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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The referential functions of agency: Health workers in medical missions to Madiha (Kulina) Indians in the Brazilian Amazon
by Frenopoulo Gorfain, Christian Dave, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 2012, 432; 3532858
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation presents the results of a study of health workers in a medical mission in the Brazilian Amazon. The study aims to scrutinize health mission workers’ perceived capacities and abilities to deliver itinerant biomedical health services to Madiha (Kulina) Indians in the Brazilian Amazon.

Participant observation with the health mission workers involved accompanying them in medical mission trips to Madiha villages and settlements in the Upper Purus River region. Madiha are hunters and manioc horticulturalists.

The research shows that health mission workers participate in three social spaces during a mission journey. In the work space, they perform rigid role behaviors that emphasize biomedical technical procedure and the use of imported technical practices and knowledge. In their domestic space, located on the boat that they use for living and traveling, their behaviors emphasize ethnic similarity and a self-assumed status as trustees of the Madiha population’s health welfare. In the population’s domestic spaces, they attempt to participate in activities that can award them a status as equals to the villagers.

The analysis of their interactions in these spaces suggests that their capacities and abilities are constructed according to a foreign/local polarity. The polarity underscores their missionary status as expert outsiders who need to engage in active efforts to achieve legitimacy among the patient population. Throughout the day, they constantly switch their positioning relative to one another and to the villagers, in order to navigate the ambiguity of their missionary status. In this way, they inhabit the various domestic and work spaces differently, crossreferencing each space with alternating behaviors.

The dissertation attempts to contribute to the theory of human agency in anthropology by proposing that agency configurations are not properties of social actors, but circumstantial indexes of relative position in specific types of relationships. Agency is comprehensible relative to role arrangements. In this sense, agency would have two referential functions. Agency would indicate an actor’s position relative to resources and relative to other actors. Thus, agency attribution is an interpretation of the value of actions and of the relative status of actors.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: DeWalt, Kathleen
Commitee: Alter, Joseph, Frechione, John, Keane, Christopher
School: University of Pittsburgh
Department: Anthropology
School Location: United States -- Pennsylvania
Source: DAI-A 74/03(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Public health
Keywords: Agency, Amazon, Brazil, Health care workers, Indians, Kulina, Medical mission
Publication Number: 3532858
ISBN: 978-1-267-76231-3
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