by Sérgio Carrara

Translation by Cláudia Pires de Castro  Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling Original publication: April 24th, 2020 link

National Museum under renovation after the 2018 fire. Photo: Luciana Cavalcanti

One of the oldest and most traditional social sciences fields is the analysis of health and disease processes and the relationship between biological and social. The concern in this Social Anthropology field is so expressive worldwide, especially in the United States, that a subfield dedicated to it has been developed: Medical Anthropology. In Brazil, this subfield is called Body and Health Anthropology, and the National Association of Post Graduate Studies in Social Sciences (ANPOCS) annually promotes working groups, forums, and roundtables for its development. In recent years, three specific national meetings have been held, entitled Meetings of Health Anthropology (RAS).

Of course, it is not a matter of listing here the numerous contributions to Brazilian and international Public Health of the Social Sciences in general and Social Anthropology in particular. This would require a large number of pages. Many other pages would be needed if we added production on the subject from the field of Philosophy, History, Demography, Psychology, Administration, Law and Economics.

In order to have a merely hinted of the importance and robustness of the production of the Human and Social Sciences in health, we recall that most of the post-graduate programs in Collective Health, Public Health or Social Medicine in Brazil have departments that bring together social scientists of different backgrounds (anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists). Moreover, two of the three commissions of the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (ABRASCO) – the Social and Human Science in Health Committee[1] and the Policy, Planning, and Management Committee[2] – gather important branches of sociological knowledge. It is also worth mentioning that the most important Public Health institution in the country and Latin America – the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) – is currently chaired by a professional who graduated in Social Sciences, who hold a master’s in Political Science and Ph.D. in Sociology. This demonstrates the quality of Brazilian undergraduate and post-graduate courses in the area.

The contribution of social scientists is indispensable in any action in Public Health. In other words, it cannot prescind without a comprehensive perspective on how interactions between people and human groups take place, on how societies are structured and, finally, on how pathological processes acquire different meanings in each of them. It is indisputable that the trajectory of contagious epidemic disease in a society in which are in force strict rules of avoidance between social categories or castes (which includes avoiding contact with body fluids) will be totally different in a society where such rules do not exist. In the same way, social groups not very permeable to scientific discourse will react differently from those that are not. Therefore, socio-anthropological knowledge is strategic for understanding the distribution and spread of different epidemics in a specific social space. Moreover, in the field of health education, such knowledge has been crucial for the development of more effective action techniques, based on respect for human rights and permanent dialogue with the worldviews – sometimes strongly contrasting – held by different social actors. The efficacy of this technology has been widely proven in the context of “the Brazilian response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic”, which has long been considered as a model health policy and worthy of international respect.

Only bad-faith, prejudice, or deep ignorance can explain that opposing health professionals to anthropologists and philosophers, Brazilian authorities insist on reaffirming the secondary character of the contribution of the human and social sciences, particularly Social Anthropology, in the fight against endemic and epidemic diseases. This is an accusation so unreasonable and unfounded that it is even difficult to answer it.  Especially at this moment, when we must aggregate efforts, ideas, and techniques from all areas of knowledge to confront an epidemic that is configured as the most serious threat to public health since the Spanish flu, this is an irresponsible statement.


Sérgio Carrara is Professor at the Institute of Social Medicine (UERJ) and Vice-President of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology.