Accepted paper:

Categories in action: studying the doing of ontology


Maryon McDonald (Robinson College Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Recent anthropological emphasis on ‘ontology’ has been important but both belated and a distraction. Key dualities previously reified into a language of analysis relating to a medical object called ‘the body’ have long been of ethnographic interest and it is a keener ethnography that is required.

Paper long abstract:

Dichotomies such as that of disease and illness, and others congruent with it, have been important in the construction of scientific practice and of worlds outside it. However, such dualities have been reified into a problematic language of analysis. 'The body' has been part of this same language, both in its singularity and in its apparent requirement of definitional alterities (mind, soul, spirit, the social, etc.). Happily, all such dualities have long been the objects of ethnography, and this paper stresses the ethnographic importance of the body singular alongside the 'bodies' of newer analyses. We could be said to live with multiple realities every day. So why the excitement of the 'ontological turn'? In their everyday lives, many anthropologists have believed in a reality objectively discernible by science, whether this reality was 'the human body' or the more general 'nature' in which it inhered. Both nature and the human body slipped into anthropologists' own professional analyses, too, however - giving a natural human body that was then 'socially constructed' or 'culturally constructed' in different ways. To those holding this view in some form, the 'ontological turn' might be particularly titillating. This paper uses examples that bring together medical anthropology and anthropology more generally and suggests a way of looking at the ontological turn and the contribution of ANT/STS that brings into focus a need for sharper ethnography.

panel P17
Repositioning health, illness and the body: the challenge of new theoretical approaches to medical anthropology