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Anthropological approaches broaden and deepen our understanding of the finding that high levels of socioeconomic inequality correlate with worsened health outcomes across an entire society. Social scientists have debated whether such societies are unhealthy because of diminished social cohesion, psychobiological pathways, or the material environment. Anthropologists have questioned these mechanisms, emphasizing that fine-grained ethnographic studies reveal that social cohesion is locally and historically produced; psychobiological pathways involve complex, longitudinal biosocial dynamics suggesting causation cannot be viewed in purely biological terms; and material factors in health care need to be firmly situated within a broad geopolitical analysis. As a result, anthropological scholarship argues that this finding should be understood within a theoretical framework that avoids the pitfalls of methodological individualism, assumed universalism, and unidirectional causation. Rather, affliction must be understood as the embodiment of social hierarchy, a form of violence that for modern bodies is increasingly sublimated into differential disease rates and can be measured in terms of variances in morbidity and mortality between social groups. Ethnographies on the terrain of this neoliberal global health economy suggest that the violence of this inequality will continue to spiral as the exclusion of poorer societies from the global economy worsens their health-an illness poverty trap that, with few exceptions, has been greeted by a culture of indifference that is the hallmark of situations of extreme violence and terror. Studies of biocommodities and biomarkets index the processes by which those who are less well off trade in their long-term health for short-term gain, to the benefit of the long-term health of better-off individuals. Paradoxically, new biomedical technologies have served to heighten the commodification of the body, driving this trade in biological futures as well as organs and body parts.
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Nguyen, V.K., and K. Peschard. “Anthropology, Inequality, and Disease: A Review.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2003, 447–74.
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