Public Health + Anthropology?

Posted on Posted in anthropology, education
Public Health

Perhaps. I visited a once-teacher of mine from community college a couple of weeks ago — a cultural anthropologist (PhD), and one I’m happy to have kept in touch with. And I guess I shouldn’t say a ‘once-teacher,’ since I’m definitely still learning from her. I was talking to her about breastfeeding and what I’m doing at the moment, the project I’m working on with the Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington, and my plans on becoming an IBCLC. While we spent some time talking about education (as we always do), she suggested a program at the University of Washington that is a concurrent MPH and PhD — the Doctoral would be in cultural anthropology, of course.

I won’t go into detail right now about how I always find myself going back and forth with what I believe is the commodification of formal institutions I often find myself at odds with — that often interferes with my desire to work towards a doctoral degree. I fear it will widen the space between communities I want to represent, and ironically those communities are the reasons I even went to school. It’s a double-edged sword. But I also love what I do! I love working towards a goal of getting more Black women to breastfeed! I love examining ways to use what I have learned studying anthropology to greater represent underrepresented populations, and bridging social and cultural misunderstandings between groups! I love exploring areas that are overlooked! And I love that I am able to give the practices of this discipline a more public view, and get people excited about it. I love my field almost to a fault! But public health?

Maybe this sounds strange considering the reasons I’m even here — to decrease disparities in the Black community. But I have only ever seen myself doing applied cultural anthropology — using my ‘anthropological expertise to solve contemporary problems’ as a Black feminist anthropologist. I have only ever visualized working on the social and cultural aspects to critique and challenge inequality at the foundation and raise radical social and self awareness among our women, men and children through righteous action, participatory action research and critical ethnographies. I’ve not visualized a biological or even bio-cultural approach. Or, through those avenues mentioned in the image above — surveillance, monitoring, risk — at least it has not been on my agenda. But maybe I’m more ignorant about public health than I give myself credit.

I know there are many anthropologists and breastfeeding advocates who earn advanced degrees in Public Health — but it just never occurred to me I may be one of them. I am definitely going to give this a lot more thought and look into it because it’s definitely worth it. And even though my professor told me the sad but true story that a class referencing ‘mother’s milk’ in the title will draw less students than one with something general like ‘Environmental Anthropology’ (another subject we were talking about),  I can already visualize The Anthropology of Human Lactation as a course offering.

2 thoughts on “Public Health + Anthropology?

  1. Hey! Well, as you know from following my blog, I’m doing both applied anthro and public health. I came in because of the anthro, but I have to say I’m really glad I am doing public health. I didn’t know much about it before I got here, just that it was a good match for my interest in medical anthro.

    Even though my anth program is applied, the public health side is MUCH MORE hands on, making a difference in the community. It has much better connections to the health world of my area, whereas the anthro department focuses on some health topics but also a lot of other things. Unfortunately there are only a couple students with an interest in breastfeeding topics who must be gung ho on our own because there are no faculty focusing on this topic (and that’s my big suggestion to you – find a program that is very into breastfeeding, whether anth or ph, because the lack of resources is frustrating).

    I really like the interplay. With anthro I’m studying my passion and looking at things from a perspective that public health lacks… but with the public health background I feel I am better prepared to work in the health arena and make a difference on a large level. Applied anthro is still struggling with how to train anthro’s to be actively involved, plan interventions, do something after their research is done. Public Health training is exactly that. So I think the combo is really worthwhile!

    Let me know if you have any Q’s! :)

  2. Wow, Emily! I am *absolutely* thankful for your insight!! Like I said, I don’t really have much of a clue about public health, and never even gave the area any thought, though already it’s sounding more inviting — especially this part: ” Applied anthro is still struggling with how to train anthro’s to be actively involved, plan interventions, do something after their research is done. Public Health training is exactly that.”

    I’m surprised about the amount of hands-on work that is involved compared to applied anthro, though which is what I love and is something I really appreciated about the area in the first place, so I’m really going to look more into this. I’m wondering since there is such lack of breastfeeding resources how possible it is there is a program more focused on the area.

    They sound like they work really awesome together — well anthropology works awesome with anything ;), and I will absolutely send my questions your way!!!!

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