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Reviewed by:
  • Disability in Local and Global Worlds
  • Bonnie Richard
Benedicte Ingstad and Susan Reynolds Whyte , eds. Disability in Local and Global Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 324 pp.

Disability is realized through a complex web of human, structural, and ideational interactions that turn bodies and ailments into subjects, citizens, and/or statuses, at times providing benefits, at other times denying opportunities or preferred futures. The essays in Disability in Local and Global Worlds, edited by Benedicte Ingstad and Susan Reynolds Whyte, convey this complexity. The contributors explore disability in local contexts, at the levels of individual, kin, and community, and at the same time, also consider the ways in which disability experiences are influenced by global forces, institutions, advocacy and rights movements, non-profits, and governments, to name a few. Building upon themes covered in their 1995 co-edited volume on disability (Disability and Culture), the editors provide a timely and critical look at definitions of abnormal and of normal, ideals about the body, belonging and marginality, the politics, both near and far, of identity formation, and the implications of meanings derived from those identities.

Ingstad and Whyte define disability broadly: anthropologists are "interested in people's own experiences of what is disabling in their world rather than in some universal definition" (11). They intend this collection [End Page 1203] to be a contribution to both disability studies and anthropology, and stress that policy-makers, healthcare professionals, scholars from various disciplines, NGOs and advocates, and others seeking to understand disability must consider the wide range of cultural contexts in which the disabled person is situated. Without feeling forced or tendentious, the volume has an applied element, as many studies in medical anthropology do. Ingstad and Whyte hope that, ultimately, the descriptions and analyses presented in the volume will prompt further scholarship and debate (25). They assert that for the study of disability, "there is still a need for work that provides a more radically comparative perspective through the juxtaposition of ethnographies and the questioning of global processes" (9).

The volume is divided into two parts, the first, "Locating Embodied Entities," includes six chapters, each of which deal with disability or disabling conditions in different contexts, demonstrating that what is disability is often unique to a community's cultural ideals regarding normalcy, completeness, correct functionality, or acceptability of the body. These chapters explore "the ways in which some-bodies experience themselves and their world through interacting with other subjects and imagining horizons" (Ingstad and Whyte 2). Hilde Haualand, for example, analyzes the Deaf Olympics (Ch. 1) as a ritual gathering, where a dispersed, transnational community comes together in one place to form a brief community, reaffirm their identities and sense of belonging, and in a sense transcend the everyday boundaries of "disability." In an essay on the changed meaning of female circumcision to Somali women immigrants to the UK, Aud Talle (Ch. 2) makes a notable contribution to our understanding of the contextualization and interpretation of bodies, and the impact these processes have on marked persons. For Talle, "the reterritorialization of a local practice such as female circumcision in the global setting of a human-rights discourse may help us theorize 'disability' one step further" (57). In Egypt and India, as Marcia Inhorn and Aditya Bharadwaj explain in Chapter 3, new biomedical technologies available to treat infertility signal a change in opportunities among a socially stigmatized group still living in the context of traditional expectations. Infertility is now experienced in both old and new ways, as sufferers negotiate the socio-cultural implications of fertility treatment options. These first three essays help to broaden notions of what disability is, and how it is experienced, by relocating familiar topics within new or unexplored contexts. [End Page 1204]

In Chapter 4, Meira Weiss shows how the abandonment of physically deformed newborns in Israel can be explained in terms of national ideals of the "chosen body."The chapter is a sobering reminder about the power of cultural expectations and norms regarding one's physical appearance. Veena Das and Renu Addlakha, in Chapter 5, re-situate disability and impairment within the sphere of domestic relationships, drawing on examples from India. This is an...


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