Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist

Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist

By Renée C. Fox
Foreword by Anne Fadiman

“Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist” is a book of thematically interconnected ethnographic essays by the internationally esteemed sociologist Renée C. Fox, who employs a participant observer outlook to provide insight on enduring––and pressing––issues of geopolitics, epidemics, aging, friendship and humanitarian action and on the meaning and meaningfulness of teaching, exploring, questing and writing.

Hardback, 228 Pages


November 2019

£39.99, $49.00

  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
  • Series
  • Table of Contents
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About This Book

When the author’s aging body and the post-polio symptoms it was manifesting made it impossible for her to undertake the physically strenuous ethnographic research in the array of American, European, African and Asian settings that underlay her book Doctors Without Borders and characterized her research throughout her career, she began writing ethnographic essays, drawing from a range of things she was seeing, experiencing, thinking and feeling at this juncture in her life.

Among the leitmotifs that pervade and interconnect these topically varied essays are lived experiences of physicians and patients, including patients who are physically handicapped, elderly, mortally ill or beyond the reach of medical care; the origins and consequences of epidemic outbreaks of old and new plague-like infectious diseases that occur and recur, despite the impressive advances of medicine; the concomitants and challenges of aging; the wellsprings, dynamics and significance of medical humanitarian action; engagement with a “beyond borders” world view; the occurrence of national and international events of major moral as well as political and legal import and repercussions, such as the travel ban on persons from certain countries with a predominantly Muslim population initiated by Donald Trump and the terrorist bombing in Brussels’s Zaventem airport; and the meaning and meaningfulness of teaching, exploring, questing and writing. Latently associated with these themes are the author’s social values and social conscience.

Composing these essays from a participant observer outlook heightens and enriches the author’s observations over the course of her daily life, enabling her to engage in “mind travel” to places and people she has intimately known in the past and to places she has yearningly hoped to visit but never has.


“ Explorations of a Mind- Traveling Sociologist is like reading a story of a life and a story of a soul at the same time. In her beautifully written and enriching book, Renée Fox is engaged and engaging, deeply curious and informed, clear thinking and open-minded, humane and compassionate. She is as much a teacher as she is a scholar, and she is always a listener. What a joy to read such a wise and insightful book of life and living.”
—The Reverend Peter Kountz, Vicar, Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, USA

“Eye-opening, gripping and utterly engaging ethnographic essays from one of the great minds of our time. The book stands as testimony to the power of the human mind and the transcendence of the human heart and spirt. People are seen in their humility and frailty— but also in their nobility and strength. A must-read for anyone seeking understanding of life or uplift of spirit.”
—Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Professor of Medicine, Professor of History and the Mabel Dorn Reeder Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine, Washington University, St. Louis, USA

“Rightly revered as a pioneering fi gure in both the Sociology of Medicine and Bioethics, Renée C. Fox, now in her 90s, here off ers her many readers an elegant collection of essays that are both personal and ethnographic. Whether writing about the staff in her apartment building or about the heroic eff orts of Doctors Without Borders to deal with the outbreak of Ebola, Fox displays a novelist’s eye for detail and a social scientist’s eye for context, as she leads the reader outward from the seemingly narrow world of her near confi nement, due to her advanced age and frailty, and into the wider world of medicine and politics with which she remains actively engaged and deeply connected. In doing so, Explorations of a Mind- Traveling Sociologist foregrounds and highlights Fox’s deepest value commitments and the ideals that have guided her work from Experiment Perilous to Doctors Without Borders : the determination to break free of the ‘social boxes’ of her origins and to develop an empathetic understanding of the experiences and sufferings of others.

Ultimately, Explorations of a Mind- Traveling Sociologist is a confession of faith: faith in the liberating and illuminating potential of cross-cultural research into the lived experience of others; faith in the goodness of a life devoted to the calling of the scholar-teacher; and faith in the goodness of those devoted to ministering to and witnessing the suffering of others. As such, this book is a gift both to Fox’s many admirers and to future generations of her readers.”
—Howard L. Kaye, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA, USA

“Renée Fox, an indefatigable and gracious nonagenarian scholar, casts her experienced sociological gaze near and far, sharing intimate thoughts about her personal life, and perspicacious observations on local, political and more distant global events. These ‘emerita essays’ augment her prodigious scholarly output that place her in the pantheon of legendary sociologists.”
—Solomon Benatar, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Cape Town, South Africa

“Renée Fox shines with ‘amazing grace’: in her way of looking at the world around her, in her relationships with people, in her writing. Reading her leads to a state of equanimity rarely encountered in the social sciences.”
—Yves Winkin, Emeritus Professor, Urban Anthropology, University of Liège, Belgium “Renée C. Fox has been a worldwide traveler and explorer

“Renée C. Fox has been a worldwide traveler and explorer of social relations over the many decades she spent doing ethnographic research in the sociology of medicine. How then does someone who has qualifi ed herself as a perpetual fi eldworker sustain that activity when the frailties of age and disability limit her mobility? Explorations of a Mind- Traveling Sociologist testifies to the persistent vitality of Fox’s instinct to explore, whether it be by refl ecting on her past travels and research as they are embodied in her home surroundings and as they are regularly brought up to date by her continued connection with those she has met in the field, in the classroom or simply in her everyday surroundings. Unlike the memoir she published some years ago whose aim was to recount her life, Explorations of a Mind- Traveling Sociologist , a mosaic of essays on persons, problems and events encountered over the years, highlights her value commitments and points to the challenges she feels will require our most urgent attention.”
—Simone Bateman, Emeritus Senior Researcher, CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), France

“A consummate ethnographer and gifted writer, Renée Fox draws on her ‘inner landscape’ to take us with her on a rich, varied array of journeys that are near and far and present and past.”
—Judith P. Swazey, Adjunct Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health, USA

“Elegantly and beautifully conceived, Renée Fox’s book Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist sparkles for those of us lucky enough to call her our teacher and for those just meeting her through these pages. Her ethnographic eye picks up things overlooked by even the most astute and reminds us of the analytic and personal values of the sociological imagination in all places and life stages.”
—Wendy Cadge, Professor of Sociology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA

“Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist is an ethnography of the mind that extends its reach into crucial spaces within the larger social world. From within the confines of her Philadelphia apartment, Fox shares with readers her wise, insightful and sometimes whimsical observations, most often about the dignity and grace, the ‘humanity and solidarity,’ of the great variety of people she characterizes for us. She enables her readers to reflect on the way we lead our lives and on the things, both personal and global, that are important to us.”
—Mark Gould, Professor of Sociology, Haverford College, Haverford, PA, USA

“The person who looks back with joy from the vantage point of 90 years is someone worth knowing. Those who are unfamiliar with the eminent social scientist Renée C. Fox and her lifetime of participant observation on four continents have a chance to make her acquaintance here. They will find the opportunity a privilege and a pleasure. Part memoir, part diary, part book review and part commentary on current events, these reflections and recollections reveal their author to be a keen observer despite failing eyesight and a nimble traveler in a churning world despite her dependence on a walker. The self in her dreams is able bodied, she tells us, and readers will discover a mind that remains agile along with a generous spirit and a warm heart. She touches lightly on her maladies but is moved by the suffering of others to celebrate even as she studies the doctors, nurses and therapists who treat the afflicted and seek to ease their pain. Her survival against the odds is a triumph, and for the wisdom that comes with her years, those who will be introduced to her for the first time in this book can be very grateful.”
—Mary Ann Meyers, Senior Fellow, John Templeton Foundation Philadelphia, USA

“Renée Fox is internationally renowned for her insightful, phenomenological analysis of life on the personal, scientifi c and geographic frontiers of medicine. For much of her life, her keen refl ections arose from fi rst- hand observations in hospitals, clinics and research centers in Africa, Europe and the United States. Though no longer able to explore the world, she has now produced the ne plus ultra of her remarkable career in this wonderful book, with its fresh, intercutting examinations of her seven decades of amazing experiences and encounters that have a lot to say about the world today.”
—A. M. Capron, University Professor, University of Southern California, and First Director, Ethics, Trade, Human Rights, and Law, World Health Organization

“Renée C. Fox invites us to join her as a participant observer as she ‘mind travels’ across the globe, exploring issues from outbreaks and immigration to humanitarian crises and bioethics. Renée inspires us to be everyday sociologists, questing and advocating for meaningful solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems.”
—Peter Piot, Director, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK

“Aging has finally done to Renée Fox what war, disease, discrimination against women and other obstacles could not. Renée can no longer travel to Europe, Africa and China to conduct her groundbreaking ethnographic research, but the elegant essays in this book show that she is still exploring her world.”
—William Whitworth, Editor Emeritus, The Atlantic

“One of twentieth century’s leading sociologists continues to write with deep insight, empathy and force. My fi rst contact with Fox’s writing was in 1984, when my life was redirected by her 1963 essay on how doctors are trained for ‘detached concern.’ I became her student in 1989 and then really saw her extraordinary mind and essayistic power up close. She has been a constant teacher, by her words and example, to countless people in all walks of life. And she is still teaching, with joy. In Explorations of a Mind-Traveling Sociologist, each subtle observation opens into a whole world of ideas—about living with constraints, about humanitarian medicine, about contested elections, about the art of teaching itself.”
—Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University, USA

Author Information

Renée C. Fox is the Annenberg Professor Emerita of the Social Sciences, Emerita Senior Fellow of the Center for Bioethics and Professor Emerita of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and the Schools of Medicine and Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. She is the author of Doctors Without Borders: Humanitarian Quests, Impossible Dreams of Médecins Sans Frontières (2014); In the Field: A Sociologist’s Journey (2011); In the Belgian Château: The Spirit and Culture of a European Society in an Age of Change (1994); and Experiment Perilous: Physicians and Patients Facing the Unknown (1959). She is the co-author, with Judith P. Swazey, of Spare Parts: Organ Replacement in American Society (1992) and The Courage to Fail: A Social View of Organ Transplants and Dialysis (1974).


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Table of Contents

Foreword by Anne Fadiman; Preface; Resilience; Apartment Number 1103/4; A Hallway Friendship; Making an Apartment House My Home; Beyond Borders; The Meanings of My MSF Book; Venturing Out with a Rolling Walker; Election to the Explorers Club; Encounters with Physicians; Plagues; Miss Balkema—and Mary Beth; Life, Death, and Uncertainty in Physicians’ Memoirs; Terrorist Bombings in Brussels; The 2016 Presidential Election; Donald Trump’s Executive Orders on Immigration; On Being a Teacher; What I Learned about the Language of Silence; A Bioethics Award and a Surrogate Lecture; Epilogue; Index.


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