Illness and Hardship as Rites of Passage

In the 1960s a Western anthropologist was medically evacuated out of India because of a cholera diagnosis. This was not an unusual occurrence at the time, as many foreign (and local) academics used their extraordinary privilege to deal with illness.

The anthropologists’ dramatic evacuation story resonates with both fictional and non-fictional vignettes from the colonial era, whereby tropical infections and lack of hygiene presented extreme danger to the bodies of colonial masters, and (less discussed) local elites.

Interventions to save these bodies often saw helicopters, all-terrain vehicles and teams of medical practitioners enter the field.

Our interest is not so much the use of privilege in responding to and treating illness, but rather, the ways in which illness as a rite of passage proceeds to be discussed within the context of the fieldwork narrative.

We write this essay as scholars who supervise and support graduate students, and who work with colleagues studying, and migrating, to the ‘developing’ world (so called ‘third world’).

As academics in the fields of anthropology and cultural studies we embarked on our PhD fieldwork journeys some years ago. The compulsory methodology courses we undertook during our doctoral training and their rigorous applications shaped our engagement with the ‘field.’

Today, we continue to conduct fieldwork in a variety of locations in India and are privy to evaluations made by students and peers from developed nations (‘first world’) about their fieldwork conducted in the ‘developing world.’ Chiefly, we note the distinct articulation of the way illness during fieldwork gets shaped by students and colleagues from Western universities.

While we have not conducted thorough research into the matter, the frequency of the survivalist story is something that spoke strongly to both authors, enough so to fuel discussion and analysis.

‘Surviving’ illness as a Rite of Passage
During the pre-fieldwork interim, PhD students may be expected to learn the local language (especially anthropologists), wait for ethical permissions, conduct a literature review and build networks.

Students in Western institutions are often taught to interrogate ‘power relations’ and notions of ‘reflexivity,’ as part of their methodology courses, before heading out into the field. For many PhD students, fieldwork is a grueling and emotionally exhausting experience, dubbed as ‘once in a life time.’ Upon return to their home institutions, many students communicate fieldwork debriefs in both formal and informal settings i.e. discuss their data, methods and lessons from the field in post-fieldwork courses, share stories with friends, etc.

We discern how methodology seminars, chapters, and dinner-party re-tellings of fieldwork often endorse orientalist representations of illness. It seems a rite of passage to have fallen ‘seriously ill’ and ‘survived’ illness; indeed, fieldwork debriefs would almost be incomplete without such references.

No doubt being ill is traumatic in the field, especially if travelling without loved ones, or in places where access to healthcare may be limited. And while we do not discount that some academics may meet a terrible fate in the field, these dramatic stories of ‘almost dying’ often disregards the reality that such illnesses are (unfortunately) very common place, with most ordinary (and yes, poor) people not only surviving illness, but also battling different illnesses multiple times over their lifetime.

Clearly the mortality statistics of debilitating illnesses show it is overwhelmingly the economically disenfranchised and vulnerable, that truly battle all aspects of ‘survival.’ More telling are the types of illness that are discussed so publicly with never a mention of persistent migraines or battles with depression. Rather it is the exotic colonial favourites (cholera, typhoid, dysentery, malaria, dengue, meningitis) that are painstakingly recounted with candor.

As academics from India it is hard not to wince when our students and contemporaries make comparable their dramatic survival stories of ordinary illness to some of the poorest, most disenfranchised and marginalized members of our community who do, bravely, battle common illness, and often succumb.

Like many people in the developing world, both authors have had malaria several times, and attribute their recovery from the common illness solely to their access to good local healthcare; this is a tale of our privilege, not our heroic survival.

Active Disclosure of Power Relations
In fieldwork illness narratives, what usually gets left out of dramatic descriptions of survival is an honest disclosure of a different set of power dynamics. Many PhD students and researchers make extensive use of the affective labor of domestic helpers, child-minders, drivers and local research assistants, many of whom are called into action when illness arises.

Few disclose how their fieldwork was made comfortable by living in some of the best neighborhoods or homes, with access to usually better transport, toilets, cooking facilities and healthcare than most ‘locals.’ Purposefully omitting these networks of support underscores survivalist stories.

We have both noted that, interestingly, students from developing countries, and diasporic students based in Western departments often have to defend their class and caste positions in their work far explicitly, while in actuality such reflexivity would equally apply to the Western student for whom entry points into fieldwork is often made easy through intermediaries such as their drivers, domestic help, landlords and research assistants.

Undeniably, there are Western students whose stipends are stringent or for other reasons fieldwork denies them the ‘comforts’ others may avail off. Then there are those who conduct research in conflict-ridden and rural areas, who may feel they do not identify with the issues we are raising. But even within these fieldwork realities, illness narratives take on greater meaning, as students and researchers living ‘just like the locals’ without these comforts are able to somehow access healthcare and return home to share their (almost always dramatic) tales.

Given that the methodology chapter and the fieldwork debriefing is a salient part of the doctoral thesis and of research experience, contemporary courses need to find ways to sufficiently tackle and counter orientalist tropes.

The experienced academics whose expertise falls in the ‘developing world’ can also play an active role in questioning and challenging such tropes. As such, far greater reflexivity of East-West encounters in the context of global inequalities should be an imperative inquiry of the fieldwork process.

After-all how many students from developing countries can study and travel to ‘first world’ countries with the ease in which Western researchers have access and freedom of mobility in the global South? And the same is certainly applicable to privileged citizens (like the diasporic and global elite) who study their own societies and communities where class and caste differences are critical.

Expatriate Narratives of Hardship
It is not only the academy where re-telling tales of illness and hardship are rites of passage; we see that in global discussions of migration this is a familiar narrative. While our 1960s anthropologist fled India because of cholera, recently, the New York Times Correspondent, Harris Gardiner (Holding Your Breath in India. The New York Times, May 29th, 2015) wrote an opinion piece as to why he was compelled to urgently leave New Delhi, India. Gardiner’s piece proved to be influential for it was re-published in India’s national newspaper, the Times of India (TOI). The city’s pollution problems had created an unbearable asthmatic condition for his son, who was put on steroids and Gardiner feared for his son’s lungs.

While we are cognizant that a vastly globalizing economy like India is faced with pollution hazards and other infrastructure problems (such problems were similar to countries undergoing industrialization many decades ago), consider the oriental tropes Gardiner uses to portray New Delhi:

My wife and I were both excited and prepared for difficulties – insistent beggars, endemic dengue and summertime temperatures that reach 120 degrees.

Gardiner wrote how his son would be able to skate and bicycle in Washington, without pollution related problems. It is not unusual for Gardiner and other (white) expatriate correspondents to unabashedly use the ‘hardship trope’ in the context of an actually highly privileged journalistic sojourn, complete with domestic help and access to the best medical facilities.

Such tropes are deeply rooted in orientalist discourses of the foreign, the dangerous and the backward. The fact that Gardiner, an ‘American expatriate,’ narrated his woes so publically, generated an enormous sympathetic response, throwing into sharp relief the global hierarchies that underpin international migration flows. We ask in contrast, whether similar reactions by African, Arab and Asian ‘immigrants’, not ‘expats’—as Mawuna Koutonin succinctly argues—(Why are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants? The Guardian, March 13, 2015) are ever so dramatized or documented in the media, in the way in which Gardiner and other expatriate tales receive so much attention?

This is particularly true of ‘immigrants’ who struggle with (in comparison from their place of origin) unreliable public transportation and mediocre mobile phone connectivity in many suburban Western towns—not to mention more pressing realities of racism, classism and religious bigotry that most immigrants face in their day-to-day lives.

In our experience, modern-day survivalist accounts of illness are really no different to colonial travel-diary musings of brave battles against tuberculosis, with the white (usually male) hero tackling and surviving thick jungles of foreignness (filled with poor hygiene, language barriers and miserable infrastructure) to escape victorious on the other side.

These contemporary narratives remind us that we are far from a postcolonial world. While the current century is labeled ‘postcolonial,’ scholars such as Ela Sohart (1992) and Anne McClintock (1992) have highlighted how ‘post’ often signifies ‘a closure of a certain historical event’, conveying the impression that this new epoch is ‘organized around a binary axis of time rather than power.’

The re-telling of illness tales as a rite of passage reinforces that it is a neo-colonial world in which we inhabit, where the colony and relationships with privileged colonial masters takes new form within the academy and global migration discourses.

Koutonin, Mawuna
2015 Why are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants? The Guardian, Friday 13th March, 2015.

McClintock, Anne Social
1992 The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Post-Colonialism.” Text. No. 31/32 Third World and Post-Colonial Issues, 84-98.

Shohat, Ella
1992 Notes on the “Post Colonial”. Social Text. No. 31/32 Third World and Post-Colonial Issues, 99-113.

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