Medical anthropology as an university subject in Russia (summary)

© 2012 V.I. Kharitonova, D.V. Mikhel

2012 – № 2 (4)

D.V. Mikhel is interviewed by V.I.Kharitonova


mikhelDmitry Viktorovich Mikhel, Ph.D. (Philosophy), is a Professor at the Department of Sociology, Social Anthropology and Social Work, as well as the Dean of Faculty of Social Humanities Sciences of Gagarin Saratov State Technical University. He is the author and co-author of more than 130 academic works, including 5 monographs. Among them are the following: “Michel Foucault in subjectification strategies” (Saratov, 1999), “Embodied Man: Western Culture, Medical Control and the Body” (Saratov, 2000), “Body in Western culture” (Saratov, 2000), “Disease and World History” (Saratov, 2009), 11 student manuals. Academic interests of D.V. Mikhel include Medical Anthropology, Social History of Medicine, Social History of Science.

Key words: medical anthropology education, Saratov, teaching work, fieldwork, teaching strategy, research, interdisciplinary approach

Abstract: In this interview Dmitry Mikhel talks about how he came to pioneer creation of university courses on Medical Anthropology in Russia, making of Saratov State Technical University the center of Medical Anthropology education in Russia. He discusses peculiarities of his teaching work and describes the course in general, elaborates on works of some of the most prominent medical anthropologists and concludes, that he continues to experiment as a teacher and search for a right teaching strategy.

In this interview Dmitry Mikhel talks about how he came to pioneer creation of university courses on Medical Anthropology in Russia. In 2000 he got his PhD (degree of Doctor of Science) in Philosophical Anthropology that had much to do with issues of corporality, biomedical interventions and cultural contexts of the development of western medicine. While working on his dissertation, Dmitry Mikhel came across works of some western medical anthropologists, in particular Margaret Lock and Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Then came the realization that his philosophical dissertation contained something beyond philosophical anthropology: for instance, some specific topics of medical anthropology.

In 2001 Prof. Elena Yarskaya-Smirnova invited Dmitry Mikhel to read some lectures on medical anthropology at Saratov State Technical University. It’s worth mentioning that this university at that time started to actively develop the field of social sciences. Elena Yarskaya-Smirnova who at that time was the head of the Department launched two amazing educational programs – on social work and social anthropology. So, Dmitry Mikhel’s academic interests were supported, and since 2001-2002 he has been teaching medical anthropology at Saratov State Technical University (in addition to teaching medical history to historians at Saratov State University).

Dmitry Mikhel continues the interview by expressing his gratitude to his colleagues in Saratov. Besides Elena Yarskaya-Smirnova, he talks about Pavel Vasilievich Romanov, a sociologist, as well as Velikhan Mirzekhanov who, being the dean of Saratov Faculty of History, encouraged D. Mikhel in developing his interests related to the history of medicine, cultural practices around leprosy and smallpox, history of mental diseases. D. Mikhel also mentions Irina Evgenievna Sirotkina, a historian of psychology and psychiatry, recently involved in anthropology of dance.

Later on Valentina Kharitonova and the interviewee discuss how it happened that a relatively provincial university, like Saratov State Technical University, became the center of Medical Anthropology education in Russia. Dmitry Mikhel notes that the modern globalized world gives all the possibilities for self-education (through on-line libraries, books and journals) and communication with peer specialists and medical workers (through web-sites of foreign and Russian university departments, their professors, lectures, curricula and publications). Dmitry Mikhel also hopes that once a good student manual on medical anthropology appears, the development of the discipline will go faster.

Dmitry Mikhel discusses peculiarities of his teaching work at Saratov State Technical University. For 10 years already he teaches to students of humanitarian disciplines, social anthropologists and social workers. Medical anthropology is a fixed discipline in the university study plan. However, D. Mikhel encourages students to freely evaluate his course once it is over and the exam is passed. During the interview Dmitry reads out loud extracts of students’ feedback on his course. He notes that to make the course more interesting and diverting he introduces different elements, like asking students to write about their visit to a pharmacy, state polyclinic, or hospital, and then discussing their observations during the seminars. Students frequently read articles in English and watch video-materials. After graduation they can find themselves doing various jobs. For instance, one of Dmitry’s students who wrote her diploma on the culture of pharmacy service, decided to keep working at a pharmacy as a manager. Some people start working in the system of social welfare, others – at schools. There are graduates who got involved in further scientific work.

The course on medical anthropology consists of 17-18 academic hours. Recently, there’s appeared a possibility to devote more time to practical work that gives Dmitry Mikhel a chance to present materials in a more interesting manner. For now the university have not gone so far as to introduce specialization in medical anthropology. However, Dmitry Mikhel carried out a sort of an in-depth seminar where he and his students were reading and discussing texts, as well as analyzing the course of students’ fieldwork. With some of his students Dmitry Mikhel used to study specific topics of medical anthropology, for example preparation and sale of medical plants at the local market, and even the issue of relation to pain. The fieldwork at the moment is not very extensive. The faculty has been sending students for some years to a village where they can do participant observation and then write reports. However, the faculty can not afford to carry out fieldwork in exotic locations – that is why social anthropology there becomes more and more urban-like.

Dmitry Mikhel points out that he is still continuing to experiment as a teacher and search for a right teaching strategy. At the beginning of his teaching career in this field he tried to do what Lynn Payer did when she was discussing different public health systems in various countries – Russia, China, USA, Germany, etc. With time, however, he started to follow more and more the steps of those medical anthropologists in the USA and Europe who tried to systematically introduce a range of issues related to health, disease, treatment and health maintenance. It’s hard to prioritize though and put a limit on materials to be presented to students, as there are lots of options.

Dmitry Mikhel acknowledges the fact that there are several distinct forms of medical anthropology – from biocultural approach to political economy. That’s why, in fact, medical anthropology may be taught to ecology students, as well as to sociologists. In his course Dmitry partially manages to demonstrate that several approaches to the same issue can be applied without prejudice to each other.

The course logic goes as follows: first, the professor presents peculiarities of the research field and its history, keeping in mind that medical anthropology is a discourse on health that in reality is an interdisciplinary phenomenon. After that he comes to talk about health, and how environmental, diatery changes, as well as modifications in health maintenance strategies (including healing and biomedical interventions) affect it. Dmitry Mikhel stresses medical pluralism and a variety of cultural tradions of healthcare. An  indispensable topic is health and reproduction. The most interesting point, according to Dmitry Mikhel, is that in each topic students can look at themselves and their personal experience in health maintenance, their “experience of suffering”, i.e. as patients of medical institutions and not only.

Further on, Dmitry Mikhel elaborates on works of some of the most prominent medical anthropologists, including Merrill Singer, Hans Baer, Ann MacElroy, Margaret Lock and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Arthur Kleinman, Paul Farmer, Wenda Trevathan and George Foster. Dmitry notices that he himself does not always manage to travel a lot around the world to meet major researchers in the area, but takes great pleasure in reading their works.

Dmitry Mikhel notices that his biography proves very well the interdisciplinary character of medical anthropology (in his academic career Dmitry Mikhel worked his way from history to philosophy and philosophical anthropology, and later to medical anthropology). He takes much pleasure in the research process, and is mostly involved in theoretic research, not fieldwork. Dmitry sees himself more like a methodologist doing propedeutic work. For all these years, Dmitry notes, he has been involved in medical anthropology propedeutics in Russia, organising “introduction” to this discipline.

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