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Uncommon Sense

By Martha Howard · February 26, 2015

A conversation with OI Fellow Ryan Kashanipour

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Ryan Kashanipour is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on ethnicity, race, and gender in the cultural and social production of knowledge in colonial Latin America and the broader Atlantic world. While at the OI, he is working on his manuscript, “Between Magic and Medicine: Colonial Yucatec Healing and the Spanish Atlantic World,” which examines the history of cooperation in local practices of healing and the production of medical knowledge in colonial Latin America.

We talk to him here about his current research.

So you started as an anthropologist….

Yes, I started there as an undergraduate but then I became especially interested in how people described and experienced disease in the past or took the historian’s view you might say. What I’ve found is that while today the poor suffer disproportionately in any outbreak—a point that has been made more eloquently and in greater detail by Paul Farmer and others—in the early modern world, economic status was less important when it came to health and healing. For example, Spanish medicine was not more effective than other healing systems, including those of colonized peoples. Sick people were willing to try many routes to health—and had to rely on and communicate with each other to do it. There were multiple healing systems in place –complementary as well as competing—and they stood side by side. In some respects, it’s not so different than now: if you’re sick you might go to an MD but if that person can’t help you, you might go to a homeopath, or naturopath, or someone else in “alternative” healing, or maybe a combination of these. But of course now, many of these options are not available to most people and there’s less cross social and cross cultural interaction overall in regard to healing.

How did you settle on studying the Maya and Mesoamerica in general?

I studied in Mexico as an undergraduate and fell in love with the culture and history of the people, particularly in southern Mexico. My undergraduate advisor, R. Jon McGee, took me into the field in Chiapas and Yucatán to work with Lacandón Maya communities. Back then, I was really interested in contemporary ethnobotany. Discussions of Maya medicine and healing have been a big part of anthropology for a long time, especially in the 20th century. Robert Redfield, for example, wrote about medicine and healing traditions as central to Mayan culture starting in the 1950s and as part of my training in anthropology I read that. Now as an historian, I am trying to complicate that a bit and say that what is considered Maya today was not just Maya before but was an amalgamation of interactions between diverse groups over a long period of time.

You use a lot of primary materials in your work. When you are in archives, who is represented?

It varies greatly. The Inquisition cases that I use capture not only the voices of religious leaders carrying out investigations, but also those of everyday members of society who came forward to report of rumors and transgressions of individuals in there communities. The medical manuscripts—the curebooks maintained by healers—are first-person accounts written by literate specialists, many of whom were elite natives or Spaniards. All of these materials show that people were tapped into broader worlds and  they interacted with many people outside their rank, status, or ethnicity. And, as I have found, healing was the bridge. For instance, among the practioners of herbal medicine, some were formally trained, some were not, some worked with apprentices and some did not but they were all learning from each other. So the ones that wrote it down – yes, that reflects sophistication, training and education, but they are writing about plants that reflect the broader landscape—and that’s what I am interested in: how people shared knowledge formed in experience that was not necessarily restricted to a certain classes and ethnic backgrounds.

What archives have you been using in your work?

So far, I have worked in about 22 libraries and archives in five different countries. My work has taken me to a wide variety of state and local archives, like the Centro de Apoyo a la Investigación Histórica de Yucatán, in Mérida, the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City, the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, the Wellcome Centre in London and various public and private institutions across the US.

That sounds like an enormous amount of information to pull together. In fact, I understand you’re even pulling together two different books—one on medicine and healing, and another on metaphysics and the history of science as seen through the lens of one unusual friar and his writings. How are you handling it all?

For my temperament, I find it’s important to work on more than one thing at once. That said, this Fellowship has been a great chance to focus on a project post dissertation. I’m trained as a Latin Americanist focusing on the Atlantic world, crossing all sorts of boundaries—into anthropology, history, and the history of science. One opportunity of being here then has been to connect Latin America with France and England, as well as think in terms of the Northern and Southern Atlantic if you will. It has been important to my thinking about the project even if not directly part of it and that has been helping me to shape the book further.

I get to have conversations here I just wouldn’t anywhere else. I have been really enjoying the mix of working with undergraduate and graduate students, and seeing them at the colloqs along with junior and senior scholars. That’s been great too for stimulating another sort of thinking and conversation—and in the case of the students, helping me articulate the project in different ways that I might not for a more narrowly focused scholarly group.

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