Skip to content
Home » Blog (hidden) » AN News: “Communicating Bodies: New Juxtapositions of Linguistic and Medical Anthropology” by Charles L. Briggs (U California, Berkeley) and Paja Faudree (Brown U)

AN News: “Communicating Bodies: New Juxtapositions of Linguistic and Medical Anthropology” by Charles L. Briggs (U California, Berkeley) and Paja Faudree (Brown U)

Linguistic anthropology and medical anthropology are growth areas of anthropology, yet research across these two fields has been relatively limited. Recently medical and linguistic anthropologists have shifted from viewing language, medicine, and science as established objects to documenting the practices, discourses, and technologies through which they are produced. Important developments around the world—including the ascendance of biomedicalization, neoliberal markets for language practices, and new forms of mediatization—invite coordinated attention. Nevertheless, the epistemological commitments of scholars in both subfields have frequently resulted in forms of boundary work that impede fruitful exchanges and cooperation.

In 2014, we began bringing together scholars who work primarily in one or the other subfield to explore the nature of the barriers to collaboration and their consequences for anthropological research. We wanted to understand why work on health by linguistic anthropologists may attend closely to such issues as entextualization, intertextuality, interaction, indexicality, and poetics, and yet fail to consider work by medical anthropologists re-theorizing the same medical objects and subjects. We likewise wondered why medical anthropologists who examine such themes as the production of mediatized objects and the politics surrounding translation, text production, and digital communication often fail to engage with the extensive work by linguistic anthropologists that scrutinizes those topics. Thus we aimed to generate new venues for exploring mechanisms that produce and reproduce these discursive ruptures. Our goal was not simply to combine linguistic and medical anthropology but to use dialogical encounters to transform them, thereby contributing to novel anthropological understandings.

Our first step involved staging two forms of encounter at the 2014 AAA meeting. Both events were extremely well attended. A panel entitled “Communicating Bodies: New Juxtapositions of Linguistic and Medical Anthropology” featured presentations by a diverse group of anthropologists whose research analyzes the co-constitution of medical linguistic (or semiotic) ideologies and practices. T.S. Harvey (UC, Riverside) explored how health communication “campaigns” aimed at “teaching” indigenous residents in Guatemala about the dangers of Cyanobacteria blooms actually offered potentially lethal advice while reproducing linguistic and medical stereotypes of indigenous peoples. Joel Kuipers (George Washington) traced the historical shifts in how Indonesian specialists (dukuns) were constructed as secular folk healers prior to Independence and as anti-Islamic shamanic religious practitioners afterwards. Faudree examined how diverse medical and linguistic practices by Mazatec shamans in Mexico and US biomedical researchers construct medical knowledge about the recently globalized plant Salvia divinorum—differences that enable extraction of the plant itself as well as knowledge about it. E. Summerson Carr (Chicago) examined the behavioral therapy known as “motivational interviewing” in critiquing how dominant professional epistemologies marginalize the power of poetics in therapeutic practice. Briggs examined how patients, journalists, scientists, and media consultants co-produce “biotech buzz” for exceedingly expensive drugs designed for rare diseases. On balance, panel participants demonstrated how research at the interface between linguistic and medical anthropology can generate new methodologies and epistemologies.

We also organized and participated in the roundtable “Why Can’t Linguistic and Medical Anthropologists Just Get Along?” We were joined by two linguistic anthropologists—Susan Gal (Chicago) and Webb Keane (Michigan)—and two medical anthropologists—Lawrence Cohen (UC Berkeley) and Judith Farquhar (Chicago). In advance of the conference, we circulated questions to fellow panel participants, and invited them to discuss what they considered the primary challenges to cross-field research. Our discussion called attention to structural problems that maintain boundaries between the subfields and deter productive syntheses across them. Graduate programs in anthropology vary widely in terms of the relative visibility and integration of the subfields: students in either medical or linguistic anthropology can complete degrees almost without knowing that the other field exists. Graduate training can also foster epistemological commitments that discourage successful collaboration: the two subfields often draw on distinct and even competing notions of language, bodies, and health, anchored in disparate genealogies of anthropological research. We also considered why some areas of joint interest—patient-healer interaction, medical translation—remain inadequately theorized.

Our conversation also turned towards future possibilities. We noted that the maturation of both subfields could reduce the need to police boundaries and consolidate languages of authority and specialization. Critiques of the hegemony of biomedicine in popular ethics and the power of disembodied notions of linguistic structures constitute parallel developments that can help dispel retrenched prejudices and generate new sorts of dialogues. Panelists observed that diverse activities occurring at the interface between the fields—such as co-teaching, graduate committee work, and participation in conferences— can expose points of mutual incomprehension and provide openings for circumventing them. Nevertheless, we noted that innovative approaches to teaching and research and productive epistemological upheavals have limited capacity to transform graduate student recruitment or how faculty positions are allocated, practices that tend to re-inscribe boundaries between subfields. Given acute present anxieties about the job market, encouraging students to challenge sub-disciplinary boundaries must go hand-in-hand with efforts to reconfigure these entrenched institutional patterns.

We continue to pursue these goals by incorporating them into our own teaching and research agendas. Briggs teaches a graduate seminar focusing on collaborative rethinking of foundational works on language and health and the emergence of alternative formulations. He has attempted to reconfigure traditions of research in two books forthcoming in May 2016, Making Health Public (with Daniel Hallin) and Tell Me Why My Children Died (with Clara Mantini-Briggs). Faudree is completing the book about salvia, showing how its value—like other drugs—is dependent not only on political but also semiotic economies, and on practices involving both bodies and words. This approach undergirds a seminar she teaches on anthropological approaches to drugs, and a new course on language and medicine co-taught with medical anthropologist Sherine Hamdy. Beyond other panels at professional meetings, which we do not have space to report here, we are creating web-based resources that will attempt to connect potential interlocutors and highlight relevant scholarship. We plan to request funding that will bring anthropologists together to collectively examine intra-disciplinary forms of boundary-work and spark new approaches, simultaneously building a network of scholars that extends beyond the borders of North America.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA contributing editors Aaron Ansell( or Anna Babel (

To submit contributions to the SMA column please contact contributing editor Megan Carney (