Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis

Editorial Overview

The Society for Cultural Anthropology has awarded the 2006 Cultural Horizons Prize to Peter W. Redfield for the essay "Doctors, Borders and Life in Crisis" which appeared in the August 2005 issue of Cultural Anthropology. Redfield, Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, examined the Nobel prize-winning Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to analyze the ethical dilemmas of the post-colonial world as well as the political limits of medical sensibilities. "A humanitarian response to human suffering, after all, cannot escape either the historical context of conditions to which it responds or its own categorical rejection of any justification for the sacrifice of human lives," Redfield writes.

Redfield's ethnography, which opens with a visit to a model refugee camp erected by MSF in Central Park, is situated within an analysis of MSF's history, from the 1968 student uprisings in Paris to the creation of a highly organized transnational NGO whose physicians and other volunteers now care for the sick and displaced in Sudan and more than 70 other countries. Throughout the piece, Redfield explores the tensions inherent in providing humanitarian relief in realms of conflict where responsible political authority is often absent. "Amid worldwide zones of repeated disaster, medical humanitarian action offers the promise of preserving existence. It does so, however, at the possible expense of deferring actions that might support a mode of being more consistent with dignity," Redfield writes.

Redfield's article appeared in a special issue of Cultural Anthropology focusing on "Ethnographies of the Biopolitical." In examining the biopolitics of one the most respected humanitarian organizations operating today, Redfield details the ethical and political dilemmas of action in a world that is not only "untidy" but also "thoroughly implicating," folding both providers and recipients of humanitarian aid - and its cultural analysts as well - within its contradictions and double-binds.

Redfield's efforts to lay the groundwork for renewed ethical and political discussions that can end in practice inside and outside the academy have earned him the fifth annual Cultural Horizons Prize, an honor awarded each year by a jury of doctoral students for what they concur is the best article appearing in Cultural Anthropology.

About the Author

Redfield received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1995. His 2000 work Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana (University of California Press) examined the impact of French efforts to launch satellites on the physical and cultural landscape of France's former colony.

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