New Course Underscores Role of Cultural and Structural Factors in Global Health

In the 2017 spring semester, NYU Silver introduced an innovative, graduate-level elective, “Anthropological Perspectives in Global Health,” that emphasizes the synergy between global social work and medical anthropology. The course was developed and is taught by Professor Deborah K. Padgett, who explained, “Medical anthropology in particular highlights the importance of cultural, social and structural factors in health and illness. It embraces micro-perspectives relevant to social work practice and also includes structural critiques relevant to global health and social policy, which are areas of growing interest among social work professionals.”

A leading social work scholar and fellow of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, Dr. Padgett holds a PhD in anthropology and master’s degrees in both anthropology and public health. She designed the 15-week course to introduce social work students to anthropological perspectives and their theoretical and conceptual contributions to understanding global problems including communal violence, addiction, homelessness, human and organ trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and mental disorders.

“As the social work profession expands globally,” Dr. Padgett said, “social work students seek greater understanding of the role of cultural and structural factors in health and illness.” This is evidenced by the fact that all 25 spots in the first-time class were filled within hours of its being posted on NYU’s online course registration system.

“Social work practice ranges from the micro-level of psychological theories and to the macro—level of global social justice,” Dr. Padgett observed. “In the middle there is a lot of information about people, communities, cultures, and societies that can broaden and deepen our knowledge of global health problems. This course gives students an opportunity to look beyond the micro-level to focus on causes embedded in structural inequality.”

According to Dr. Padgett, anthropology as a discipline is very conceptual. As such, each class session introduces different ways of understanding and framing problems, with lectures on bio-power, structural violence, syndemics, and structural competence as well as bio-cultural constructions of race and gender.

In addition to take-home essay exams, students in the course will give small group presentations on relevant topics such as social determinants of asthma in the Bronx, suicide and transgenerational trauma among First Nations people in Canada, and smoking among Chinese immigrants. Dr. Padgett noted, “Adopting a critical comparative perspective will enable students to address health disparities and improve social welfare both here and abroad.”

Class of 2017 MSW student Kya Richards said when she registered for the course, she expected to learn how Western culture supports global systems through a biomedical perspective. “Instead,” she said, “the course is much more of a critique of the dominant culture. I am learning theories that have given me an entirely new way of looking at global health, and an ability to see larger themes. It has taught me to look upstream at the causes of downstream problems.”