Disability Studies: Developments in Anthropology

  • James StaplesEmail author
  • Nilika Mehrotra
Part of the International Perspectives on Social Policy, Administration, and Practice book series (IPSPAP)


Despite the proliferation of disability studies (DS) in the USA and Britain over the last three decades, anthropology—for a discipline committed to understanding alterity, has contributed surprisingly little to the study of disability. There have been relatively few ethnographic studies that engage directly with disability; fewer still explicitly engage with the broader interdisciplinary arena of DS to document and analyse the experience of disability in the global South. Until recently, this has meant that DS has been dominated by the concerns of disabled people, policymakers and service providers in western, industrialised countries, rather than expanding to explore the different ways in which disability might be configured cross-culturally (e.g. see Miles 2002; Mehrotra 2011; Grech 2011, 2012). Ingstad and Whyte noted this gap in their pioneering edited collection Disability and Culture (1995) 20 years ago; Kasnitz and Shuttleworth made the same point a few years later (2001a, b); and, according to Rapp and Ginsburg (2012; Ginsburg and Rapp 2013), the lacuna still remains. Why that should be so is a matter of speculation. Rapp and Ginsburg, based on their own experiences in the USA, ultimately favour a Freudian explanation: that anthropologists, fearful of the loss that disability ultimately brings to us all, in one form or another, are in denial (2012: 174). Linton (1998) suggests that the lack of interest shown by anthropologists in disability corresponds with the fact that there are so few disabled anthropologists, and that those who do make it within the academy become marginalised. ‘Indiana Jones in a wheelchair’, to borrow Kasnitz and Shuttleworth’s (2001a) image, is not a picture easily conjured up, other than as parody. By the same token, we would also suggest (based on anecdotal evidence from conversations with colleagues over the years) that some anthropologists might implicitly consider ‘the disabled’ as inherently less interesting—because they are assumed to be intrinsically unable to engage fully in social life—as creators and consumers of culture than more mainstream representatives of the populations being studied. Despite Mead’s injunction back in the 1950s for us to study human beings in all their diversity, this is an understanding of disabled people that persists (Mead 1953).


Anthropology Disability history Disability Cultural knowledge Cultural theory Local knowledge systems Contextual locations Methodology Power Personhood 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brunel University LondonMiddlesexUK
  2. 2.Jawaharlal Nehru UniversityDelhiIndia

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