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James, Erica, 21A.460J Medicine, Religion and Politics in Africa and the African Diaspora, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Medicine, Religion and Politics in Africa and the African Diaspora

Spring 2005

Woman receiving a vaccination.

Woman receiving a vaccination. (Image courtesy of U.S. AID.)

Course Highlights

This course features extensive lecture notes.

Course Description

This course provides an exploration of colonial and postcolonial clashes between theories of healing and embodiment in the African world and those of western bio-medicine. It examines how Afro-Atlantic religious traditions have challenged western conceptions of illness, healing, and the body and have also offered alternative notions of morality, rationality, kinship, gender, and sexuality. It also analyzes whether contemporary western bio-medical interventions reinforce colonial or imperial power in the effort to promote global health in Africa and the African diaspora.


Course Description

Since the colonial period, the contact between Africans and Europeans has challenged the philosophies, moralities, and conceptions of the body, illness, religion, and healing in each context. This course will evaluate how spiritual philosophies and religious practices within the traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora (the Afro-Atlantic) offer moral frames for experience that challenge and critique western models of embodiment. The course will analyze the ideas of race, gender, sex, and rationality that have permeated bio-medical and psychological conceptions of the mind and body. We will also explore some of the ways in which these understandings have also shaped western bio-medical notions of morality and deviance. We will analyze how the constructions of race, gender, and sexuality continue to be problematic in contemporary medical diagnosis, treatment, and medical research efforts in ways that require further analysis. While acknowledging its contributions to public health, we will debate the historical role of cosmopolitan medicine as an instrument of colonial power, state dominance, or social control within the Afro-Atlantic through the study of a variety of ethnographic and contemporary clinical contexts.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will be run primarily as a seminar, with twenty minutes of lecture to introduce each new section, followed by discussion of each subject or ethnographic context under review. Students must come to class prepared, as class attendance and participation in discussion contribute a significant amount toward the final grade. In addition to this, each student will give one ten-minute presentation of one of the week's readings during the course of the semester. Written assignments include one 5-7 page paper, and one 8-10 page paper.

Class Attendance and Participation in Discussion 30%
A Ten-minute Presentation 10%
5-7 Page Paper Written Assignment 25%
8-10 Page Paper Written Assignment 35%


Course calendar.

Lec #



Part One: The Colonial Imaginary and Disciplinary Practices


Section One: Biopolitics, the Fetish, and the Colonial Imaginary

Lecture 1: Course Overview and Introduction



Section Two: Ecstasis and the Shock of Culture Contact



Section Three: Historical Ideologies of Sexuality, Race, and Madness


Part Two: Colonial Contexts of Medicine, Religion, and Politics


Section Four: Colonial Medicine in South Africa



Section Five: Race, Gender, Colonial Medicine, and the Construction of Disease

Paper 1 due (Lecture 13)

Part Three: Anthropological (Re)Constructions of "African" Religion, Healing, and Embodiment


Section Six: Medical Pluralism in the Former Zaire



Section Seven: Culture, Morality, and the Senses in Ghana



Section Eight: Sensory Ethnography in Niger


Part Four: Cosmopolitan Medicine, Race, Gender, and Inequalities


Section Nine: Religion, Medicine, and the Medical Pluralism in Haiti



Section Ten: Contemporary Psychiatry: Race, Gender, and the Mind



Section Eleven: Fictions of Race, Gender, and Illness

Final papers due (Lecture 26)

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