Sugar High: Examining the Anthropological Implications of Diabetes in the Global South

April 17, 2018
Diabetes Youth Camp in Belize
Participants of a diabetes youth camp in Belize. / Photo:

When we think about diabetes, we often think of it as a biological, even scientific problem that sits snugly within the domain of doctors and healthcare professionals, impervious to the kind of investigation conducted in departments of religion and sociology.

But what if this weren’t the case? What if the effects and treatments of diabetes were discovered to have profound anthropological implications? What if its diagnosis and treatment were conceived, not so much as an American dietary issue, but as a crisis wrought by poverty and discrimination against the global south?

Indeed, what if, to uncover and understand diabetes properly or exhaustively, it needed to be viewed through the frame of religious studies?

These were just a few of the challenging questions offered by Professor Amy Moran-Thomas at a recent Science, Religion, and Culture (SRC) Colloquium presentation at HDS. The two-hour event touched on issues of poverty, institutional racism, narratives of signification, and the inescapable relationship between religion and science.

Exploring the intersection between these two intellectual arenas is the stated purpose of the SRC at Harvard Divinity School, a group that describes itself as attempting to “investigate science and religion beyond given categories, carefully unpacking the production and consumption of these discourses and their interactions in many different socio-historical contexts.”

Moran-Thomas’s presentation was one of several weekly colloquiums held by the SRC throughout the semester in order to discuss and better understand the crucial relationship between religion and science.

After a brief survey of her experience with diabetics in Belize, Moran-Thomas, an assistant professor of anthropology at MIT, leapt into the central issues of her study: the way in which diabetes affects the anthropological and ontological self-understanding of communities in Belize.

Indeed, though diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in Central America—a common figure for countries in the global south, where a combination of poor access to nutrition and inconsistent medical care often renders the disease fatal—it has been almost completely normalized by the local population.

According to Moran-Thomas, some Belize natives walk around with blood sugar readings two or three times above the “suggested level,” often insisting that if their blood sugar gets too close to the “normal” range (as designated by the American and European medical establishment) they feel faint or sickly.

Additionally, many of the attempts at dealing with diabetes have involved various performances that seem to supersede the strict delineations of biological or medical research.

Proper treatment is, in fact, so rare and expensive, that some Belizean natives have taken to organizing press conferences in order to raise awareness about the urgency of their particular situations. Others have started bake sales in order to pay for travel for treatment.

As Moran-Thomas put it, “it’s like they’re trapped in a bad poem. They have to sell the sugar-ridden snacks and treats in order to gain treatment for their diabetes … But it’s not just a poem, it’s their actual reality.”

In effect, the consequences of diabetes in Belize extend far beyond the narrow boundaries of biomedical categories. Instead, in the communities Moran-Thomas studied, people with diabetes often undergo a kind of subversive re-signification—coming to a new form of understanding and being in the world, in light of the often fatal and unavoidable nature of their circumstances. Sugar comas, for instance, become interpreted as the opening of thresholds into spirit worlds, and medical emergencies are reformulated as disclosing a pathway to the divine.

In the discussion that followed her presentation, HDS students and faculty members proposed entirely new lenses onto her work: positions including necro-politics (the way in which the dead are treated as a resource), critiques of global capitalism, and the ethnographic challenges of accurately representing suffering without commodifying “the sufferer.”

In the end, Moran-Thomas’s colloquium turned out to have rich implications outside of the geographical boundaries of Belize. Indeed, everyone in attendance walked away from the talk with a richer sense not only of the particular challenges and implications of diabetes in Central America, but of the important dialogue that can, and must take place between the too-often circumscribed fields of religion, science, and cultural criticism.  

—by William Walker, HDS correspondent