October 25, 2005
The issues of responsibility and blame are complex in this chapter. Scheper-Hughes argues that 'hunger' in Brazil has become medicalized into a disease known as nervos, or 'nervous frenzy. Traditionally in Brazil, there existed a folk construct known as nervos, which assumed an integral relation between mind, body, and the social body. Gradually, however, this folk construct of nervos has become increasingly medicalized, as simply an individual personal and 'psychological' problem, that one doses with medication. So instead of describing themselves as 'hungry,' a situation that would imply a more general critique of the Brazilian state for allowing such conditions to occur, poor Brazililans view themselves instead as suffering from nervoso , a disease that is purely an individual problem. This individual problem is treated in the short-term with vitamins, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers, rather than with adequate food, pay, and compensatory jobs that could lead to a permanent end to such a condition. So instead of thinking themselves as hungry, people describe themselves as suffering from nervos ; this protects the Brazilian state from recognizing the existence of so many hungry citizens in Brazil. Scheper-Hughes notes that sickness serves as a neutral social role; it does not implicate anyone except the individual who is ill. Whereas hunger would imply a critique of Brazilian society, and of those in power. But a 'nervous' body can be dismissed, after giving it a few medicines for treatment. Scheper-Hughes wants to understand how poor cane cutters have come to see themselves as weak and nervous, rather than as hungry and exploited. She argues that this medicalized condition in Brazil, nervoso , serves as a rational discourse of power that disallows the alternative explanation that people are simply hungry. It therefore leads to the irrational 'drugging' of large sectors of the populace with medications. Scheper-Hughes notes that chronic hunger can result in many symptoms, such as aches and fevers, that can be related to nervousness. But the medical profession in Brazil serves to suppres social discontent over hunger and state government policy and by redefining it as simply an individual disorder. Throughout the chapter i felt the discourses on poverty and prosperity were exploring the constant reconfiguring in relation to changing and contested ideas about gender, race, power, – and in relation to the broader structural shifts in local and global economies. In the process, i believe the generic label “poor” has emerged as a highly ambivalent identity. While in some situations, to have the category of the “poor” holds up the prospect of provision and empowerment, in other situations, being labelled “poor” may lead to stigmatisation and further impoverishment.