The Four “S’s” of Life and Sumak Kawsay

‘Sumak kawsay – “good living” in harmony with our communities, ourselves, and most importantly, our living, breathing environment’ – Pachamama Alliance

The Four “S’s” of Life and Sumak Kawsay (An Andean academic-people’s approach to critical science)

Jaime Breilh at Emory University, November 7th, 2017

Jaime Breilh is a doctor from Ecuador who does research about social collective medicine. He is the Director of the Health Area in the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar and Coordinator of the PhD in Health, Environment and Society in the same university.

Breilh started his exposition by explaining critical epidemiology in Latin America. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of events related to health.

The main problem in Latin America [as in many regions which are not part of academia’s mainstream] is that what is not published in English does not exist, or “is not worth reading”. This premise has negative consequences for knowledge, because accepting it implies ignoring vast data and analysis about phenomenon done by plenty of scientists in other languages.

Breilh defended Foucault’s “Art of Critique”, which consists of reinventing epistemological certainties [reinventing knowledge], interrogating the politics of truth and ultimately questioning truth. Technically, questioning everything we think we know. According to Foucault, this is the only way one can get rid of prejudices and accepted ideas, and get to the true essence of things. Following Foucault’s path of questioning everything, one can unveil the essence of phenomena.

The expositor then explained the differences between social determinants in health and social determination of health. Social determinants follow a causal logic [A causes B], have a reformist perspective [modify the form and not the essence] and look for a redistributive governance [improve the life of people]. Social determinants “do not transform society; it is about governing society”. Social determination, a notion that appeared in Latin America in the 70s and gained popularity internationally in 2005,  is a multidimensional movement, that includes an emancipatory reform and seeks a transformation of power relations. Social determination requires methodological ruptures.

The four S’s of life are key elements that allow us to live in prosperity in a balanced way. The four S’s are sustainability, sovereignty, solidarity and security. They refer to the way we exploit the environment [sustainability], the autonomy of decision that the political spheres enjoy [sovereignty], the links between people [solidarity] and protection from an authority [security]. The idea is to get “Kawsay” [living in a community] and “Sumak” [notion of good, pleasant, protecting, beauty], an indigenous notion for “good living”.

Overall, the talk was long and very conceptual and abstract. The examples that followed were not long enough, or clear enough to be explained here. Although we usually forget about them, critical studies are a key compliment to mainstream studies. However, the talked versed too much in theory and too little in practical examples.

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