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Guns, Communities, and Civic Life – February 2018

Whose Streets?

After a screening of the documentary Whose Streets? audience members engaged with a panel of interested community members who have expertise on issues of race, policing, and guns. The panelists included: Lt. LeShuan Oliver from the Vanderbilt University police; Jonathan Metzl, MD/Ph.D. (Director of MHS); and a Vanderbilt undergraduate student with an interest in police surveillance of people of color as a public health issue.

Gun Violence Prevention: A Community Conversation

Panelists gathered for brief presentations and a public conversation to address:

  • How can we balance gun rights with public safety?
  • What is the responsibility of an institution such as Vanderbilt to address gun violence prevention?
  • What are the current states of firearm legislation, research, and activism?
  • Are we hopelessly polarized as a state and a nation? What might political compromise even look like?

Panelists included:

  • Jonathan Metzl (Director, Center for Medicine, Health, and Society) : Introduction
  • Stephan Heckers (Chair, VUMC Psychiatry) : Firearms and Mental Health
  • Beth Roth (Director, Safe Tennessee) : Community Activism in Red States
  • Lee Harris (TN State Senator, 29th District) : The State of Legislation
  • Molly Pahn (Boston University, Public Health) : Firearm Violence Research
  • Purnima Unni (VUMC Pediatric Surgery) : Trauma and Injury Prevention

The Global Psyche – March 2017

Keynote Speakers


Has the brain a mind of its own?

I discuss the emergence of the Bayesian Brain in cognitive neuroscience and psychiatric discourse and research, and how this development will, in the future, challenge anthropology’s current understanding of culture and human nature. I focus on the variable and kaleidoscopic communications reaching the brain from other parts of the body (cenesthesis).


Allan Young is a professor in the Departments of Social Studies of Medicine, Anthropology, and Psychiatry, at McGill University (Montreal). The target of his ethnographic research and writing since the 1980s has been psychiatric science and conceptions of the past.


The Embedded Psyche: The Anthropocene, Postgenomics, and the Microbiome

We live now in the epoch of the Anthropocene, so called because human activities have brought about lasting destruction to the globe, with significant consequences for human development, health and illness. Furthermore, the HGP made clear that the genome does not determine whom we are but, rather, is reactive to environmental stimuli external and internal to the body, again with lasting results on human development and wellbeing. Environments, increasingly human-made, are in the driver’s seat. In this paper it is suggested that the concept of the psyche should be understood as a malleable entity acted upon endlessly at the molecular level by epigenetic stimuli over which individuals very often have little control. Certain stimuli are positive, others highly toxic. Illustrative examples will be given in this talk ranging from the long term effects of epigenetic markers on the placenta and a developing fetus, to the epigenetics of social isolation, nutrition, and aging. The inter-generational transmission of the epigenetic effects of colonization, forced migration, war, famine, and other major trauma will also be considered with further illustrative examples. In closing, discussion will turn to the human microbiome, that is also perpetually modified by environmental stimuli, and its profound effect on neurological functioning.


Margaret Lock is Marjorie Bronfman Professor Emerita in the Departments of Anthropology and Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University. Her research focuses on embodiment, comparative epistemologies of medical knowledge, and the global impact of biomedical technologies. She is the author and/or co-editor of 18 books and over 220 articles. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North AmericaTwice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death; the co-authored An Anthropology of Biomedicine, and The Alzheimer Conundrum: Entanglements of Dementia and Aging are prize-winning volumes. Can Science Solve the Nature/Nurture Debate came out with Polity Press in 2016. Lock is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Officier de L’Ordre national du Québec, Officer of the Order of Canada, and elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2002 she received the Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize, and in 2005 the Canada Council for the Arts Killam Prize, and a Trudeau Foundation Fellowship. In 2007 she was awarded the Gold Medal for Research by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC); a Career Achievement Award, Society of Medical Anthropology in 2008 and in 2011 the McGill Medal for Exceptional Academic Achievement.


Conference Abstract

This workshop investigates this complex, multivalent moment and calls for new analytical frames that go beyond the battle between medicalization and its discontents, experts and patients, and the imperial reach of disciplines and the insurgencies beating them back. Participants’ papers chart the rise and transformation of today’s global psyche — the object of hegemonic psy-expertise, the space within which it is debated and re-appropriated, its transformation into cultural idioms with growing appeal across the globe. Drawing on research conducted in a number of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Kosovo, Mexico, Russia, Senegal, and the United States, panels explore how the global psyche takes shape at the intersection of technology, politics, and ethics, a location where experts and ordinary people alike wrestle with the fundamental questions of “how to live” and what kinds of worlds we want to build and live on within. The conference will show how the global psyche has become a key site of moral and political reckoning and ethical speculation and reconfiguration, birthing novel experiments in justice, rights, personhood, and the good life. For more information on cross-cutting questions and themes for the conference, see below.

Claims that psychiatry and neuroscience are moving ever closer to a reductive “molecularization” of the psyche are colliding with non- or anti-reductionist forms of knowledge such as critical neuroscience and post-genomics that some scholars argue could finally collapse the nature/nurture and mind/body divides. What social and political forces constrain scientific communities from recognizing how the culture of psychiatry fundamentally shapes both knowledge-production and psychiatry’s objects of attention?(5) How, why and with what effects has the brain become such a “restless” epistemic and ontological object – both of inquiry and everyday life? How might closer engagement with this restless object encourage new understandings of the relationship between the biological and socio-cultural? Rather than simply rejecting or embracing universality, what can we learn from critical examination of the extent, level, relational and etiological conditions, and purposes of universalizing claims within the global psyche?
From border crossings to disaster zones to the increasingly psychologized domains of aging, addiction and labor productivity, psychic distress has become a way of validating suffering, constituting sympathetic subjects, and generating new assemblages for state, inter-state, and global governance. How do new forms of governing the psyche confront clinicians, ill people, and entire populations with new ways of labelling, interpreting and living their experiences? How do ever-widening surveillance and screening tools centered on risk and prevention shape new subjectivities saturated in both fear and hope? How do globalized discourses of health and illness influence notions of personhood and citizenship and intersect with other practices of governance and regulation? What do these labels and categories look and feel like at the level of daily life and intimate experience?
Questions of “culture,” “context,” and “global impositions” have become core idioms through which experts and everyday people debate the significance and terms of mental life and psychiatric expertise. How are the various discourses and institutional practices producing the global psyche in a constant state of glocal convergence, contradiction and friction? In what ways are positions in favor of cultural sensitivity and attention to “localisms” becoming discursive tools for difficult-to-articulate concerns relating to the geopolitical challenges within which global psychiatry is embroiled? How do the emerging politics of “Global South” actors and movements currently cropping up in both “developed” and “developing” complicate local-global binaries?
A major strain of the diffusion of the psy- disciplines is as a tool of security, deployed to interpret threats, regulate threatened populations, and management the production and aftermath of state violence. What are the consequences of the increasing centrality of the psyche in understandings of the human toll of war, violence, displacement, and migration? How is the global psyche conjured and regulated at border crossings, after natural disasters or civil conflicts, among military veterans, or in everyday public anxieties, and what economies of suspicion and validated suffering does it traffic in? What racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized forms of disorder and resistance are brought into focus by psy- framings? What critical perspectives are displaced and what new forms of experience are birthed in these regimes of “therapeutic governance”?(6)

The Politics of Health in the U.S. South – March 2016


  • Melissa Harris-Perry (Wake Forest Professor)
  • Jesmyn Ward (American novelist and Tulane University Professor, winner of the *National Book Award for Fiction)
  • Kenneth Robinson (President/CEO, United Way of the Mid -South, Physician and Pastor Emeritus of St. Andrew AME Church in Memphis, TN)
  • Bryant Simon (Professor of History at Temple University)


  • The Politics of Health in the South (3/17, 2pm, Light Hall, Vanderbilt School of Medicine)
  • The Poetics of the South (3/18, 10am, Black Cultural Center, Vanderbilt University)
  • Health Activism in the South (3/18, 11:30am, Black Cultural Center, Vanderbilt University)
  • Intersectionality in the South (3/18, 2pm, Black Cultural Center, Vanderbilt University)
  • Student networking breakfast
  • Poster Session

Conference Rationale

The health dichotomies in the U.S. South often reflect, amplify, and shape the political and economic tensions surrounding the politics of health in the U.S. writ large. Clinicians and scientists at many southern universities offer cutting-edge treatments and develop important new cures, yet many citizens lack access to the medical systems in which these scientists work. Southern states like Tennessee are home to major American health-insurance corporations, yet many hospitals face financial challenges linked to falling reimbursements, and many low-income areas effectively function as health-care deserts. The U.S. South also enjoys a relatively temperate climate, yet many states rank near the bottom on most major U.S. indicators of health-related behaviors linked to activity. Meanwhile, southern politicians debate whether a national healthcare system is a moral necessity or an egregious governmental overreach, with more inclined to the latter than the former position. And members of the populace often resist public-health messages about matters such as diet, smoking, gun control, or women’s health because of deeply-held beliefs about government interference in personal health decisions. As such, the U.S. South represents the epicenter of the larger conundrum of U.S. health and healthcare: that a country rich in resources and expertise on aggregate levels falls short, and all-too- often talks past itself, on individual ones.

Central to the conversations we aim to foster in this conference is the belief that many larger questions facing the region (e.g., how can we find agreement in an age of acrimony? why do political values sometimes trump biological self- interest?) belie answers that rest solely in biomedicine, public health, or political science. Southern attitudes about public health and its discontents also need to be understood, and empathically addressed, through awareness of such factors as historical beliefs about the scope of government intervention and autonomy, stigmatizations of race, socioeconomic class, sexuality, and gender, religion, epigenetics, urban/rural divides, structural inequities, and even differing regional modes of narration and expression—each of which influences the tone and tenor of southern health debates in ways that have profound political, social, economic, and biological implications.