Final Ethnography Review Blog – A Review of
Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power

By Dylan Sobey
ANTH 233.20: Ethnographic Studies
Saint Francis Xavier University
Dr. Christina Holmes

Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power is undeniably eye-opening in its nature, bringing the reader to a closer understanding of some of our world’s most troubling realities. The societies of our world have managed to reach socio-economic divides unlike anything witnessed before, leaving so many of our people voiceless in situations of hopelessness. Far too many of our own have fallen victim to illness, strife, and misfortune, but have been collectively left behind due to the everlasting competitive reality of our developing world. We as the developed world fail to realize that as we constantly strive to innovate and improve our own qualities of life, we are further extending the gap between ourselves and those that may never have access to the benefits we seek. Pathologies of Power works to enlighten the developed world of the injustices and issues that exist pertaining to the human rights we see on a global scale, pointing out the flawed misconceptions that are put forth by western notions to civilize the world by means of democracy. In his review of Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, Dr. Ramnath Subbaraman brings to light a cartoon that was published within a few years of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Subbaraman described the cartoon as follows; “While sitting around a fire next to a shack, one man exclaims to another, “How things have changed! A few years ago, I was just a poor, starving, homeless man. Now I’m a poor, starving, homeless man with the vote.” (Subbaraman. 3). Western ideals attribute the success of the developed world to our strong political structure and democratic values, and seek to impose it elsewhere when deemed appropriate. However, as portrayed by the South African cartoon and Farmer’s ethnography, the demand for an implementation of political arrangements may not hold as much significance in poverty-stricken Kenya as it would in downtown Toronto, for example.

Farmer’s Pathologies of Power demonstrates the characteristics of a strong student ethnography by meeting the pre-determined criteria on many levels. Farmer was smart to progressively approach an opinionated position, allowing his more profound judgements to surface after he had introduced nearly the entirety of the unequal allocation of human rights on a global scale. Farmer highlighted some our world’s unfortunate divide with respect to a transcultural perspective, allowing him to compare socioeconomic extremes that are present today. Displaying this comparative perspective and the differential that exists between the various extremes experienced by the people of the world truly depicts the contrast that is present between the geographic regions of the world and the demographics that they comprise of. Ensuring this contrast was evident to the reader was one of Farmer’s intricate methods of forcing the reader to realize the degree to which the populations of our world are unfairly assigned human rights and are unjustly exposed to opportunity on an on-going basis.

Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power approached the topics that it discussed in a manner that would deem it fit for so many audiences, further adding to its ability to convey to the entirety of the developed world. There are two audiences that stand out particularly as potential targets for the ethnography, being foreign policy makers and of course a variety of demographics belonging to the general public. Dr. Subbaraman spoke to this in his review article by saying; “Anthropologists may be disappointed that this book lacks ethnographic detail and resembles journalism at times more than ethnography” and furthermore explaining how Farmer chose not to go into depth when discussing policy-related issues. This could very easily have been due to Farmer wanting to capture a wider audience and obtain the attention of the general public just as much as the policy makers, who have proven to make devastating mistakes in alarming repetition. Subbaraman goes on to say;

Similarly, doctors may be disappointed that Farmer
does not discuss policy-related issues such as novel
tuberculosis control programs, as he did in his prior
work, Infections and Inequalities. Yet, Farmer’s
writing style is obviously meant to appeal to a much
wider audience of public policy makers and activists,
in addition to public health specialists. (Subbaraman. 11).

Farmers capability to write on so many levels and to so many varied audiences allowed him to transmit his message to those who sit in positions of power. By doing so he was conveying his messages and his physical findings to those with the available resources to appropriately combat some of the injustices we are seeing, such as policy-makers. However, the style he chose ensured that he could also speak to those that simply needed to be exposed to the unfortunate realities that exist regarding the global human rights epidemic.

Farmer visited upon many factors that are influences on the infringement of human rights that has become such a prominent aspect of our modern world and the societies that inhabit it. Among these factors is the misallocation of power resulting in the expansion of the divide between successful and struggling socioeconomic groups. Claudio Schuftan MD wrote in his review of Pathologies of Power;

The asymmetry of power generates many forms
of quiet brutality. It is inequities of power that
prevent the poor from accessing the opportunities
they need to move out of poverty. So, the
‘pathologies of power’ take their toll––including
a toll in human lives. Denying this only serves
the interests of the powerful; a change of mentality
is needed in the hearts and minds of those with
power. Structures and not just individuals must be
changed if the world is to change. (Schuftan. 3).

The social and economic divides that consequently divert the poor from obtaining the rights and care they deserve derive mainly from unbelievably flawed distribution of power across the levels of society. This results in discrimination and prejudice of much of the world’s poorer populations, whether specifically intended or not. Without a voice of their own the poor and suffering rely on voices like Paul Farmer’s in Pathologies of Power to show the world the truth that lies within their everyday lives. These massive demographics have gone from being the victims of misfortune to victims of inequity and oppression, and certainly no strangers to the negligence of the naïve western world.


• Subbaraman, Dr. Ramnath. “Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor book by Paul Farmer reviewed by Ramnath Subbaraman.” Yale Review of Books RSS. Accessed March 29, 2017.
• Schuftan MD, Claudio. “BOOK REVIEW PATHOLOGIES OF POWER: Health, human rights, and the new war on the poor.” Accessed March 29, 2017.

Word Count: 1091


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