For September, here is a selection of recently published articles that may be of interest. Of particular note in the journals this month are three special collections (in Current Anthropology on potentiality, in Public Culture on translational research, and in Science in Context on popular understandings of science), and two interviews (with Nikolas Rose and with Charles Rosenberg). Happy reading!
Forthcoming in Current Anthropology is an open-access collection of articles that many Somatosphere readers will be eager to check out. Entitled “Potentiality and Humanness: Revisiting the Anthropological Object in Contemporary Biomedicine,” the articles in this Wenner-Gren Symposium Supplement explore “how genes, cells, bodies, and populations as well as technologies, disciplines, and research areas become imbued with potential.” The Supplement opens with an introductory essay by Karen-Sue Taussig, Klaus Hoeyer, and Stefan Helmreich:
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, potentiality serves as a central concept in the life sciences and in medical practices. This special issue of Current Anthropology explores how genes, cells, bodies, and populations as well as technologies, disciplines, and research areas become imbued with potential. We suggest that anthropologists of the life sciences and biomedicine should work reflexively with the concept of potentiality and the politics of its naming and framing. We lay out a set of propositions and emphasize the moral aspects of claims about potentiality as well as the productivity of the ambiguity involved when dealing with that which does not (yet and may never) exist. We suggest that potentiality is both an analytic—one that has appeared explicitly and tacitly in the history of anthropology—as well as an object of study in need of further attention. To understand contemporary meanings and practices associated with potentiality, we must integrate an awareness of our own social scientific assumptions about potentiality with critical scrutiny of how the word and concept operate in the lives of the people we study.
The articles in the Supplement are currently accessible in the “Ahead of Print” section of Current Anthropology’s website. Here are their abstracts:
The Potentiality Principle from Aristotle to Abortion
Lynn M. Morgan
Anthropological theorizing about “potentiality” should include an understanding of the contemporary legacy of Aristotle’s potentiality principle. This paper approaches potentiality as an object of anthropological scrutiny to show how it is evoked, presented, debated, and circulated among people interacting in a social realm. The potentiality principle, I argue, has been kept alive by Catholic moral philosophers who argue that embryos should not be killed because they possess the attributes that they will have later in life. Catholic moral philosophers and their feminist critics and interlocutors emerge in this paper as active agents who condition and shape the contemporary uses of the concept of potentiality. By looking at how potentiality debates are intellectually and historically situated, I argue for reflexive ethnographic attention to the politics of potentiality.
Potentializing Newborn Screening
Stefan Timmermans and Mara Buchbinder
Virtually all 4.25 million babies born annually in the United States are screened for more than 50 rare genetic conditions. In a country plagued with widespread health-service access problems, this remarkable public health achievement depends on policy visions of newborn screening as the linchpin of secondary prevention and saving children’s lives. Based on ethnographic research and drawing from a semiotic framework, we illustrate that newborn screening has had a much wider range of effects in the clinic than those anticipated by policy makers. How does the disconnect between policy potential and clinical experience affect the technology? We demonstrate that only some discrepancies are considered in policy circles and that instead, parents, geneticists, and policy makers renew visions of potentiality that preserve the technology’s benefits in spite of evidence to the contrary. While rearticulating the potential of technologies may help actors cope with situations that do not measure up to expectations, the inevitable cost of reformulating potentiality once a technology has been implemented is that some accumulated experiences will be rendered invisible.
Based on ethnographic research on prenatal health care in China from 2005 to 2007, in this paper I show how ideas about potentiality have a tendency to increase anxieties about anomalous births that many believe can and should be prevented. Focusing on maternal serum screening (MSS), I examine how through local agencies and with the help of the market the state has developed a “quality-assurance regime” that recruits expectant mothers to take active measures of self-assurance. Under such circumstances, MSS is promoted as the safest and most economical and efficient method to predict the potential of the only child. In practice, however, as a screening test, the results of MSS only offer a probability, either “high risk” or “low risk.” Facing such uncertainty, pregnant women question the doctors who conduct the tests and deliver the results that offer only vague information. At this point, the quality-assurance regime fails.
This paper is a community-based case study that is used to explore the potentialities of community knowledge for understanding human well-being. Examining how local expertise is mobilized to transform social inequities of health, I clarify the relationship between the potential and potency of community knowledge, the former oriented toward the future and the latter toward an actionable present. Readers are first introduced to a community-based health initiative in which I now work and play. This is followed by a discussion of the definitions of the two key constructs of this paper, community and knowledge. I conclude by assessing the ways community knowledge is an organic epistemological criticism that counters dystopic characterizations of resource-poor settings while releasing the potentialities for the making of healthful lifeworlds now and in the future.
Fairness and the Tyranny of Potential in Kidney Transplantation
Sharon R. Kaufman
The right to health and life is firmly established in the industrialized world, and advanced age is no longer a reason to deny medical treatment. Yet scarce and expensive medical resources, changing demographics, and expanding societal demands reveal how that right is more controversial than ever before. The case of kidney transplantation in the United States is a quintessential example of a broad health equity predicament in which the potential for greater longevity brings with it the problems of fairness and equity. As those over 70 and 80 come to constitute more of the “public” in aging societies, how then are nations to reconstitute the practice of fairness and the idea of public good? This essay examines this quandary by describing the potentiality we assign to kidneys, older persons, and the organ supply itself and by exploring the effects of that potentiality in three realms: schemes for fairness in the US organ transplant distribution system, living donation from younger to older persons, and the rise of anonymous living donation and web-based matching. Together, these realms reveal a “tyranny of potential” amid the changing character of altruism, obligation, accounting, and market forces.
The Right of Recovery
The responsibility for medicinal access and care has progressively shifted from the biomedical clinic and doctor-patient relations to precarious social institutions and legal and experimental settings. These settings afford proxy public health care, triaging services, and care delivery often on the basis of emergency or strict criteria of eligibility, urgency, or need. In this essay I trace out a conceptual shift in biomedicine and global health from a focus on a right to health (often equated with the right to medicines) to the institutional dynamics that facilitate—or, more usually, obstruct—a right to recovery. The essay addresses this latter right as an unmet therapeutic potential and explores practical and conceptual challenges for what is known as the “sick role” from its original framing as social deviance to be biomedically controlled to a neglected but powerfully informative people-based social science of survival.
American DNA: The Politics of Potentiality in a Genomic Age
Sandra Soo-Jin Lee
As genotyping technologies have precipitously decreased in cost since the completion of the Human Genome Project, personal genetic testing has increasingly been marketed to consumers. Genetic testing is now available for an ever-expanding list of genetic mutations associated with diseases—including breast cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s—as well as traits such as ancestry, intelligence, and athleticism. Close examination of the direct-to-consumer personal genomic industry reveals several forms of potentiality at work that are informed by imagined and real power over bodily information. The marketing and consumption of personal genetic information relies on constructions of biological potential that result from struggles over the ability to control and act on individualized genetic information and to translate it into meaning. This paper explores the emerging discourse over personal genetic testing—and the marketing and consumption of the alluring and carefully tailored idea of potentiality that fuels American entrepreneurialism—and concepts of freedom and self-actualization. Policy debates over rights of access to genotyping fail to recognize the shifting landscape of human genomics in the United States. Genes in the marketplace are justified by liberalism, civic republicanism, and multiculturalism propelling a paradigm shift away from traditional models of governance toward open access to genetic testing and minimization of individual harm. The turn to the market emboldens the consumer and creates a new set of social meanings and ethical quandaries over who may harness the potential attributed to genetic information and for what purposes.
Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) offer an ever-widening repertoire of possibilities for how bodies, substances, and relationships might be brought together in the accomplishment of reproduction. This article reflects on the tensions that arise around universalizing and secularizing discourses (e.g., bioethics, regulation, and the law) and those of vernacularization whereby these discourses are rendered into local idioms of kinship, body, and exchange. The examples used to illustrate this are drawn from Sri Lanka (Sinhala Buddhist) and the United Kingdom (Pakistani Muslims). In both instances, United Kingdom–inspired guidance on the delivery of services meets with very particular visions of hope and becoming as they figure in ideas of reproductive potential. This encounter introduces areas of mismatch and dislocation that are made evident through ethnographic inquiry and analysis. The article concludes with a discussion of gift and debt relationships in the context of gamete donation, connecting these with wider processes of cultural transformation in complex plural democracies. Those engaged in this negotiation are characterized not just as moral pioneers but as social pioneers locating their own beliefs and practices within the global diffusion of ARTs and their ethical and clinical governance.
Based on fieldwork at a transnational surrogacy clinic in India and analysis of assisted reproductive technology (ART) legislation under consideration in the Indian parliament, this paper examines how bodies become potentialized through a combination of technology and networks of social and economic inequality. In this process, the meaning that participants assign to bodies and social relationships mediated by bodies becomes destabilized in a way that allows some surrogates to imagine and work toward a connection to commissioning parents that will offer them long-term benefit. The politics that position the clinic to potentialize the bodies of surrogates—and as a result the relations between participants and their imagined outcomes—occur at a moment of global demand for ARTs. As such, they rely on differentiation of subjects culturally, geographically, and economically. This article examines how the potentializing of women’s bodies as surrogates occurs at the nexus of political, medical, and social influences in one ART clinic and how the resulting social relations are negotiated between participants in the clinic.
In this paper I examine the variety of ways potential is articulated, entailed, and produced in how the field of cancer genetics is being constituted as a domain of transnational research and an emerging site of health-care intervention in southern Brazil. Drawing on analysis of fieldwork in Brazilian cancer-genetics clinics, I explore how different expressions of potential come to inform dynamically the pursuit of prevention, care, and research as diversely scaled investments for those working and living with cancer-genetics knowledge and technologies. It illustrates how specific temporalities help to constitute and “abductively” frame the meaning of these different potentials particularly as this relates to a focus on ancestry. Colonial histories of migration, the embodied effects of dietary habits, or the moral failings of near and distant ancestors as well as promissory futures and the contingency of lived lives become at different times templates for identifying, materializing, and transforming how the potential of cancer genetics in Brazil is articulated. Potential is also expressed through an idiom of “choice” in different efforts to situate participation in cancer-genetics research as prevention or to negotiate access to basic public health. I explore how these expressions of cancer genetics as potential powerfully yet unevenly work to sustain knowledge practices as well as propel patients and their families into fledgling domains of clinical practice and scientific research. At the same time there is always an “excess of meaning” in these endeavors that make visible lines of fracture and disjuncture in collective efforts to make future histories of and from the pursuit of cancer genetics in southern Brazil.
Potentializing the Research Piglet in Experimental Neonatal Research
Mette N. Svendsen and Lene Koch
This paper explores the socio-moral-material practices by which the piglet is imbued with potential for human health by making it a substitute for the preterm infant in need of treatment. Based on fieldwork in a Danish perinatal pig laboratory, we view the experimental practice as a sacrifice and argue that it is characterized by two forms of exchange: a calculative exchange that defines an absolute moral difference between humanity and animality and constitutes the piglet as a raw material of science, and a corporeal exchange by which the piglet appears as a sentient substitute belonging to the same collective as the researchers. By focusing on the interaction between these forms of exchange, we highlight the existential aspects of the sacrificial practice and illuminate the many identities of both piglets and researchers produced in the interwoven processes of making, unmaking, and remaking piglets. We suggest that creating space for corporeal exchange and yet taming its power is essential to potentializing piglets.
This paper examines how a laboratory has responded to the problematics of translational medicine by creating an experimental system that links care for model animals with care for future patients. These scientists explicitly integrate caring practices into their scientific research on the basis that better, more translatable findings will result. Here, the potential of translational medicine to create human therapeutics is viewed as linked with the plasticity of model organisms. This is because poor care for animals is believed to result in inadequate scientific findings. However, emphasizing the constitutive role of care in conditioning both model organisms and experimental systems provokes an uneasiness regarding the standardizability of animal models, which I characterize with reference to Freud’s notion of “the uncanny.” In experimental science, care is something that has always been known but repressed. By making the constitutive power of care and the plasticity of model organisms explicit, these scientists trouble key ideas about standardization in laboratory contexts and address new kinds of scientific uncertainty. Based on this case study, I argue that care is a potentializing practice and, in turn, a site of politics. By attending to care, we can better understand how living beings are being potentialized as well as how they are not.
[Note: See also Public Culture for a special section devoted to translational research.]
Physics tells us that potential energy is the capacity to do work that a body possesses as a result of its position in electric, magnetic, or gravitational fields. Thinking of “potentiality” in an electric idiom and with reference to its place in human biological processes that implicate electric phenomena, such as the pulses of action potentials that animate the heart and brain, can afford novel angles into contemporary biomedical enactments of humanness. This paper explores the material and rhetorical power of electric potential in cardiac and neurological medicine, paying attention to how discourses of “waves” of energy format the way scientists apprehend bodies as emplaced in time—in a time that can be about both cyclicity and futurity. Attention to electrophysiological phenomena may enrich the way anthropologists of the biosciences think about potentiality, taking scholars beyond our established attentions to the genetic, cellular, or pharmacological to think about the body electric.
Historical scholarship on the banishment of subjectivity from experimental psychology led me to explore a current theoretical enterprise in literary and cultural studies that goes by the name “affect theory.” This approach, tied to contemporary neuroscience research, at once joins the effort to banish subjectivity from human experience and introduces the apparently compelling merits of a certain kind of potentiality. The potentiality revealed by affect theory lies deep in the human brain, hidden below the level of conscious intentionality. Affect theory draws on a long history in the human sciences going back to the late nineteenth century. Therefore, in this paper I take a fresh look at the early history of experimental psychology from the vantage point of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898. I intend this early anthropological approach to subjectivity to serve as a thought-provoking counterpoint to the later banishment of subjectivity from the methods used in experimental psychology and from the models proposed in affect theory.
In this article I discuss how anthropological investigations of potentiality can be enriched through a focus on time. The ethnographic basis of my inquiry is research conducted in Hanoi, Vietnam, on the use of sonographic imaging. Drawing on this fieldwork, I pursue two main agendas. The first is ethnographic: I explore how the potentiality of children-to-be was represented by people in Hanoi—by pregnant women, by health-care providers, and by population policy makers—showing how social attention concentrated particularly on the unwanted potential of pregnancies. People’s fears that pregnancies might end in disastrous ways were, I show, closely related to Vietnam’s history of war. The terror of the Second Indochina War lay not only in past atrocities or in present-day memories and bodily injuries but also in the future that childbearing women lived in relation to. The war was not only behind but also ahead of people. The second agenda I pursue is analytical. On the basis of my ethnographic material from Vietnam, and drawing on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, I discuss the possible analytical gains of placing “potentiality-for-Being” at the center of anthropological studies. With Heidegger, we may understand human existence as structured through an orientation to the future; seen through this lens, possibility is that through which we realize the givenness of our worlds.
Next, the September issue of BioSocieties features two articles about “risk thinking.” Alessandra Frigerio, Lorenzo Montali and Michelle Fine analyze how children in Italy diagnosed with ADHD are discursively positioned as risky and at-risk. Drawing on mental health professionals’, teachers’ and parents’ articulations of risk, the authors show how risk operates as a regulatory device. In an article that makes epidemiological surveys the object of analysis, Aaron T. Norton demonstrates how surveys themselves, administered to men about HIV-risk and circumcision, create new risk categories by “[positioning] some bodies as inherently riskier than others, thereby carving out new HIV-risk subject positions based not on identity or behavior, but the body itself.” Norton argues that “surveys constitute a discursive technology integral to male circumcision’s emergence as an HIV-risk reduction strategy, not simply a tool that identifies willing subjects passively awaiting the next public health intervention.”
Public Culture features an interview with Nikolas Rose conducted by Todd Meyers. Meyers and Rose discuss Rose’s intellectual history, how subjectivity and governmentality have grown in Rose’s work, and his recent work in life sciences and neuroscience.
Additionally, the Fall issue of Public Culture contains four essays on “translational” biomedical research, presented together as a “Dossier on Translational Research in the Life Sciences.” Kaushik Sunder Rajan and Sabina Leonelli write in the introduction, “translational research has become an important institutional component of the life sciences over the past decade. At its simplest, it is encapsulated by the formula “bench to bedside,” which was introduced by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the early 1990s with specific reference to biomedical research of relevance to the treatment of cancer. Since then, the importance of translational research has become powerfully established, particularly in Anglo-American biomedical audit and funding cultures.”
They go on,
“This collection of essays is not about translational research as an object in itself. Indeed, translational research is not a singular object, even though it is often framed and portrayed as such in the rendering of biomedical funding bodies. We are not even interested in tracing the multiple forms and processes of translational research, though a sense of this multiplicity might emerge when reading across the essays in the collection. Our concern, rather, is with the sites and contexts of the materialization of translational research in its myriad meanings in contemporary landscapes of biomedicine. In other words, what does the importance of something(s) called “translational research” tell us about biomedicine today? And what do the configurations of biomedicine today tell us about knowledge, value, and their relationships?”
The dossier contains three articles, accompanied by Commentary from Judith Farquhar and John Kelly.
Heredity in the Twentieth Century: Some Epistemological Considerations
The essay deals with the final part of a project on the cultural history of heredity stretching from the early modern period to the present. The focus is on epistemological questions such as the establishment of genetics as a discipline, the phenotype/ genotype divide, and the relation between science and images of science on heredity. Three images of science connected to heredity are discussed: the image of the gene as an isolated entity, the image of information, and the image of map and mapping.
Postindustrial Metabolism: Fat Knowledge
Through examination of four examples from contemporary metabolic sciences, this article characterizes the rise of a postindustrial metabolism. Concerned with regulation, timing, and information, this emergent metabolism is analyzed as a shift away from the factory or motor model of classic metabolism, in which food was fuel, providing energy and building blocks to the body. Accordingly, metabolic disorders—treatments for which are the explicit aim of much of this research—are increasingly explained and intervened in as regulatory crises, asynchronies, or instances of misinformation. Close examination of the explanatory frameworks and experimental design of the contemporary metabolic sciences answers, with some specificity, the question of the knowledge effects of obesity and diabetes research, or fat knowledge.
This article offers an analysis of how a prestigious academic medical center located in a poor urban neighborhood endeavored to meet its obligation to produce new biomedical knowledge while struggling with the financial constraints incurred by its geography. Located on the South Side of Chicago, the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) has attempted to stem the tide of un- and underinsured patients draining the hospital’s resources through a rhetoric of community and population health that could be rendered as a form both of research and of service. To do this, the UCMC made two ontological conversions. First, it created new categories of people based not on classical groupings of disease but, rather, on their capacity to generate revenue. Author Jennifer Karlin terms this a process of “financial epidemiology.” Second, the UCMC reframed its financial distress into a new kind of sociological problem, in part to take advantage of governmental funding earmarked for translational research. As its goals were redirected toward incentives aligned with governmental auditors, opportunities for obtaining research funding became available. For these transformations to be successful, however, the UCMC has also had to learn how to manage its research and service activities in ways that can be tracked by governmental auditors and that can be made apparent and accountable to an already suspicious public.
Social Science & Medicine has a couple of articles pertaining to health and space. Malin Eriksson and Maria Emmelin write about what constitutes a “health-enabling” neighborhood in Sweden, and there is an article about the significance of designated “smoking spaces” in a psychiatric hospital in England. The following forthcoming articles may also be of interest:
How do gunshot victims manage pain without health care? This paper examines this question through ethnographic data of a single gunshot victim who self-medicated with Percocet. The observations for this paper were collected in Philadelphia between January of 2010 and October of 2011, and were part of a larger ethnographic study that included 40 gunshot victims recruited from an outpatient trauma clinic. Although this victim was able to manage his pain, he ultimately became addicted to Percocet and became entangled in the personal stress and conflicts of his pill hustlers. His story shows how health care insecurity can funnel victims of gun violence into increasingly risky ventures to find pain relief. The findings from this study show the pressing need to expand rehabilitative care to all gunshot victims.
Health discourse and within-group stigma in professional BDSM
Danielle J. Lindemann
This article directly deals with health and stigma within practices of erotic labor. Scant previous literature has focused on erotic laborers’ perceptions of stigma and the ways in which regimes of stigmatization operate within their particular social worlds. I use the commercial BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) “dungeon” as a strategic research site to investigate these workers’ conceptions and management of their own stigma, and I find that discourses about stigma are inextricably entwined with concerns about health and wellbeing. Data are derived from ethnographic fieldwork with professional dominatrices (“pro-dommes”) who work in New York City and San Francisco as well as in-depth interviews conducted between September 2007 and April 2008. Counter to stereotypes of erotic laborers as violent or as vectors of disease, BDSM workers are in fact not only concerned about safety but professionally invested in it, reinforcing it through an identity politics of hierarchies of erotic labor. There are multiple implications of this work for public perception and policy—implications that could only be brought to light through the ethnographic method.
In 2011, India stood at the crossroads of potentially major health reform. A High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on universal health coverage (UHC), convened by the Indian Planning Commission, proposed major changes in the structure and functioning of the country’s health system. This paper presents reflections on the role of ethnography in policy-based social change for health in India, drawing from year-long participation in the aforementioned policy development process. It theorizes that international discourses have been (re)appropriated in the Indian case by recourse to both experience and evidence, resulting in a plurality of concepts that could be prioritized for Indian health reform. This articulation involved HLEG members exerting para-ethnographic labour and paying close attention to context, suggesting that ethnographic sensibilities can reside within the interactive and knowledge production practices among experts oriented toward policy change.
The September issue of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry contains an article entitled “The Other Side of Medicalization: Self-Medicalization and Self-Medication.” Based on interview and observation data collected in France with people who are treating themselves for different problems, Sylvie Fainzang develops the concept of “self-medicalization,” to describe
“…the tendency to make a decision on one’s own to transform a given situation into a problem requiring medical treatment and to choose the strategy required to deal with it (including self-information, self-governance, self-examination, self-prescription, and self-medication). Self-medicalization consists of introducing a situation into the medical domain that, from a medical perspective, may not necessarily belong there and in pathologizing a behavioral trait or bodily manifestation, possibly without or against medical advice. Self-medicalization is therefore consubstantial with self-medication, and the latter is the acting out of the former” (501-502).
In Health, there is an article about the (re)production of heteronormative discourses in clinical settings in Canada:
Heteronormativity hurts everyone: Experiences of young men and clinicians with sexually transmitted infection/HIV testing in British Columbia, Canada
Rod Knight, Jean A. Shoveller, John L. Oliffe, Mark Gilbert, Shira Goldenberg
Heteronormative assumptions can negatively influence the lives of young gay and bisexual men, and recent sociological analyses have identified the negative impacts of heteronormativity on heterosexual men (e.g. ‘fag discourse’ targeted at heterosexual adolescents). However, insights into how heteronormative discourses may be (re)produced in clinical settings and how they contribute to health outcomes for gay, bisexual and heterosexual men are poorly understood. This analysis draws on in-depth interviews with 45 men (15–25 years old) and 25 clinicians in British Columbia, Canada, to examine how heteronormative discourses affect sexually transmitted infection testing. The sexually transmitted infection/HIV testing experience emerged as a unique situation, whereby men’s (hetero)sexuality was explicitly ‘interrogated’. Risk assessments discursively linked sexual identity to risk in ways that reinforced gay men as the risky ‘other’ and heterosexual men as the (hetero)normal and, therefore, relatively low-risk patient. This, in turn, alleviated concern for sexually transmitted infection/HIV exposure in heterosexual men by virtue of their sexual identity (rather than their sexual practices), which muted discussions around their sexual health. The clinicians also positioned sexual identities and practices as important ‘clues’ for determining their patients’ social contexts and supports while concurrently informing particular tailored clinical communication strategies. These findings highlight how men’s experiences with sexually transmitted infection/HIV testing can (re)produce heteronormative assumptions and expectations or create opportunities for more equitable gendered relations and discourses.
Of interest in September’s Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute is an article about assisted reproduction by Elizabeth F.S. Roberts:
In Ecuador, reproductive assistance, whether from God, extended family, or medical technologies, is emphasized and desirable in a precarious and unequal world with a minimal social safety net and chronic economic insecurity. Assistance is the very grounds of being. In better-resourced realities like parts of the United States, assisted reproductive technologies can trouble the biological and social autonomy of individual heterosexual couples. Juxtaposing assisted reproduction in these divergent sites demonstrates that resources can make autonomy easier to establish and assistance between people and things difficult to perceive. Through an insistence on the material specificity of assisted reproduction itself, this ethnographic contrast contributes to anthropological approaches to ontological questions of being. In particular, ethnographic observation of the material realities of reproductive treatments in Ecuador demonstrates that medical care is one means to instantiate race. Private assisted reproduction makes whiter babies and patients in the face of a crumbling public health care infrastructure whose patients are by definition poor and Indian. The framework of assistance might serve then as a means to ethnographically trace the constitution of racial being in better-resourced nations, as well as allow for a more comprehensive recognition of the interdependence of existence.
Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine features a discussion of medically unexplained symptoms, entitled “At the Borders of Medical Reasoning: Aetiological and Ontological Challenges of Medically Unexplained Symptoms“:
Medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) remain recalcitrant to the medical profession, proving less suitable for homogenic treatment with respect to their aetiology, taxonomy and diagnosis. While the majority of existing medical research methods are designed for large scale population data and sufficiently homogenous groups, MUS are characterised by their heterogenic and complex nature. As a result, MUS seem to resist medical scrutiny in a way that other conditions do not. This paper approaches the problem of MUS from a philosophical point of view. The aim is to first consider the epistemological problem of MUS in a wider ontological and phenomenological context, particularly in relation to causation. Second, the paper links current medical practice to certain ontological assumptions. Finally, the outlines of an alternative ontology of causation are offered which place characteristic features of MUS, such as genuine complexity, context-sensitivity, holism and medical uniqueness at the centre of any causal set-up, and not only for MUS. This alternative ontology provides a framework in which to better understand complex medical conditions in relation to both their nature and their associated research activity.
Science as Culture contains an article by Regula Valérie Burri about medical images. The author conducted research in hospitals in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States in MRI units, cardiac clinics, and clinical research centers.
The increasing presence of images in medicine is mostly understood as a visualization of medicine. In this view, physicians and researchers are strongly guided by the visual power of images. Ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with physicians and scientists working in radiology departments and magnetic resonance imaging units however, show that visual power is not always effective. Depending on a situation, physicians and scientists are guided more strongly either by the persuasiveness of an image’s visual qualities or its scientific and sociomaterial qualities. Actors trust in images and perceive them as attractive and objective in certain situations, whereas in others they classify images as manipulated representations that are untrustworthy. It is either the visual power or the status of images as scientific and sociomaterial facts that shapes physicians’ and researchers’ actions. Depending on whether an image is used, for example, to make a diagnosis, to validate a research finding, to communicate with a patient, to prevent litigation, or to improve one’s position in the professional field, it is either the visual power or the scientific and sociomaterial characteristics of an image that are more effective in shaping medical practices. Fieldwork and interviews with physicians and scientists show in which situations visual power is relevant (or not) for medical practices.
Des Fitzgerald reviews two books about autism published in 2012: Chole Silverman’s Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder and Stuart Murray’s Autism.
In September’s issue of Subjectivity, there is an article entitled, “Liminality and Affectivity: The Case of Deceased Organ Donation,” by Paul Stenner and Eduard Moreno-Gabriel:
Building on ethnographic work on deceased organ donation (DOD) in Spain, this article supplements the concept of affectivity at the core of the emerging field of affect studies with a concept of liminality. The article begins by focussing on relevant scenes in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film ‘All about my mother’, using these as a spring-board to discuss the recent ‘turn to affect’ among social scientists and humanities scholars. This ‘turn’ is characterized in relation to a move towards the ‘event’ side of a ‘structure/ event’ polarity. A case is made for a process approach that better integrates event and structure, and better links ontological and empirical dimensions of research. To these ends, a distinction is drawn between an ontological account of liminality (informed by the process philosophy A.N. Whitehead) and an anthropological account (informed by the process anthropology of V. Turner and A. Szakolczai), both of which give a decisive role to affect or ‘feeling’ qua liminal transition at the joints and other interstices of structural order. The article ends with a return to ethnographic observations relevant to the characterization of the DOD dispositif as a novel form of liminal affective technology.
Finally, the third special collection highlighted in this post: September’s issue of Science in Context focuses on popular understandings of science in Europe in a special issue entitled “Communicating Science: National Approaches in Twentieth-Century Europe.” This collection focuses on two-way communication between science and its publics by investigating the political, religious, epistemological, media, and authority/authorship dimensions of science communication.
The Introduction is by Arne Schirrmacher:
In a recent book on The Publics of Science; Experts and Laymen Through History, Agustí Nieto-Galan introduced his subject of a (mostly Western) history of public science, covering the times from the Scientific Revolution to the twenty-first century, with reference to Sigmund Freud. In one of his essays of cultural critique, Freud had, so to speak, put culture itself on his couch, and this session also featured talk about science and technological application. Civilization and Its Discontents identified a factor of disillusionment in the progress of science and technology, which gave rise to “The Uneasiness in Culture” (the literal translation of the title of Freud’s German essay Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), and this uneasiness tainted a great deal of the happiness science and technology were intended to cultivate (Nieto-Galán 2011; Freud 1930). New technology and inventions like telephones, ocean liners, or drugs, Freud argued, were mostly remedies for negative developments technology had just created; for instance, without modern transportation people would stay close to each other and not need any telephone. (However, he did not address the issue of whether scientific knowledge itself may have provided some satisfaction.) The modern individual, as analyzed by Freud, was therefore constantly ill at ease with modern scientific and technological culture.
The following six research articles are in the special collection:
The history of Italian “popular science” publishing from the 1860s to the 1930s provides the context to explore three phenomena: the building of a scientific community, the entering of women into higher education, and (male) scientists’ reaction to women in science. The careers of Evangelina Bottero (1859–1950) and Carolina Magistrelli (1857–1939), science writers and teachers in an institute of higher education, offer hints towards an understanding of those interrelated macro phenomena. The dialogue between a case study and the general context in a comparative perspective will help us understand why Italian scientists, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, unlike their British colleagues, did not close the doors of the university on women. The case confirms the history of so-called popular science as a useful tool for historians of science generally and also when dealing with the awakening of a new social actor: in this case the “new woman” who, from the 1870s, was determined to take up science in a professional capacity.
This article is based on a detailed survey of three British popular science magazines published during the interwar years. It focuses on the authors who wrote for the magazines, using the information to analyze the ways in which scientists and popular writers contributed to the dissemination of information about science and technology. It shows how the different readerships toward which the magazines were directed (serious or more popular) determined the proportion of trained scientists who provided material for publication. The most serious magazine, Discovery, featured almost exclusively material written by professional scientists, while the most popular, Armchair Science, favored writers who were not professional scientists, but who probably had some technical knowledge. Another magazine, Conquest, tried to provide a balance between authoritative and popular articles; however, it survived for only a few years.
Popular Science and Politics in Interwar France
The interwar period in France is characterized by intense activity to disseminate science in society through various media: magazines, conferences, book series, encyclopedias, radio, exhibitions, and museums. In this context, the scientific community developed significant attempts to disseminate science in close alliance with the State. This paper presents three ambitious projects conducted in the 1930s which targeted different audiences and engaged the social sciences along with the natural sciences. The first project was a multimedia enterprise aimed at bridging what would later be named “the two cultures” – natural sciences and humanities – rather than at popularizing scientific results in the society at large. The second project, an encyclopedia named Encyclopédie française edited by the French historian Lucien Febvre, was meant to shape a cultural view of science for the general public. The third project and the most successful enterprise was the Palais de la découverte designed by the physicist Jean Perrin and explicitly aimed at attracting the young public. This paper explores the paradoxes that resulted from these large enterprises. Despite their social ideals, the scientists-popularizers favored an elitist concept of popular science essentially aimed at integrating science into high culture. While they strove to overcome the increased specialization of sciences, their efforts nevertheless accelerated the professionalization of scientific research and the isolation of science in an ivory tower. In their attempts to get closer to the public, they eventually contributed to spreading the cliché of the increasing gap between the scientists and the public.
German twentieth-century history is characterized by stark changes in the political system and the momentous consequences of World Wars I and II. However, instead of uncovering specific kinds or periods of “Kaiserreich science,” “Weimar science,” or “Nazi science” together with their public manifestations and in such a way observing a narrow link between popular science and political orders, this paper tries to exhibit some remarkable stability and continuity in popular science on a longer scale. Thanks to the rich German history of scientific leadership in many fields, broad initiatives for science popularization, and a population and economy open to scientific progress, the media offered particularly rich popular science content, which was diversified for various audiences and interests. Closer consideration of the format, genre, quality, and quantity of popular science, and of the uses and value audiences attributed to it, along with their respective evolution, reveals infrastructures underpinning science communication. Rather than dealing with specific discourses, the conditions of science communication are at the center of this article. Therefore I focus on the institutions, rules, laws, and economies related to popular science, as well as on the philosophical, moral, and national propositions related to it, and also on the interactions among this ensemble of rather heterogeneous elements. This approach allows a machinery of popular scientific knowledge to be identified, in Foucauldian terms a dispositif, one which is of a particularly cultural nature.
By the late nineteenth century, science pedagogues and academicians became involved in a vast movement to popularize science throughout the Russian empire. With the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, many now found the new Marxist state a willing supporter of their goals of spreading science to an under-educated public. In the Stalin era, Soviet state officials believed that the spread of science and technology had to coalesce with the Communist Party’s utilitarian goals and needs to revive the industrial sector of the economy. This resulted in a new Stalinist technologically oriented popularization campaign. In the Khrushchev era (1953–64), Soviet politicians became increasingly more aware of the competitive power of Soviet technology in the global arena and developed extensive campaigns to publicize Soviet feats for a broad domestic and foreign public audience. This was particularly true for topics such as the space program and big technologies such as nuclear power.
This paper analyzes the political dimension of Miguel Masriera’s (1901–1981) science popularization program. In the 1920s, Masriera worked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich – with Hermann Staudinger, the luminary of polymer chemistry – to later become a lecturer of theoretical and physical chemistry at the University of Barcelona. After living in exile in Paris, at the end of the Civil War he returned to Spain but never recovered his position. Instead, Masriera became an active popular science writer and adapted to the severe constraints of General Franco’s military dictatorship (1939–1975). Inspired by the astronomer Arthur Eddington’s world view, Masriera wrote and translated popular science books, and published articles in daily newspapers and journals. By examining Masriera’s popular works, in particular his program for spreading “atomic culture” in Spain during the Cold War, this paper aims to contribute to the assessment of the role of science popularization in the domestic legitimization of that dictatorial regime and also its use as a vehicle for international recognition abroad.