As a medical anthropologist, Zoë Wool is interested in questions of personhood and the body at times when the body — both its fleshy contours and its social entailments — becomes unsteady.
“Most of my ethnographic work is with injured soldiers and veterans of the post-9/11 wars, and their family members,” she says. “My work relates to questions of injury and disability, particularly the ways that postwar injuries affect people’s ideas of who they are, the kinds of futures they want to have and the kinds of relationships that they have. I also think about how the broader political context of American militarism plays into people’s experiences of something that we think of as very private, the experience of recovering from injury.
“One of the things that’s really interesting to me,” she says, “is the way that in disability communities, there are generations’ worth of knowledge about how to navigate medical systems; how to create joy and beauty in spaces of pain; how to build community when you have scarce resources, whether those are financial resources or energetic resources; and how to create accessible spaces that are not only accessible to people with particular disabilities but that are broadly accessible in terms of community participation, in terms of the economic threshold a person needs to meet in order to get to an event, or in terms of the infrastructure, which is a big issue here in Houston.”
A professor of anthropology in the School of Social Sciences and a member of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality in the School of Humanities, Wool sees the interdisciplinary Medical Humanities program as a sort of connective tissue, linking scholars in disciplines who might not otherwise talk to each other. “What does a historian of medicine have to say to a religious studies scholar? What does a medical anthropologist have to say to someone who’s working on big data?
“Whether we’re aware of it or not, our daily experiences are shaped in a lot of ways by social and cultural ideas that we have about what constitutes health, what constitutes good care, who’s deserving of what and how communication around these things should happen,” she says. “Medical humanities is one of the ways that we can think differently about those things that impact us every day. We can think differently about what good communication looks like, and we can think differently about what storytelling looks like or what it means to describe an experience of illness.
“And I think the more options that we have, the more broadly we can think culturally and publicly about these questions,” Wool says, “the better off all of us will be.”