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Unit information: Anthropology of Disability and Difference in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Anthropology of Disability and Difference
Unit code ARCHM0083
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
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 course 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. Draw on an appropriate body of conceptual tools to keep on reading and learning in the field;
  4. Demonstrate broad and deep understanding of relevant book-length ethnographies.
  5. Improve their academic writing and learn the academic skill of writing book reviews;
  6. Apply insights from the anthropology of disability to core theories and analysis in social and medical anthropology.

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

Students with disabilities are warmly welcome to attend this unit. If you have any special access needs please do contact the unit director and we will try and accommodate your needs as much as possible.

Assessment Details

Formative assessment:

1. 1000-word book review (draft of summative coursework below; ILOs 1-5)

2. Active participation in a class debate. Involves preparation for and participation in the debate, and submission of a written statement after the debate (ILOs 1-4).

Summative assessment:

1. 4000-word essay (80%; ILOs 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6)

2. 1000-word book review (20%; ILOs 1-5)

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.