Re-Placing Cultures

I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it.

—Deborah McFarland, Associate Professor of International Health


Vol. 7 No. 5
April/May 2005

Special Issue

Re-placing Cultures
A dialogue among disciplines
Guest Editor, Bruce M. Knauft, Executive Director, Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology

On transculture
Mikhail Epstein

I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it.
Deborah McFarland, Associate Professor of International Health

Increasingly, our law is so tied up with the religiosity of this society that it’s not just repositioning law, it’s
repositioning the role of religion in American culture.

Martha L.A. Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law

Re-placing National Culture
Globalization and collective identity in the Netherlands
Frank Lechner, Associate Professor of Sociology

Digital Nationalism
Re-placing place in the Indian diaspora
Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English

Further reading

God’s Chosen Tongues
Hebrew and Arabic in the Qur’an
Devin J. Stewart, Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies
Further reading


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MC: In your view, how is culture being transformed or repositioned globally and transnationally?

Deborah McFarland: I generally speak from the health perspective because that’s what I know. As I look back on the last thirty years, I think that the amount of money and where the money comes from has made a difference. For example, when you think back a hundred years, the primary sources of funds from Europe and the United States were from churches and missions, and that laid a foundation for a very different kind of transformation. Missionaries stayed in deepest, darkest Africa for their whole careers. They didn’t run in and run out—a year here, a year there, two years here, two years there. They were there, for better or for worse. They had their problems, but they did transform healthcare in particular. Not necessarily the health mentality, but healthcare, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. That kind of institutional investment is not occurring now. Why? Because organizations say they can’t afford that kind of recurrent cost expenditure. So we started thinking about selected health interventions. I think that has transformed the way communities respond to outsiders: they’re cynical, and rightly so. It’s this constant infusion of new enthusiasms, new energies, and naïve folks. Speaking as an educator who’s sending over a lot of these folks, that’s a problem.

MC: Is the cynicism accompanied by an understanding of being a global citizen, as organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) become more involved in, for instance, the HIV/AIDS movement in South Africa?

DM: Yes. The transformation, energy, intellect, and efforts are being directed from South Africa, not from the U.S. or Europe. They’re building those coalitions—using us when they want to use us and it’s appropriate to use us—and dissing us when it’s not. That kind of change in the power dominance is certainly a transformation that’s occurred.

MC: Is the worldview of first-world countries being transformed by the fact that large sums of money are being made available to address health problems in other countries?

DM: For the most part, middle-class Americans probably feel very proud that something is going on. In fact, not a single [antiretroviral] drug has been delivered yet, but maybe it will now that the fda has certified one combination drug as acceptable—even though it’s totally ludicrous that it had to be re-evaluated after winning approval by WHO. The fact is that it’s done, and now the President’s Emergency Plan for aids Relief countries can purchase the drug. Antiretrovirals can make a huge economic impact in areas that are very poor. But how long will we be able to continue to pay for them? You hope that while the drugs are available, wherever they’re coming from, work is being done on hiv/aids vaccines and prevention strategies, because we know that people have to take these drugs for their entire lives. But we’re not going to be able to provide them forever. I don’t think any of us quite want to come to grips with what’s going to happen in the aftermath of hundreds of thousands of people who have been on antiretrovirals for four or five years, and suddenly there’s no more funding available.

MC: In what ways is the HIV pandemic moving our health culture?

DM: I think it is changing things more so here than in Africa. Certainly everyone knows somebody in their family, household, or school who is HIV-positive and/or has died of AIDS. That has helped transform our health culture. But I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it: “it’s just one more disease to add to the plethora of diseases we already have, so we’ll just deal with it and move on.” They understand that it has extraordinary consequences, but there’s not the type of doom and gloom that you read in Newsweek, the Economist, and the New York Times. It’s probably positive for us to recognize that this is a global pandemic. It’s not just a virus that gets transmitted, but something that might have social, economic, behavioral, and educational consequences. Have we recognized that malaria does the same thing? No. That tuberculosis does the same thing? No. But with hiv, people have done a good job of making the disease understood, and the globalization of it and devastation of the disease I think are much more understood in the U.S. by a much broader group of people than with any other disease.

Interview conducted by Martha Carey, a graduate student in public health.