Translated Brain: Constructing a Science of Social Work in Vietnam


Friday March 31th 2017, at 1:15 pm

African Studies Seminar Room (232 Bay State Rd. Room 505)

Ann Marie Leshkowich is Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross. She is author of Essential Trade: Vietnamese Women in a Changing Marketplace (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014; winner, Harry J. Benda Prize, Association of Asian Studies, 2016) and co-editor of Neoliberalism in Vietnam (special issue of positions: asia critique, 2012) and Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003).

The expansion of a market economy in Vietnam over the past three decades has sparked concern about social problems. To promote individual, family, and child welfare, officials have called for the training of 60,000 social workers by 2020. Vietnamese universities, eager to develop this “scientific,” “modern,” and “international” academic discipline, have scrambled to design social work curricula in collaboration with foreign universities. Even as they might fetishize global scientific knowledge, academic and practicing social workers are keen to develop a version of social work appropriate for Vietnam’s social, cultural, and economic conditions in order to empower clients to identify and address their own problems. This work of translation and adaptation often focuses on perceived differences in individuality: a more collectivist and relational Vietnamese personhood, versus the individualistic orientation of the Western contexts in which social work first emerged. Drawing on fieldwork in university social work classes, practicum placements, and workshops in Ho Chi Minh City, this paper analyzes the contested politics of knowledge production and expertise shaping Vietnamese social work. In particular, models to explain and treat addiction, trauma, and autism center on supposedly universal scientific facts of brain chemistry. Efforts to construct a culturally appropriate Vietnamese social work therefore conflict with the equally pressing desire to assert the field’s authority by associating it with objective knowledge about individual behavior. This balancing act risks turning the culturally-specific individual that social workers are mandated to empower into a more passive object of neurochemistry less amenable to behavioral interventions.