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Reviews of Katherine Hirschfeld’s Health, Politics and Revolution

By Paul Ryer, Health, new book Add comments

health-politics-and-revolution-in-cuba-9781412808637Here is a political rather than academic  review of Katherine Hirshfeld’s book Health, Politics and Revolution in Cuba since 1898, published in 2007 by Transaction Publishers.  Although the book is more carefully framed and historicized than the dissertation version, in my reading, Hirshfeld’s conclusions, based on some months of fieldwork, still suffer from the sort of a priori assumptions and misreadings that plague the work of many political scientists and sociologists who do short-term fieldwork in Cuba.  I am not a medical anthropologist, but what concerns me here is that this text has been presented as ethnographically authoritative, precisely in counterpoint to other academic disciplines, yet still largely rests on the limited ethnographic work and arguably superficial interpretation of her dissertation research.  Is this too harsh an assessment?  Have others found it to be fair and balanced and worth reading?  The book has also gotten significant publicity in Miami, as exemplified by the above review, among others. Does that matter?  For comparison, here is another perspective on Hirschfeld’s work, which echoes my concerns.

As I think it over, the part of the text that raises these concerns is really chapter 4, “Fearful Interlude.”  E.g. the italicized phrases in the interview with “Brother Bob,” the drama of  “So they got you?” on p. 84.  To borrow a phrase from David Scott: whose fear, what cause?  Certainly the relation of researcher & state is complex and worth much more discussion, but this book seems a better fit for the predetermined categories of espionage than ethnography.

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