Medicine and colonialism: reading Frantz Fanon today

Dr Haro Karkour discusses why social sciences matter in the UK's ambitious tech vision.

This post is by Dr Haro Karkour, Online Tutor for Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations and MSc in International Public Policy. Haro's research focuses on International Relations (IR) Theory.

The UK government currently has a 2030 vision to become a ‘global science and technology superpower’. Towards this end, the government aims to raise its investment in STEM R&D from 1.7% in 2019 to 2.4% of the total UK GDP in 2027.

The key priority is to invest in increasing the number of ‘science and engineering graduates’ across the sectors, including the civil service. Initiatives such as the ‘stems futures programme’ seek to develop partnerships ‘across industry, academia, and the public sector with aim to present ‘opportunities to exchange and promote STEM knowledge’.

Why is technology and innovation, hence the emphasis on STEM subjects, a priority for the UK government? The answer is threefold: economic growth, improved public services and strategic international advantage.  

The role of social sciences: a postcolonial insight

None of these goals can succeed by focusing on science, or STEM subjects, alone. Take for example public services, in particular public health, which is a priority for the UK government. IR theory – in fact, an unlikely candidate, postcolonial theory – can help explain the relevance of social science for the success of public health not only in the UK but also globally. 

The Fanon perspective: trust in healthcare

In 1953-57 colonial Algeria, a physician with the name of Frantz Fanon, was grappling with the question of why the Arab natives chose death instead of medicine or attending French hospitals.

‘In a non-colonial society’ Fanon reasoned, ‘the attitude of a sick man in the presence of a medical practitioner is one of confidence. The patient trusts the doctor; he puts himself in his hands … At no time, in a non-colonial society, does the patient mistrust his doctor’.

In colonial society, on the other hand, ‘acts of refusal or rejection of medical treatment are not a refusal of life, but … reveal the colonised native’s mistrust of the colonising technician. The technician’s words are always understood in a pejorative way’. ‘The truth objectively expressed’ Fanon concluded, ‘is constantly vitiated by the lie of the colonial situation’. 

Science alone is insufficient

This fundamental difference between the ‘colonial’ and ‘non-colonial’ society ultimately explains the ambivalent relationship the natives in Algeria held vis-à-vis the French doctors. ‘For dozens of years, despite the doctor’s exhortations’ Fanon observed, ‘the Algerian shied away from hospitalisation’.

The response of French doctors to what seemed like an irrational behaviour was to dehumanise the natives; to call them ‘rough’ and ‘unmannerly’. The natives, on the other hand, responded ‘I don't trust them’. 

Beyond science: the socio-political context

What is revealing in Fanon’s analysis is that science, on its own, could not solve the problem that the natives did not trust the doctors to take the medication. This is because medicine, as a profession, does not operate in a vacuum.

It is embedded in a socio-political context and, when it heals the patient, it confers further legitimacy into the status quo. It restores the hierarchy between the patient and the ‘expert’. But what if the context itself is problematic? What if the hierarchy is politicised?  

Modern relevance: socio-political context and vaccine hesitancy

These questions are beyond the boundaries of science. But they remain relevant today as they were in Fanon’s time. For example, mistrust in government has been identified as the main reason why there was Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in Western democracies.

The mistrust was higher among those dissatisfied with the political status quo. Those, in other words, who were critical of technocrats and their ‘expertise’ in the first place, for reasons, such as trends in social inequality, that had nothing to do with science or medicine.

This socio-political context in which science is embedded, meanwhile, had an impact on vaccine rollout, and therefore the success or failure of the UK government’s public health strategy. 

Conclusion: the need for a holistic approach

The UK government’s sole focus on STEM subjects is therefore misguided. Social sciences need to be integrated into the natural sciences for the latter to succeed not only on the technical but also the societal level. IR theory, in particular postcolonial theory, gives us a glimpse as to why this remains the case today.  

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