how metabolism is being reconfigured in normative ways with data-intensive practices, while Faruk Shah (University of Rajshahi/Auckland) presented “Biomedicine, Healing and Modernity: An Ethnographic Study of Village Doctors in Bangladesh,” which explored how village doctors occupy the in-between space of traditional and neoliberal medicine. During the second half of the day, Rima Praspaliauskiene (University of California, Davis) presented “Enveloped Care in Lithuania,” which used the figure of the “envelope” to explore how local forms of care intersect with monetary transactions, while Marieke van Eijk (University of Washington) presented “The Price of Care: An Analysis of the Merger of Money and Medicine in US Transgender Care,” which discussed the links between money and caring in contexts where insurance discussions dominate.

On Sunday, Sean Bruna (Western Washington University) began the morning by presenting “A Call for Emergent Practices: Reconsidering Translational Theory as Applied in Diabetes Prevention Programs,” which discussed how community-level, locally-embedded intervention into diabetes can provide a counter-narrative to biomedicine, while Mara Buchbinder (University of North Carolina) presented “Scripting Dissent: Abortion Laws, Medicine, and the Politics of Scripted Speech,” which used the figure of the “script” to highlight the ways in which healthcare providers navigate the challenging legal and political environment of abortion. To round things off, Alexandra Collins (Simon Fraser University) presented “Global Fund-ization: Funding mechanisms and HIV/AIDS program survival in Sierra Leone,” which discussed the tradeoffs between epidemiological facts and medical care that occurs in contexts dominated by neoliberal aid structures, where reporting “facts” in databases determines funding but constrains local action.

(Click here for a full list of the speakers and abstracts.)

We are in an era where academics (and non-academics) are increasingly questioning the use of the conference format—with its short, scripted papers, and seeming complete lack of creativity—as the best way to communicate and disseminate findings. Moreover, with the increased precariousness of permanent jobs, and rising inequalities in education, people are more and more questioning whether large, expensive conferences, which levy fees and require participants travel long distances, provide the best value for money. In light of these questions, innovative and low-cost events like the Cascadia Seminar provide an exciting alternative for the future of medical anthropology, as well as other fields of social science and humanities research. I would strongly encourage readers of Somatosophere to create and participate in these types of local events.