Anthropology major Henry Elliman connected an extracurricular passion with his research for his thesis, “ Pain’s Protest: Accounts of Chronic Pain from the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center.” Elliman had already started a public health initiative at the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center of Montgomery County before he knew he wanted to base his thesis work on his experience at the Norristown-based shelter.
Now beginning a “gap year” in which he’s learning how to cook in France and Italy, Elliman intends to return to the classroom and to eventually work in medicine and public health. He encourages his fellow Fords still searching for a thesis topic, a major, or some academic direction, to “volunteer, get involved, ask questions, and chances are you will meet people who will teach you something you couldn’t have learned in the classroom.”
What inspired your thesis work and how did your thesis advisor help you develop your topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?
I first met [Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology ] Chris Roebuckwhen I visited his office hours in October. I told him that I was starting a public health initiative at the shelter and I needed guidance. He suggested that I take a look at community-based participatory research in public health as a model. This type of research was important because it shifted the focus away from [being about] health problems in the community (i.e., what’s wrong) and encouraged identifying community strengths and resources towards better health. Chris and I had many conversations that often walked a fine line between defining (or refining) the scope of my research and indulging the depths of the fieldwork and theory. In the writing process, he would often circle a quotation and say, “Start a blank document with this quote and develop the idea.” He encouraged me to think more creatively about what pain meant and to use my thesis itself as a form of protest in its own right.
What are the implications for your research?
According to a recent study, chronic pain costs the United States $560 to $635 billion dollars a year. Half of the expenses come from medical costs (medication and tests) and the other half from opportunity costs (loss of employees for companies and loss of work time for people). To put this in perspective, heart disease—the No. 1 killer in the US—costs half as much. Therefore, chronic pain is a social and medical issue that needs to be more effectively addressed. My research looks beyond the staggering statistics to reveal the everyday lives of those who suffer. My thesis attends to the everyday lives of those in pain and those addicted to the medicalization of their pain. They suggest that despite all the resources we throw at pain, people suffer daily because of social and medical inadequacies. Also, my thesis specifically looks at poverty on the Main Line. The counties around Haverford College have seen an increase in poverty in the last ten years. In fact, nationwide, there are more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities and rural areas. The infrastructure of the Main Line is inadequate for mobility (physical and social). My research reveals how pain narrates the shift in topography of poverty to the areas around Haverford and the challenges to physical and social mobility articulated through pain. Finally, my thesis offers a more radical understanding of pain—pain not only as a medical term but a political and affective protest against structural inequalities in healthcare.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.