ASAP Column – 2015 February (Pajo/Powers)

Anthropology of Energy, Waste and Health Policies

Judi Pajo and Theodore Powers (ASAP Column Editors)

Originally: Anthropology News (February 2015)

At the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, December 3-7, 2014, ASAP invited a roundtable, sponsored 13 sessions, and co-sponsored a distinguished lecture. Papers explored a vast array of issues of life within and between states from migration policies to education, labor, welfare, water quality, food security, health, and climate change policies. Some panels were organized around regions like East Asia, South Asia, or Scandinavia; others around themes like cash transfers or multiculturalism. In the presentations, the role of the state remained prominent, while the involvement of actors, stakeholders and “informants in power” were moved to the center of the analysis. Such a framing grows out of anthropologists viewing policy not as an addition, but as central to their research. In sum, the ASAP sessions underscored that policy grows out of a complex sociopolitical process, operates across scales, and merits study in its own right.

ASAP President Janine Wedel convened a board meeting and a business meeting to advance collaboration among anthropologists of policy. In addition to the general membership, there is also a special network for anthropologists working at policy schools. Attendees discussed possible topics for the next annual meeting in Denver, CO, which included water, energy, and policing. To facilitate communication between meetings, members and those interested in learning more about ASAP are reminded that there is a group listserv, a website and this column that carry up to date information on section business.

ASAP thanks Anette Nyqvist for her service in editing the ASAP Section News column for the last three years. Starting in the March/April print issue, Judi Pajo and Theodore Powers will be co-editing this column for the coming year. Theodore Powers is currently an assistant professor of anthropology and global health at the University of Iowa and a research associate with the human economy program at the University of Pretoria. Powers’ work focuses on the interplay between social movements, the state and health policy in post-apartheid South Africa. Judi Pajo is currently assistant professor of anthropology at Pace University and visiting scholar in European studies at New York University. Pajo’s work focuses on energy, waste and environmental policies in the United States and the European Union.

One of the key questions animating anthropological analyses of health and health policy is the influence of transnational forces. Be they defined through transnational donor capital, policy norms developed by international health institutions or via the spread of biomedical norms, the question of how to locate the transnational is an increasingly central concern. This is particularly the case amongst anthropologists focused on the dynamics of health and society in the Global South. At the macro level in ‘developing’ countries, the production of health policy is heavily circumscribed by the demands of donors and by the downward fiscal pressure imposed by international financial institutions, the threat of capital flight, or both. On the micro level, actors, activists and communities seeking access to treatment navigate unevenly developed health systems alongside non-governmental interventions aimed at improving health outcomes.

Academic analyses seeking to tie together these macro and micro perspectives have largely done so based on identifying transnational actor-networks or by focusing on the internalization of transnational biomedical norms. However the anthropology of policy is an emerging alternative to these approaches. Offering a perspective that incorporates the sociopolitical activity across multiple levels, the anthropology of health policy links together social, political and cultural dynamics. Focusing on the emergence of policy, health systems and community-based health outcomes, the anthropology of health policy offers important new insights on how best to link socio-political activities across institutional scales.

Both energy and waste policies are becoming increasingly contested in societies across the world. Publics find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as energy consumption and waste production increase. Everyday tasks such as plugging in a computer or taking out the trash, coexist with abstract debates about economy, environment, and society. Voiced at community meetings, such ideas are publicly recorded, and become sites for ethnographic fieldwork. Disparate issues such as curb-side recycling, power plant emissions, land ownership, water quality, utility bills, taxes and subsidies, constitute some of the issues around which everyday people experience the complexities of social life and energy and/or waste policy.

People engaged in production or consumption of energy and waste, generate abundant and diverse ideas that are often overlooked in the policy process. What is raw and messy at the local level, is cooked and processed as it makes its way through meetings in towns, counties, and states. On the one hand, policy becomes more representative through this process as it includes multiple localities. On the other hand, policy also becomes less representative due to the influence of powerful actors and organizations in the policy development process. By the time a policy reaches the national level, ‘local’ ideas have been transformed into just two choices: pro/contra-fracking, pro/contra-nuclear, etc. It is difficult to choose between economic growth and environmental protection, and perhaps it is unnecessary. In analyzing the socio-political process through which such binaries are reached, emerging ethnographic studies on energy and waste policy help bring people back into the policy process and may highlight new pathways towards achieving policy diversity.

The incoming co-editors invite those publishing research on the anthropology of policy to serve as contributing authors for the Section News of the association for ASAP. Those whose work focuses on health policy and policy research based in Africa should contact Theodore Powers. Judi Pajo will be seeking out contributors on energy and environmental policies. In addition, ASAP invites contributions that explore policy processes in all fields.