The suffering stranger: Medical anthropology and international morality

  • Butt L
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Addressing global inequities has come to define a domain of activist medical anthropology called social justice studies. In a recent flagship volume, Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor, contributors describe the effect of global economic trends and neoliberal policies on the destitute and disadvantaged. In their advocacy, they use the voices and stories of the poor to explain the impact of structural adjustments. This paper uses Dying for Growth as an example through which to comment on the wider scholarly trend of using the local to validate global claims. The term "suffering stranger" describes those iconic figures whose experiences are presented in truncated first-hand accounts of suffering in order to validate broader theoretical aims. I argue that the suffering stranger masks the real absence of the voices of the poor and their suffering on the world stage. There is no international public sphere within which these voices might be heard; rather, there is a set of claims about justice and human rights. These claims, however, are themselves rooted in cultural values and are inextricably woven into global capital. I argue that, in using the voices of suffering to further a theoretical agenda, social justice activists assume the existence of a public, international domain within which those voices might be heard and that, in so doing, they further integrate the poor into destructive economic systems. Alongside the work of documenting health inequities, a truly effective activism may require assessing and critiquing existing claims of international morality.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Dying for Growth
  • Human rights
  • Inequality
  • Representations
  • Scholarship
  • Social justice

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  • Leslie Butt

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