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MAGic2015: Anthropology and Global Health: interrogating theory, policy and practice

Anthropological engagements with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa
Location FUL-101
Date and Start Time 10 September, 2015 at 16:00
Sessions 1


  • Annie Wilkinson (Institute of Development Studies) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Melissa Leach (Institute of Development Studies)

Short Abstract

Anthropological engagements with the Ebola response highlight important questions concerning the role and value of anthropology in health emergencies. These questions hold implications for understanding broader tensions that can arise at the intersection of anthropological and global health practice

Long Abstract

As one of the most dramatic public health events of recent years, the West African Ebola outbreak has revealed the disjunctures and elisions within the structures of global health and has brought to light important questions about international development activities, health system resilience, and social responses to and consequences of health disasters. The engagement of anthropologists with international response efforts highlights important questions as to the role, practice and value of anthropology in contexts of epidemics and emergencies, as well as the broader conceptual, methodological, political and ethical tensions that arise at the intersection of anthropological and global health practice. This panel is organised by members of the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP), which was established to network anthropologists and to provide an accessible platform for integrating anthropological perspectives into the 2014-15 Ebola response. Reflecting on the ERAP initiative, the panel will explore connections between Ebola, anthropology and global health around three themes: the contextual granularity which ethnography can offer on the configuration of the crisis; opportunities and challenges for anthropologists to engage during the outbreak; and methodological and collaborative dimensions of that engagement in rapidly unfolding crisis contexts. Cross-cutting the specific themes, panellists will reflect on the question of whether and, if so, how, the Ebola epidemic marks a turning point for anthropological engagements with global health, and how best to blend new roles within the response with maintaining a critical voice and pursuing long term research priorities

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Epistemologies of Ebola: reflections on the experience of the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform

Authors: Fred Martineau (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)  email
Annie Wilkinson (Institute of Development Studies)  email
Melissa Parker (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reflects on the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform’s experiences providing rapid response advice to government and international agencies on the Ebola outbreak. It asks how epistemic communities mobilised in response to the outbreak and how the politics of knowledge influenced policy.

Long Abstract

By September 2014, it was clear that conventional approaches to containing the spread of Ebola in West Africa were failing. Public health teams were often met with fear, and efforts to treat patients and curtail population movement frequently backfired. Both governments and international agencies recognized that anthropological expertise was essential if locally-acceptable, community-based interventions were to be designed and successfully interrupt transmission. The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform was established against this background. Drawing together local and internationally-based anthropologists, the Platform provided a co-ordinated and rapid response to the outbreak in real time.

This paper reflects on the experiences of working with UK DfID, the WHO and other agencies over the last year and asks: how did the politics of (expert) knowledge influence the design and implementation of policy? Did existing ethnographic knowledge of the region end up re-enforcing or challenging epidemiological approaches to transmission? In answering these questions this paper will explore how the Platform and other epistemic communities developed and interacted to produce knowledge and policy over the course of the outbreak, and how the role of anthropology was conceived within that.

What's Anthropology's 'so what'? Exploring the realities of Applied Anthropology through the Ministry of Defence's response to Ebola

Author: Alice Gore  email

Short Abstract

The Ebola outbreak presented an unusual challenge to the UK’s Ministry of Defence. In doing so, it both reinforced the importance of socio-cultural understanding within the Department and exposed the challenges of applying Anthropology to such complex issues, and within this particular institutional context.

Long Abstract

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) played a key role in the UK government's response to Ebola in Sierra Leone but in doing so faced a very different kind of 'enemy'. Cultural understanding was paramount, but how was this approached by Whitehall's defence and security mechanism and what in turn did this reveal about the MoD's own institutional culture? Recognising the importance of the cultural and behavioural factors in the spread of Ebola, socio-cultural analysts within MoD helped various elements of the department, the Armed Forces and other government departments understand the nature and complexity of human dimension of the rapidly unfolding crisis. In many ways, this work built on existing methodologies and processes; it illustrated typical forms of MoD engagement with "cultural and behavioural factors" in both its policy and operational domains and its interactions with other parts of Whitehall, and it reinforced the importance of this engagement. But the unusual experience of the Ebola response also exposed the challenges of applying Anthropology to such complex issues, and within this particular institutional context. In discussing how anthropological insights were used by MoD during the Ebola crisis, this presentation will explore some of these challenges and consider what both the MoD and the Anthropology community have to learn from this.

Ebola and Diaspora: Researching transnational communications between the UK and Sierra Leone

Author: David Rubyan-Ling (University of Sussex)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reflects on recent research on the transnational communications of the Sierra Leone diaspora, their impact on health-seeking behaviour during the ebola outbreak, and the lessons that can be drawn for anthropological research on the role of diasporas in humanitarian emergencies.

Long Abstract

This paper reflects on recent research conducted on the Sierra Leone diaspora and its response to the ebola outbreak.

In contrast to the international community, the Sierra Leone Diaspora was quick to respond to the Ebola outbreak that started in March 2014. Operating through pre-existing family- and locality-based personal and institutional networks, Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora have undertaken a range of efforts to mitigate the effects of the outbreak back home, to support vulnerable and stigmatised groups and to raise awareness, funds and further action in the diaspora itself.

As such, the diaspora has been seen by both academics and governments as a potential player in the unfolding ebola response. For anthropologists, concerned about the problems of cultural resistance and socio-political distrust that have hampered public health initiatives, diaspora communications (phone calls, social and traditional media, visits, gifts and letters), have been of particular interest. My research asked the following questions:

1) How are the Sierra Leone diaspora responding to the ebola outbreak?

2) What is the impact of diaspora communications on local knowledge of ebola in Sierra Leone?

3) To what extent are these communications resulting in health-seeking behaviour?

In addition to reviewing the findings of this research, this paper reflects on the value of an anthropological perspective in answering such questions, and also the specific methodological challenges that have shaped research in this area. It also considers how research into diaspora communities and their role can aid humanitarian interventions in future.

Understanding social resistance to Ebola response in Guinea

Author: James Fairhead (Sussex University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper seeks to understand the fear many Guineans feel towards Ebola response initiatives and why the educators, doctors and burial teams have sometimes encountered resistance, occasionally violent.

Long Abstract

This paper seeks to understand the fear many Guineans feel towards Ebola response initiatives and why the educators, doctors and burial teams have sometimes encountered resistance, occasionally violent. Resistance has been catastrophic for the epidemic, preventing treatment, contact tracing and quarantine, permitting its spread. The paper sketches a history of dissent and violence during the epidemic before showing how some actions that Ebola response teams interpret as 'resistance' are less actions 'against' Ebola response, than actions that have their own cultural logics. But the paper then considers how resistance emerges as cultural sensitivities play into divisive ethnic and related party-political tensions relations, and the interpretive grids through which people make sense of politicians and the 'white' world. The analysis calls into question the social distance between the institutions of epidemic response and the communities affected, and the politicisation of health delivery where political parties are read as ethnically aligned.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.