Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 1

“I’m an anthropologist by training and I work as a medical interpreter.” When I tell this to people from anthropology backgrounds, I often receive sympathetic groans from them, as if I fell out of anthropology heaven, wasting my graduate training. It certainly felt that way when I left academic anthropology. However, my medical interpreter job proved me wrong.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about this job when the offer came to me at first. Having read numerous scholarly critiques of biomedical institutions during my studies in medical anthropology, I felt that I would be engulfed by biomedicine and end up working on the “wrong side” of the powerful (biomedicine)-powerless (patients) equation.

Anyone who has studied medical anthropology should be familiar with the canonical work in critical assessments of biomedicine (or Western medicine) by Arthur Kleinman, Byron Good, Margaret Lock, etc (for practical advice on working within biomedicine, see Kleiman’s essay “Anthropology in Clinic”). They warn us of the authoritative power of biomedical knowledge, which is so extensive that it permeates as legitimate cultural norms, values, and morals through our everyday lives. Specifically relating to my current job, some scholars caution about the negative consequences of medical interpreters in patients’ health outcomes: the interpreter as information gatekeeper and provider proxy (Hsieh and Kramer 2012), the interpreter as a covert co-diagnostician and institutional gatekeeper (Davidson 2001), and the interpreter as an ineffective mediator for meaningful clinical communications (Leanza, Bolvin, and Rosenberg 2010).

Despite my skepticism, the medical interpreter job hasn’t bulldozed over my principles as an anthropologist. And I credit this positive result to the medical interpreter certification program, as well as my training in anthropology. The interpreter training was carefully crafted to encourage prospective interpreters to learn how to focus strictly on being communication conduits between providers and patients, while also developing the ability to assess when to become a patient’s advocate. The instructor of this training program made us practice juggling these roles in various hypothetical scenarios over and over again.

Being detail-oriented, which I acquired from my ethnographic research as a part of the training in anthropology, helps me fulfill these medical interpreter roles as well. We interpreters are the eyes and ears of these complex medical situations, vigilantly attending to facial expressions of the provider and the patient and any words and sounds uttered by them. What our eyes and ears catch is instant data, so to speak, in order for us to identify miscommunications, distrusts, and disagreements between both sides of the equation. In this way, we can quickly step out of the communication conduit role and jump back in to help attenuate conflicts and tensions.

One unexpected benefit from my training in anthropology came to light through writing up mandatory post-appointment reports. My interpreter agency often commends me for my meticulous reports. Writing these reports certainly brings back some of the memories from my ethnographic research – Flashback: I’m sitting in my car at a gas station a couple of blocks away from one of my research sites and madly scribbling down every little detail I saw and heard during a long event where I just did participant-observation. I can later type this all up into a coherent story as a part of research data that will be coded and analyzed after the completion of the research.

Sure, writing post-appointment reports isn’t as complicated as typing up fieldnotes. But all of the words I jot down while interpreting my clients become something like the notes I took during my participant-observation, as I type them up into a post-appointment report – sometimes on my phone as soon as I get back to my car in the hospital parking lot. I honestly would have never thought that ethnographic research skills would be useful at a job outside anthropology.

To see Part 2, click here.

Takami is a medical interpreter and Co-founder of Coalition of Anthropology Students of Color (coalitionascolor.org). You can reach her via @tsd1888 on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 1

  1. I’ve been having similar experiences as a community health worker. Thank you for sharing your experience! I’ve been meaning to write up my own.

  2. Thank you for your note Caitlin, and I’m glad to know there are more practicing anthropologists like you!

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