Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

by João Biehl

2013 J. I. Staley Prize

Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment2005. University of California Press2005. University of California Press

Each year, SAR presents the $10,000 J. I. Staley Prize to a living author for a book that exemplifies outstanding scholarship and writing in anthropology. The award recognizes innovative works that go beyond traditional frontiers and dominant schools of thought in anthropology and add new dimensions to our understanding of the human species. It honors books that cross subdisciplinary boundaries within anthropology and reach out in new and expanded interdisciplinary directions.

By recognizing groundbreaking books and their authors through the J. I. Staley Prize, SAR seeks to stimulate the best in anthropological research and writing. Authors other than anthropologists are eligible to receive the prize if their work has had a significant impact on scholars and practitioners in the field of anthropology.

This year’s awardee is Dr. João Biehl, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University, for his book Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Beihl’s first-person account of his years spent at Vita, an asylum in Brazil, opens with a quote from a woman named Catarina, “In my thinking, I see that people forgot me.” Catarina was taken to Vita by her family because they considered her mentally ill, though she actually suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder. At Vita, Catarina began keeping what she called her dictionary. She said she was doing this “to not forget the words.” Biehl tells Catarina’s story, not only in his words, but in her own, with passages from her dictionary that often amount to poetry. Through her story, Biehl has written a revelatory work about a social strata where “the abandoned waited with death.”

The Staley Committee's citation reads:

Beginning with a chance encounter in an asylum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, this book traces the life story of resident “Catarina,” as gradually understood by medical anthropologist João Biehl. In relating the six years that follow their meeting, Biehl captures a gripping account of social abandonment and one woman’s creative perseverance in the face of appalling living conditions. More than biography, Biehl weaves robust and diverse theoretical insights with poetry, autobiography, medical mystery, and investigative reporting to produce an inspirational ethnography. He takes Catarina’s words seriously, recognizing the ways in which she writes herself back into existence against efforts to erase her from society. From this singular story he steps back to reveal a hemispheric view of transformations in public health driven by neoliberal reforms, pharmaceutical management of behavior, and brutalizing gender inequalities. At once a story of institutional failure and personal striving, this is a landmark of anthropological writing, humanizing in the most literal sense.

“This book is beautifully and powerfully written; it haunts the reader. This is in part accomplished through the collaboration between the ethnographer and an outstanding Danish photographer whose photos stop the reader in his tracks … . The book has had a huge impact in medical anthropology and related subfields.”—Arthur Kleinman, Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University

João Biehl, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University

Follow us: