Hunt, Nancy Rose (2007.) “Colonial medical anthropology and the making of the central African infertility belt” In Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 252 – 281). New York, New York: Manchester University Press.

“Why aren’t the natives having more children?” This is the question at the heart of Nancy Rose Hunt’s article on the origins of medical anthropology. It is a story of ambivalence and ambiguity, with a wide cast of characters, each of whom has a blurry role in the drama that unfolds. The two individuals at the heart of the story are Charles Lodewyckx and Anne Retel-Laurentin, two Europeans acting as producers of anthropological knowledge, although neither was an anthropologist by vocation. I will focus on the account of Anne Retel-Laurentin, both in the interst of space, and since it better illustrates the ethical and professional concerns raised in the article.

The crisis in question spanned from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s in various colonial territories of Central Africa. Lodewyckx was active in the Congo, and dealt mostly with Mongo people. Retel-Laurentin was in the French-administered region of Ubangi-Shari, where she was a physician serving Nzakara women with fertility problems. The author says that Retel-Laurentin has a “background in ethnology” and alludes to prior training without much explication, but makes it clear that she was not a professional academic. Nevertheless she produced a corpus of ethnographic notes drawn from her patients, whom she treated in an effort to resolve the ongoing epidemic of infertility. Any anthropological research performed today in an academic environment today requires vetting for ethical issues that may arise. Anne Retel-Laurentin did her work before such standards were in place, and being outside the academic establishment, they would not have applied to her anyway. Her notes would very likely not be publishable today, given the power dynamic underlying them. She was a medical doctor, trained in France and the women who informed her study were the patients of her practice.  Over time, she came to be known as a kind of local savior who assisted women in conceiving and bearing children, and she apparently did little to discourage this image.

Retel-Laurentin already had the upper hand over her informants because she was their physician. She was informed of their most intimate thoughts and feelings, and knew their bodies intimately. By the time she attained the status of folk hero, her observations were certainly outside the realm of the scientific. This raises several questions for the reader. First- can her accounts, though scientifically compromised, still be considered useful ethnographically? Secondly- if they are useful, should they be refused on ethical grounds, since they were extracted from an extremely unequal power relationship? Retel-Laurentin saw herself as a feminist and an anti-colonialist critic, but in the terms of 2015 discourse, her work in deeply tainted by its political nature. To both questions I have suggested above, I have an ambivalent emotional response. The data is not scientifically valid, because of its method of extraction, but I put little stock in the portrayal of cultural anthropology as ‘scientific’. I consider the discipline to be  a closer cousin to journalism than it is to biology, but I also cannot help but be troubled by Retel-Laurentin’s study of women who had her utmost trust and confidence. Certainly she could not publish the notes if they were taken in present day France, or in the United States or Canada, because of the expectation of doctor-patient privilege. Whether this concept was enshrined in law in 1950’s Metropolitan France, I can’t say- nor whether it qould apply in a colonial territory, but I believe firmly in the spirit of that relationship, and I believe that Retel-Laurentin acted in violation of it.

That being said, I still have a hard time recommending the erasure of her work. Doing so, to me, implies that not just the methods, but the knowledge itself is bad in some sense. I think of historical examples like Nazi V-2 rocket research putting humans on the moon, or human vivisections in Imperial Japan providing medical data for modern physicians to better treat their patients. Knowledge obtained unethically is not itself unethical in either of those cases. However, anthropological knowledge, is not made of the same stuff as knowledge from other disciplines. Disciplines which rely on the scientific method treat their data as valid because it is repeatable under controlled circumstances. Ethnography could never be this way, because its subject matter is human sentiment, opinion, memory and emotion. All of these things change constantly and fluidly and have no firm rules or patterns that govern them. Culture is beyond the laws of physics. So if the data cannot be characterized as a flow of particles or waves, what then is its material? Ethnography, I submit, is made of relationships. The data ethnographers report is not the result of personal relationships, nor is it a discrete product extracted from interactions. By the nature of ethnographic study, the results reported are merely still images of a relationship, curated by the ethnographer and presented in an ordered way.

Retel-Laurentin never treated her patients with any malice, or anything but the best intentions (as far as this article says). I do not contend that she intended to exploit or degrade them in any way. However, I believe that the nature of her relationship with the women she treated in Ubangi-Shari makes her notes unsuitable for publication as anthropology. I do not advocate for their deletion, but I do not endorse them for inclusion in anthropological texts, either. I realize that my stance invites a further discussion on what is admissible from the corpus of ‘non-professional’ anthropology. My reaction is no doubt emotional on some level, and lacks a firm basis in codified ethics. I invite this discussion. Not only do I need it, but I feel that my discipline does too.


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