Didier Fassin

Overview


Didier Fassin is a trained physician, sociologist, and is regarded by many to be France's leading medical anthropologist. With training in internal medicine and public health, his research has contributed to knowledge on AIDS, global health, and social inequalities. His recent work focuses on what he calls “political and moral anthropology” (The Institute for Advanced Study, 2011). He served as vice president for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders) and currently serves dual tenure at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and Director of Studies in Anthropology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales at the Université Paris Nord in Paris, France. He is the founding director of Iris, the Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Social Issues in Paris, France.

Fassin's current anthropological undertaking, for which he received an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council, is "Toward a Critical Moral Anthropology". This interdisciplinary project is being developed in Europe and The United States, in association with both universities for which Fassin is associated. "The program has both a theoretical and an empirical dimension. On the one hand, it proposes an inquiry into the anthropology of morals, a new field that it intends to promote from a critical perspective, relating moral issues to their historical formation and political background. On the other hand, it implies a study of the way immigrants and minorities are treated by institutions such as the police, justice, prison, social work and mental health system in France" (http://morals.ias.edu/).

Research and WorkFassin_Didier_by_Andrea_Kane.jpg


Fassin has contributed to medical anthropology by applying his unique theories to pressing contemporary issues.His recent book, When Bodies Remember (2007) is an example of how Fassin expertly uses ethnographic field methods to create important connections between history, politics, health, and social issues. Fassin examines the AIDS crisis in South Africa with critical inspection of its post-apartheid historical context. His examination goes beyond traditional empirical approaches by looking at the crisis objectively (documentation of the rapid spread of the disease) as well as subjectively (people’s experiences as well as their apprehensions surrounding conspiracy theories). By weaving together history, oppression, and popular perceptions, he describes what he calls an embodiment of the past. He defines embodiment of the past as “the way in which individual trajectories and collective histories are transcribed into individual and collective bodies, in terms of affects and emotions, disease and comfort, mourning and pleasure. In other words, it is the way through which social structures and norms inscribed in the long term of historical changes impose themselves on men and women, both in their everyday existence and in the meaning they give to their life and actions”.[1]

An example of his skillful use of novel theory is his use of “Politics of Life” to critique Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the organization which he formerly served as vice president.[2] He describes the process of decision making surrounding a particular MSF mission in his article "Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life". By describing this process as an aporia, Fassin expertly navigates his readers through the connected system of ideological and moral ponderings applicable to many humanitarian organizations. Fassin’s deliberate use of the term aporia sets the paradoxical stage. An aporia is the expression of real or simulated perplexity, or a rhetorically useful expression of doubt. By using this term, Fassin draws our attention to the public face of humanitarian deliberations and also to the ambivalence of the process.

Fassin contextualizes his example by making his readers aware of the internal dialogue in MSF surrounding the foundational elements upon which the organization is based. Here we gain insight into the working dimensions of this dialectical interplay. He asserts that the internal “crisis” evoked by the decisions to stay in Iraq touch directly on the “core issues” of the organization: the tension between ideals/principles and “genuine efficacy” (Fassin 2007:505). We are left with uncertainty: can both elements be honored in the field or are they solely the domain of esoteric debate? The result is what Fassin terms “Ethics in Action” (Fassin 2007:505) which ultimately calls for a parsing of life into those who have the chance to be saved (the victims) and those who are voluntarily risked (the interventionists).

Fassin emphasizes that politics of life is infused in every stage of humanitarian organization. His exposition is particularly compelling for several reasons. First, he consistently and expertly explores politics of life. His distinctive theoretical trademark is based upon intellectual influences such as Agamben and Foucault, as well as his experience with MSF. Second, he is transparent about his involvement with MSF, a factor lending credibility to his argument. Finally, he posits the concrete and well-documented example of MSF’s controversial involvement in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion as an aporia to throw light on nuanced ironies and paradoxes of contemporary global trends in humanitarianism.

Recent lectures presented by Fassin at the Institute for Advanced Study are good examples of Fassin's interdisciplinary approach, his dedication to the sociological determinants of health, and the greater contributions and consequences of scholarly research. Each of these lectures illustrate Fassin's gift of integrating anthropological theories, ethnographic methods and detail, and public health consequences in his research.

Critique of Humanitarian Reason - Februrary 17, 2010:
http://video.ias.edu/stream&ref=332

Conspiracies Theories in Medicine - September 25, 2010:
http://video.ias.edu/stream&ref=419

Biography


Born in 1959 in France, Fassin is an accomplished researcher, author, and anthropologist. His diverse experience and knowledge is illustrated by his many academic and professional endeavors. He served as the Vice President of the French National Committee on AIDS from 2004-2006, and Vice President for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders) from 1999-2003. He currently serves at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and as Director of Studies in Anthropology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales at the Université Paris Nord in Paris, France. He is the founding director of Iris, the Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Social Issues in Paris, France.

Formal Education


PhD in Social Science - EHESS, 1988

Master in Public Health - University of Paris, 1986

Doctorate in Medicine - University of Paris, 1982

Awards and Distinctions


2010: France Culture Prize of the Best Essay of 2010 for Les Nouvelles Frontières de la Société Française

2010: Douglass Prize for the Best Book in the Anthropology of Europe of 2010 for The Empire of Trauma

2008: Advanced Grant – Programme IDEAS (European Research Council)

2007: Professeur de Classe Exceptionnelle (French highest distinction for professorship)

2007: Chevalier des Palmes Académiques (French distinction for academic involvement)

Major Publications


Note: This author has written and edited over one hundred publications in French, English, and Spanish. Several of the titles listed below are translations, but only the English titles are listed in this selection.

Fassin, Didier - Selection of Authored Books

2011 (translation): Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present, University of California Press, Berkeley.
2009 (translation): The Empire of Trauma. Inquiry into the Condition of Victims. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
2007 (translation): When Bodies Remember. Experience and Politics of AIDS in Post-Apartheid South Africa. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Fassin, Didier - Selection of Authored Articles

2009 Another Politics of Life is Possible. Theory, Culture Society 26(5):44.
2008 The Embodied Past: From Paranoid Style to Politics of Memory in South Africa. Social Anthropology.16(3):312.
2008 Beyond Good and Evil? Anthropological Theory 8(4):333.
2008 The Elementary Forms of Care:: An Empirical Approach to Ethics in a South African Hospital. Social Science
Medicine 67(2):262.
2008 The Humanitarian Politics of Testimony: Subjectification through Trauma in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.
Cultural Anthropology. 23(3):531.
2007 Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life. Public Culture 19(3):499.
2007 Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life. Public Culture 19(3):499.
2005 Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France. Cultural Anthropology 20(3):362.
2003 The Politics of AIDS in South Africa: Beyond the Controversies. BMJ.British Medical Journal 326(7387):495.

Online Resources


A Critical Anthropology of Morals (http://morals.ias.edu/)
Critique of Humanitarian Reason - Lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study (http://video.ias.edu/stream&ref=332)
Conspiracy Theories in Medicine - Lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study (http://video.ias.edu/stream&ref=419)
Cultural Anthropology – The Journal of the Socieity for Cultural Anthropology (http://www.culanth.org/?q=node/130)
Doctors without Borders (http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/)
Fassin, Curriculum Vitae (http://www.sss.ias.edu/files/pdfs/fassincv.pdf)
Public Culture (http://publicculture.org/)
The Institute for Advanced Study (http://www.ias.edu/people/faculty-and-emeriti/fassin)
The MIT Press (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/author/default.asp?aid=37751)
The Society for Medical Anthropology (http://www.medanthro.net/directory/entry.asp?ID=358)

Further Reading


Feldman, Ilana
2007 Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza. Cultural Anthropology. 22(1):129-169.

James, E.C.
2009 Neomodern Insecurity in Haiti and the Politics of Asylum. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 33(1):153.

Redfield, Peter
2005 Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis. Cultural Anthropology. 20(3):328-361.

Ticktin, M.
2006 Where Ethics and Politics Meet. American Ethnologists. 33(1):33.

References


  1. ^ Fassin, D. 2008 The Embodied Past. From Paranoid Style to Politics of Memory in South Africa. Social Anthropology.16(3):312.
  2. ^ Fassin, D. 2007 Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life. Public Culture 19(3):499.