From Kurdish Jewish Women to Okinawan Priestesses to Uninsured and Criminalized Americans
“I just can’t catch a break anywhere” is a comment uttered by Francesca, one of the formerly incarcerated, periodically homeless, often sick and chronically poor women I have come to know over the past decade. Francesca was speaking only for herself, but her assessment gets at wider sociological insights about the social construction of inequality.
We humans are intensely social creatures. From the moment we are born we are assigned a gender and racial identity that shapes our place in the world and determines how others treat us. As we grow up, we internalize social expectations that govern every aspect of our lives – what we wear, what we eat, how we talk, how we carry ourselves. Even our deaths are shaped by social policies that that permit (in)adequate access to appropriate health care services.
While American culture typically blames individuals for everything from “choosing” to be a victim of domestic violence to “choosing” not to eat a healthy diet, sociologists understand that powerful cultural and social forces and institutions shape the life experiences of all human beings.
My passion for getting to know people whose lives are seldom recognized or validated has taken me from an immigrant neighborhood in Jerusalem to a fishing village in Okinawa, Japan, to a community of criminalized women in downtown Boston. Underlying all my work is concern for how individuals and groups grapple with the human experiences of love, birth, illness, pain, suffering, and death.
My current work with criminalized women grew out of earlier research concerning the healthcare struggles of American families. Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity is a national study of the experiences of Americans who do not have health insurance. Working together with physician Rushika Fernandopulle and a variety of grass-roots health advocacy organizations, I conducted fieldwork among uninsured men and women in the Rio Grande Valley (Texas), the Mississippi Delta, northern Idaho, southern Illinois, and eastern Massachusetts. Speaking with people struggling to survive without consistent access to medical care, I learned a great deal about ways in which national health policy plays out at local levels, how racism intersects with current health care policy, the impact of divorce and domestic violence on health and health insurance status, and the relationship between globalization and health care internationally and in the United States. Click here for links to my publications on health and health care policy, including health care coverage, the war on drugs, and other public health issues.
Uninsured in America developed themes that I began to explore in my 2000 book, What Makes Women Sick: Militarism, Maternity and Modesty in Israeli Society. In that project I developed a model for analyzing how social institutions (in the Israeli case — the government, the military, the media, the medical establishment, and the religious establishment) collude in and compete for the power to shape a corporeal culture that has very specific health consequences for individuals. Asking why the life expectancy of Israeli women is lower than that of their peers in other developed countries, I argued that living with high responsibility (as mothers) and low authority (as women) ultimately impairs health. Click here for links to my publications on women’s health issues, including breast cancer treatment and women’s health care coverage in the United States.
Most of my earlier work explores the role of religion in creating and legitimating gendered social constructs. My first book, entitled Women as Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem(1992), demonstrates ways in which non-literate, poor, marginalized, immigrant Kurdish and North African women create ritual and discursive tapestries interweaving ‘great tradition’ Judaism with their own particular needs, talents, and perspectives. One of the highlights of that project was learning traditional culinary traditions from the women as well as observing the sacred value they invest in those traditions. Click here for my publications on women, gender, ritual and religion.
I am particularly intrigued with situations in which women lay claim to personal autonomy and socially recognized leadership. In Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (1994)I explore a variety of African, African diasporas, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and North American religions led by women. The interest in women’s leadership led me to Okinawa where I conducted fieldwork among village priestesses in the mid-1990s. Although Okinawa is the poorest Japanese prefecture, Okinawans boasts the best health and longest life expectancy. It also is the only contemporary society in which women lead the mainstream religion. With my family (at that time my children ranged in ages from 3 – 12) I lived for a year in a small fishing village off the Okinawan coast. That research culminated in the publication of Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa (1999). Click here for my publications on women, gender, ritual and religion.
In all of these projects I have seen how individuals who are similarly situated in terms of gender, class, race, ethnicity, age and so on share certain perspectives that grow out of their social positions yet select and build their own personal — even idiosyncratic — repertoires of ideas and ways of going about life. How people manage pain and illness highlights interplays between individual experiences and proclivities, on the one hand, and broad or powerful social institutions, on the other hand. While most Americans utilize bio-medicine (also called mainstream medicine, western medicine, allopathic medicine) for nearly all minor and major health challenges, few Americans limit their healing repertoires to bio-medicine. Most of us rely on some combination of Grandma’s chicken soup when we are congested, a beloved partner’s warm hands when our shoulders ache, yoga and other relaxation techniques when we are stressed, an acupuncturist’s needle or a homeopath’s herbal remedy when we have a stubbornly chronic condition, and the prayers and rituals of experts from our own as well as other religious traditions when we are faced with a fatal illness. Religion and Healing in America, edited together with my colleague Linda Barnes, explores diverse ways in which Americans combine religious beliefs and practices with the pursuit of health. My own contribution to the anthology — a study of the contemporary Jewish healing movement in the United States — represents something of a return to my earliest research on Jewish women’s ritual expertise. Click here for my publications on religion and healing.
Mapping the terrain of religious healing in the United States, I began to notice the prominence of the Twelve Step movement (both formally identified Alcoholics Anonymous groups and informal invoking of Twelve Step ideas and practices) as a thoroughly American response to suffering. In my current work with criminalized women I have become particularly interested in ways in which penal, medical and religious institutions overlap. While the United States continues to lock up astronomical numbers of men and women on drug charges, our national consensus seems to be that drug addiction is a “disease” that requires treatment. The exact nature of that disease, however, is unclear. On the one hand, we embrace genetic understandings that place the onus for addiction on the individual’s family tree. On the other hand, the dominant — and often sole — treatment for addiction relies on Twelve Step programs where the disease of addiction is defined in spiritual terms and individuals are encouraged to admit their flaws and turn themselves over to a Higher Power. Click here for my publications on criminalization and prison policy .