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Accepted Paper:

Material context / material consequences: accounting for harmful practices of classification in health interventions  
Charlotte Kühlbrandt (King's College London)

Paper short abstract:

Discursive classifications have consequences for enacted practice. Drawing on fieldwork alongside Roma health mediators in Romania, I ask: how might anti-essentialism gain traction in environments that privilege a reified and dichotomous understanding of ethnicity?

Paper long abstract:

Interventions that try to improve the health of marginalised population groups such as migrants or ethnic minorities, often use binary classification in order to determine eligibility. In doing so, they simultaneously produce inclusion (e.g. by improving access to health care) and exclusion (e.g. by perpetuating the category of a group "in need"). Interventions may employ classifications strategically to access funds from state institutions who subscribe to a rhetoric of "underserved and irresponsible" communities. This discourse can fuel prejudice and racism.

Drawing on a year of ethnographic fieldwork alongside health mediators working with Roma communities in Romania, I show how discursive classifications have consequences for enacted practice. By focussing on citizenship, hygiene, vaccination and reproductive health, mediators inadvertently promote a harmful image of Roma as reckless, unhygienic, virulent and highly fertile.

For anthropologists, observing, writing, and reaching out in anti-essentialist ways can be seen as a form of care towards people we observe and write about. However, this form of care does not necessarily take into account the ways in which it is sometimes necessary for social actors to reify difference. My provocation is that anthropology's ability to account for the relationship between material context, discursive and enacted practices of classification has insufficient traction outside academic contexts. I invite a discussion about how these insights might be translated in ways that are relevant and locally meaningful to social actors working in environments constrained by bureaucratic and financial entanglements that privilege a reified and dichotomous understanding of ethnicity.

Panel P142
Sorting, typing, classifying: the elephants in 'our' rooms [Anthropology of Race and Ethnicity Network; Medical Anthropology Network] [Roundtable]
  Session 1 Friday 17 August, 2018, -