The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Normative ideologies of sample construction in bioarchaeological studies


Anthropology, American University

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‘Careful’ and ‘contextualized’ are terms that indeed apply to much of the current research conducted toward understanding the social experience of disease and disability. However, this does not mean that the descriptive labels and categories used to organize our data lack the implication of static or typological definitions. As such, this paper argues that these categories require further theoretical examination. The discussion focuses on interrogating the normative temporal, spatial and ethnoracial frameworks that bear upon interpretations of health and disease in bioarchaeological studies. A brief review of several identified skeletal collections is used to demonstrate how these population samples are subject to standardized associations with ethnic groups, as well as specific points in space and time. The discussion moves on to address how these normative categorizations limit the explanatory power of biocultural analyses of health and disease, and considers a more critical approach to data organization and analysis.

In conclusion, this paper argues that theoretical exercises such as this provide opportunities for bioanthropologists to turn a much needed, critical eye toward the research methodologies we use to explore the social and political dimensions of health. In doing so, we open up spaces of dialogue with each other and colleagues in other subdisciplines regarding the unique position biological anthropologists occupy at the nexus of science and social science. These communications in turn facilitate shared, intradisciplinary research that unravels the social and biological complexities of illness, disease and disability.

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