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Disability Worlds

Wenner-Gren Symposium #157
March 9-15, 2018

Anthropology is well known for its capacious and ever-expanding framework and its embrace of diversity. Yet, as we argued in our 2013 Annual Review chapter “Disability Worlds,” this universal circumstance – how the realities of embodied, cognitive, and emotional impairments are understood in different socio-cultural contexts as part of the human condition -- has too often been neglected in our field.  Ethnographic studies of embodiment, personhood, kinship, gender/sexuality/reproduction, cognitive diversity, violence and its disabling aftermath, as well as citizenship and biopolitics remain incomplete and undertheorized without the consideration of disability. This framework provides a powerful lens to refocus and potentially transform thinking about new and enduring concerns shaping contemporary anthropology. At its most basic, the recognition of disability as a social fact helps us to understand the cultural specificities of personhood and to reconsider the unstable boundaries of the category of the human.

This symposium addresses the transformative value of critical anthropological studies of disability for many of our discipline’s key questions.  Historically, anthropological studies of disability were relatively rare until the late twentieth century, often intellectually segregated into the realm of medical and applied anthropology.  Yet, the international spread and uneven impact of the disability rights movement in the 21stcentury, as well as cross-cultural work in anthropology show that what counts as a disability in different cultural settings is not obvious. The need for research and theorization cannot be underestimated, given that approximately 80% of the world’s one billion people with disabilities reside in what is glossed as “the global south.”   Anthropologists have interrogated the limits of a Western individualizing model when studying disability across the world. This work examines the presence or absence of disability in familial, community, religious and political life as constructed by larger notions of the social, relatedness, personhood, as well as diverse epistemologies regarding “normalcy.”  Our conference builds on this work, and is premised on the recognition that disability is not a category of difference unto itself; rather, it is profoundly relational and radically contingent, dependent on specific social and material conditions that too often exclude full social participation in society.   Beyond such exclusions, a focus on disability also reveals creative cultural production. Unexpected sites of innovation, inclusion and the reframing of “the normal” are producing new kinds of “disability worlds.”

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