Das Highlights Plight of India's Urban Poor

By Tory Brykalski - Why do state health policies and practices—ostensibly designed to save lives—sometimes fail certain populations? How might paying attention to these policies and practices enhance our understanding of state power? Veena Das, the Krieger–Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, explored such questions at a colloquium hosted by the UC Davis Department of Anthropology on March 7, 2016. 

Das, author of the newly released book Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty, has written extensively on social suffering, violence, and survival. Her lecture, “Medical Markets and the Urban Poor: Evidence from India,” introduced a novel way of understanding the form of modern state power in the context of health interventions and treatments. 

Drawing on ethnographic reflections from different neighborhoods in India, she questioned the extent to which communities are “let to die” by the state and health care professionals. First, she examined the different modules of practicing medicine in different neighborhoods: what are the circumstances under which individuals and communities have access to health care?

Matter of life and death

Das then addressed how theoreticians in India interpret and engage with Michel Foucault’s work on biopower. In contrast to scholars who typically see modern state power in the form of health interventions that shape and make life, Das asked: what happens to our understanding of state power when we draw on ethnographic examples in which it “lets” certain populations “die”, rather than making certain kinds of life “live?”

Paying attention to these different modes of “letting die,” Das argued, might help us to understand—and respond to—how power works in different communities.

Learn more about Veena Das at her Johns Hopkins University faculty webpage.