How can students apply anthropology to catalyse social change? In the coming weeks, the second annual Advocacy Letter series will showcase thirteen student Advocacy Letters that examine a wide range of contemporary health issues, including transgender healthcare, immigration policy, and mental health services for youth. In these letters, students draw on anthropological insights to critique global and public health approaches to these issues and to advocate for new, more experience-centred health interventions.
Like last year’s series, which included letters exploring, for example, the feminisation of the HPV vaccine, youth loneliness during covid-19 in Germany, and the UK’s racial health disparities during covid-19, this second series is comprised of letters students initially wrote as assessments for the Aspects of Applied Medical Anthropology module I teach in the UCL Anthropology Department. This module introduces students to medical anthropological understandings of the social and cultural shaping of health and wellbeing, and the ways culture shapes the experience of illness, the practice of medicine, and the process of healing. It shows students how these medical anthropology insights can be applied to critique contemporary global and public health interventions, which often ignore the social context of health. The module also teaches students how to use anthropology, and applied methods more generally, to imagine more robust interventions that tackle the complexity of health as it is lived. The Advocacy Letter assessment assesses how well students understand these module aims by asking them to apply these insights to advocate for change around a health issue they care about. These letters, inspired by Emily Yates-Doerr and Janelle Taylor, give students an opportunity not only to reflect what they have learned about applied anthropology, but also to practice applied anthropology themselves.
Combining reflection with activism, the Advocacy Letter helps students understand how they can put their anthropological degree to good use. It is an enormous privilege, and responsibility, to try to meet my students’ desire to make a meaningful impact anthropologically through my teaching. And though I proactively welcome and celebrate their enthusiasm for applied anthropology, I have also learned over the years that I need to carefully manage their module expectations. While students hope that the module will finally deliver them straightforward approaches to apply anthropology or a clear list of anthropology’s key uses, the module reminds students that health, and anthropology’s relevance to it, is never straightforward, clear-cut, or systematic. Complex health issues, this module shows, require locally tailored, iteratively designed, dynamic, and often long-lasting responses.
Though difficult to do well, this module shows such responses are not only possible but also necessary. For example, the module highlights the careful, painstaking work that anthropologists engage in translating ethnographic insights into global health policy, balancing awareness of both on-the-ground health needs and the politics and logics that shape global health practice. It shows how anthropologists have integrated local understandings of illness to improve clinical encounters over time, by identifying local idioms of distress and exposing the barriers that interfere with treatment plans. And it introduces them to anthropologists who have used participatory action methods to catalyse not only local understanding to public health but also community momentum towards structural change, including through community-based health research institutes. Though these anthropological interventions are often slow, difficult, and focussed, this module shows they produce far better outcomes than the top-down, universalistic, scaled approaches common to global and public health. Indeed, one of the goals, if not the main goal, I have in this module is to wade off students from the seduction of easy, efficient answers to health problems and to show them that anthropology, and its art and ethic of keeping with local complexity, greatly matters to effective intervention.
In these letters, students have kept with the difficulty of the issues they care about and called for nuanced, calibrated change. The letters make clear that students have understood the key goals of the module. I hope these letters have shown students that effective change takes time and care, but that such commitment is needed and so worthwhile. I also hope it helps them see how critical their anthropological critique and imagination are not just in the future, but now, as they are learning.
These letters also serve as a reminder to me how important it is to provide ample opportunities in my teaching for students to apply their learning. Through these letters, students are refining the difficult art of learning how to make an impact anthropologically and are also growing confident in using their anthropological voice and sensibility to mobilize change.
Students are making a contribution in these letters, not only by providing brilliant analyses of health issues only their perspective can offer, but also by expressing, and modelling for the rest of us, the moral clarity and urgency needed to push healthcare, and anthropology, to be and do better. These letters serve as but one example of how to make an anthropological impact, and I hope that the experience of writing these letters motivates students to seek out others way to make a difference.