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Unit information: Anthropology of Disability and Difference in 2020/21

Unit name Anthropology of Disability and Difference
Unit code ARCH30049
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Hofer
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Disability is the ultimate form of difference that could affect anyone, at any time, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or age. And yet, how much have we thought about something that could affect us all? How much do we know about the empirical and theoretical implications of disability? This unit approaches disability not as a biological tragedy, but as a set of diverse experiences of being human, mediated and shaped socially, linguistically and politically. The unit pays particular attention to disability in the Global South.

The unit has the following aims:

1) to present a comprehensive overview of key debates in disability studies and work by anthropologists on disability;

2) to critically evaluate anthropological methods and theoretical approaches to disability;

3) to critically evaluate current theory and discourse within disability studies to advance anthropological understandings of disability.

Despite great leaps in interdisciplinary disability studies and anthropology’s claim to expertise in understanding and theorising alterity, there has been relatively little engagement with disability in core anthropology, except in the sub-discipline of medical anthropology. This unit explores existing works in social and medical anthropology and their unique approaches to studying disability within the wider context of disability studies and in particular in the Global South. Among the topics explored are cross-cultural research on disability; disability and multiple identities (i.e. the intersection of disability with race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation); ethnography as an underutilized method in the study of disability; anthropological theories applied to disability; critical interrogations of concepts such as stigma, anomaly, liminality, the normative gaze and others describing disabled people's experience and sociocultural responses to disability. We also discuss disability rights as a social movement and its successes and struggles worldwide, and historical and critical discourses on models of disability (e.g. moral, medical and the range of current socio-political and augmentative models). The unit ends on debates about bio-ethics and disability and looks to the future of the disability studies within anthropology.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate detailed knowledge and critical understanding of key theories and debates in disability studies and of the particular approaches and theories developed in the anthropology of disability;
  2. Apply the discussed theories to understand aspects of everyday life and contemporary issues experienced in local and global worlds of people with disability;
  3. Develop and articulate analytical insights into disability-related issues in contemporary societies;
  4. Demonstrate broad and deep understanding of relevant book-length ethnographies.

Teaching details

1 x 1 hour lecture per week

1 x 1 hour seminar per week

1 x 1 hour film screening or practical/workshop session per week

Assessment Details

Formative assessment: Active participation in a class debate. Involves preparation for and participation in debate, and submission of a written statement after the debate (ILOs 1-4). Summative assessment: Essay 1: 2500w essay (50% ILO, 1), Essay 2: 2000w essay (50% ILOs 2-4).

Reading and References

Barnes, Colin, Mercer Geoff & Tom Shakespeare, 1999. Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ginsburg, Faye & Rapp, Rayna (2013). Disability Worlds. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42 , 53-68.

Ingstad, B. & S. Reynolds Whyte (eds) (2007) Disability in Local and Global Worlds. University of California Press.

Kohrman, M. 2005. Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Murphy, Robert F. 2001 [1990]. The Body Silent: The Different World of the Disabled. New York: Norton.

Oliver, Michael. 1990. The Politics of Disablement. London: Macmillan.

Staples, James and Nilika Mehrotra (2016), "Disability Studies: Developments in Anthropology" In: Shaun Grech and Karen Soldatic (eds.) Disability in the Global South, Springer 35-49.