Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

From cell to symbol: A biocultural study of anemia and subjectivity among the Poqomchi' Maya in Guatemala
by Herynk, James William, Ph.D., University of Kansas, 2014, 256; 3626067
Abstract (Summary)

Anemia afflicts nearly 2 billion people worldwide by reducing oxygen carrying capacity in the blood. Practitioners of Western biomedicine consider anemia to be an easily treatable 'symptom' that results from some other disease, injury, or pregnancy. Conversely, in impoverished communities anemia has multiple causes, goes untreated, and becomes chronic and endemic. Given anemia's global prevalence and varied etiology, it stands to reason that anemia may be differently experienced biologically and culturally. A lack of contextual research has inhibited understanding of why anemia persists despite being easily treatable. This dissertation examines the experience of anemia in the Poqomchi' Maya community of Onquilha', located above a coffee plantation overlooking the Polochic valley in Tamahú, Guatemala. Blood samples show that all school-age children are anemic (N=87). By framing anemia as ubiquitous in a single community, it can be contextualized through local discourse, behavior, and Poqomchi' subjectivity. A major theme of this dissertation is the liminal thresholds in both human biology and culture. Analysis of these thresholds (e.g. between health and illness, normal and abnormal, or treatable and untreatable) charts how the Poqomchi' navigate and accommodate illness. The Poqomchi' mitigate the effects of mild-to-moderate anemia by managing behaviors that alter physiology in response to metabolic requirements. Anemia is normalized through a rich discourse on fuerza (force, an individual's presence in life). However, severe anemia is abnormal and managed through a more urgent discourse on energía (energy, an individual's essence in life). When fuerza and energ¡a are lost, severe anemia leads to compounding illness and disease, the loss of individual subjectivity and death, and a narrative of social suffering shared by the community. Anemia is an age-old problem. It is deeply rooted in our mammalian constitution and reliance on blood and oxygen to produce energy and sustain life in a variety of environments. For the Poqomchi', the experience of anemia is the continual experience of fuerza and energía —life and death, limited by oxygen carried in the blood. This dissertation contributes to global efforts to reduce the impact of anemia and to medical and biocultural anthropology by demonstrating how illness is accommodated.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Janzen, John M.
Commitee: Daley, Christine, Gray, Sandra, Metz, Brent, Torrence, Harold
School: University of Kansas
Department: Anthropology
School Location: United States -- Kansas
Source: DAI-A 75/10(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Physical anthropology, Public health
Keywords: Anemia, Blood, Guatemala, Liminality, Poqomchi' Maya, Structural violence
Publication Number: 3626067
ISBN: 9781321006087
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