Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Medical Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Inclusivity
Secondary Theme: Ethics
Having a condition that affects cognition – such as autism, dementia, brain injury, mental illness and intellectual disability – often puts someone’s ability to take decisions for themselves in doubt. What consequences does this have for their care? This panel investigates the resilience and adaptability of different kinds of caring relationships for people with cognitive conditions across the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. What challenges do these relationships pose to caregivers and care recipients alike, as well as to current anthropological theories of care and disability?
Scholars of disability have often argued that, outside of ableist social environments and paternalistic relationships of care, people with impairments can be transformed into empowered, decision-making agents like anyone else. Anthropologists of care meanwhile have tended to be more sceptical of these aspirations to autonomy - arguing that they frequently lead to the degradation of care and the marginalisation of, for instance, those with mental illnesses (Biehl 2012; Pols 2006), dementia (McLean 2015; Taylor 2010) and intellectual disabilities (Pols, Althoff, and Bransen 2017). These writers place their hopes for change not in independence but relationships of dependence, not prowess but rather the caring accommodation of vulnerability.
This panel brings together scholars working on a range of cognitive conditions in order to ask what this conversation would look like from the perspective of a concerted and comparative investigation of mental, as opposed to bodily, impairment. What form does care take, and what results does it have, when justified by cultural classifications not of the disabled body but rather of the malfunctioning “brain”, “mind”, or “self”? What moral aspirations, distributions of responsibility (Trnka and Trundle, 2017), and ethical dynamics arise in relationships that cater to the needs (however they are imagined) of people with cognitive as opposed to physical disabilities? Do caregivers and care recipients in these different settings encounter similar kinds of affordances and opportunities, or grapple with comparable dilemmas and difficulties (Brodwin 2013)? In short, we explore cognitive differences as a novel way of accessing what is at stake in practices of care in different societies.
How might this exploration deepen and develop our anthropological conversation about care, cognition, and disability? Despite their differences, the dominant arguments in the anthropology of care and disability both presume that, despite the appearance of particular limitations, there are still universal ethical possibilities open to those with disabilities and that the right kind of social relationships will realise these. These arguments smooth over the differences between the impaired and the able, and between physical and mental forms of impairment. How would a focus on the specificity of caring relationships involving people with cognitive conditions reshape this conversation? What might the themes of autonomy and dependence, limitation and possibility, look like from this perspective? Will this emphasis open up hitherto unexplored avenues of possibility for these individuals? Or might it also suggest that certain kinds of mental disability or difference pose limits that even the best social arrangements and caring relationships cannot work around (Davis 2012)?