Anthropology surfaced briefly in the mainstream media earlier this week when NPR ran a story entitled “Why anthropologists join an ebola outbreak team“. It was a good story with some useful links. But I thought I’d dig a little deeper and talk more about Barry Hewlett, the anthropologist who joined the ebola outbreak team, his work, and what it says about the value of anthropology.
I’ve never met Hewlett, but I know his work. He’s been writing on ebola for over ten years now, since the 2000-2001 outbreak in Uganda, and his book on ebola, Ebola, Culture and Politics; The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease came out in 2007. I’m not a big fan of Cengage’s case studies series, but its hard not to reach for this volume in the fall as classes are approaching and we’re thinking about teaching topical materials. It’s like a unit of an intro course or med anth course waiting to happen.
In fact, as teachable as this work on ebola is, Hewlett’s main work has been on another topic: fatherhood, and specifically the biocultural study of fatherhood in hunter-gatherer societies. Hewlett’s study of Aka pygmys (he doesn’t put that work in scare quotes, so I won’t, although I sure as heck want to). This, the main body of his work, also gets picked up in the press a lot because Aka fathers spend more time raising children then any other group that has been studied to date. They also engage in male breastfeeding (allowing children to sooth themselves by sucking or manipulating a man’s nipples with their mouth) which, of course, is exactly the sort of thing mediocre science journalism loves.
I like Hewlett’s work, and read it when I getting ready to become a father (yes, anthropologists about to become parents read the anthropology of parenting). Hewlett gets featured often in the media because his research topics make for good reading. But its also worth pointing out that Hewlett’s career demonstrates the value of long-term, engaged research with a community. If there were not experts who spend decades studying fatherhood in a place, we wouldn’t have anyone who could switch over to ebola research when that topic suddenly becomes important. The world would be a poorer place without people like Hewlett, who have invested time and energy developing an expertise that pays off in so many ways other than just narrow scholarly expertise in a particular area. Hewlett’s work, like the work of so many other professors, is a demonstration of the kind of academic that the world desperately needs, but which so many countries are increasingly unwilling to pay for.