How Anthropology Can Transform Global Health Efforts

Jean Hunleth stands in a field of grass in Africa.
April 15, 2015

As the largest Ebola outbreak in history claims thousands of lives and developing countries continue to fight tuberculosis and HIV and AIDS crises, many of us wonder: Are we approaching global health epidemics the wrong way?

According to 2010–11 AAUW American Fellow Jean Hunleth, we are missing a key piece of the puzzle. With a doctorate degree in anthropology and a master’s of public health from Northwestern University, Hunleth has focused her work on Zambia. During her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the southern African country, she witnessed the lack of health care for people who suffered from tuberculosis and HIV.

These days, she stresses the necessity of anthropology in understanding health issues and controlling epidemics. Anthropology is especially valuable when we look at epidemics as far-reaching as the most recent Ebola outbreak, which has lasting effects on a country’s economy, on the health care system, and perhaps inordinately on women.

So how can anthropology improve global health efforts?

Hunleth says that in her experience — both in Zambia and in her current research work with colleagues in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis — “Public health practitioners from many disciplines value good anthropological insight and view it as something that will strengthen their programming.”

Hunleth suggests that an anthropologist’s success in public health draws on being able to do three main things. First, viewing public health as a culture you are trying to learn by paying attention to the language, norms, assumptions, and behaviors of each distinct global health organization. Secondly, identifying hidden assumptions some public health programs make, and their potential to lead to unintended effects. And lastly, learning to draw on theories and methods from anthropology and showing your co-workers the value of using them.

2010–11 AAUW American Fellow Jean Hunleth studied global health and anthropology in Zambia.

2010–11 AAUW American Fellow Jean Hunleth studied global health and anthropology in Zambia.

Hunleth’s main area of focus is the anthropology of childhood. She calls her work a “type of intervention” and explains that “we need to see what children are doing to understand global health problems.” In a blog post outlining the ways the anthropology of childhood applies to the Ebola response, she writes, “I can’t help but think that anthropologists of childhood should play a tremendous role in assisting organizations and funding agencies in their relief efforts aimed at children in the Ebola outbreak.”

Applied to understanding the role of women and gender imbalances involved in child care, Hunleth’s AAUW fellowship allowed her to complete her dissertation on the connection between anthropology, women and children, and global health. In Zambia, Hunleth found, gender imbalances are reflected in work roles, property rights, household responsibilities, and access to education. The rise of TB and HIV have only intensified these imbalances. She reveals how widespread disease affects gender norms, as TB and HIV caregivers — who tend to be women — are placed in highly vulnerable and precarious positions. For Hunleth, “putting theory into practice” is essential. “It is not enough to read, write, and think about women’s issues. … As an anthropologist, you have to get closer and live in it,” she says Hunleth.

After spending a total of 18 months over three years in Zambia researching for her forthcoming book, On Being Closer: Child Caregivers, Kinship, and Tuberculosis in an African City, Hunleth encourages the need for fieldwork. For her, that meant studying the local culture: She has learned the social and gender relationships, as well as the language, in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, and because of this, she says, “People were more open to my presence.”

Hunleth’s fieldwork also acknowledges women’s subordination in Zambia — but she thinks that understanding women’s and children’s roles within health care, not only as victims, may be the key to changing that. By learning about this younger generation and looking at how they communicate and learn about diseases, as well as learning about the roles women and children share in Zambia, Hunleth believes she can start to transform the underlying assumptions that currently dictate and misinform global health research and practice. “Children have their own history and something valuable to tell us,” she says.

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Madeline Clements.


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