Panel at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), Tokyo, Japan, August 28th.
In the mid-twentieth century, technological changes in transportation and preservation transformed the body parts of so-called primitive peoples into the material culture of biomedical science. As specimens, these materials circulate through networks of exchange that animate a global scientific community. As Warwick Anderson’s history of Kuru has shown (2008), the mobilization of ‘indigenous’ specimens is a thoroughly biosocial practice, as scientific objects come to stand in for people or even entire communities. It is through ongoing and uneven processes of alienation, transformation and exchange that knowledge, status, and obligation are produced.
This session aims to examine entanglements between populations characterized as indigenous with the scientists who introduced these body parts into global regimes of value. Specifically, the papers will explore and extend Anderson’s arguments in examination of other cases—both historical and contemporary—where indigenous bodily substance has served as a reservoir for research. We ask: What are the historical conditions of possibility that led indigenous body parts to become enrolled in an ongoing project of knowledge production about human health and identity? What are the material legacies of the hundreds of thousands of samples that persist in laboratory freezers around the world? What kinds of technical, ethical, and emotional labor are involved with maintaining these biorepositories? Similarly, what are the implications for how changes in experimental practice, such as PCR and DNA analyses, have led old blood to be used for new purposes? How have postcolonial shifts in value, such as the emerging idea of biological samples as individual or collective cultural property, reconfigured the relationship between scientists and indigenous people? What happens to exchanges when samples are presumed to be inalienable from their source or when they have outlived the bodies from which they were extracted? And how has the scientific circulation of ‘primitive’ body products been affected by a global indigenous movement’s problematization of such practices?
Moving from the lab to the field to the archive and back again, papers in this session will explore these questions from a variety of national perspectives. We aim to further our understanding of how science and technology, and biomedicine in particular, has become increasingly central to the modern constitution of difference, culture and global politics. Specifically, the papers will contribute to developing comparative perspectives in STS that link the biomedical practices and ideas which characterized the colonial frontier with contemporary scientific and cultural contestations for authority that shape today’s frontier technologies of genetic science. By examining different national contexts (Australia, Canada and Colombia), the session will explore the tensions and continuities between ‘colonial’ projects that sought to map biological difference and new biopolitical arrangements and ethical negotiations at stake in the inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples within ‘postcolonial’ biomedical research. Devoting anthropological and historical attention to the traffic of indigenous bodily substance will reveal new dimensions of ethics, citizenship, commerce, policy and social movements in the postcolonial world.
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