Biomedicine in Africa – an anthropology of law, organization, science and technology

This research program examines how the science and practice of biomedicine is shaped through its engagements in various African contexts. Sociologists and anthropologists of medicine have begun to open and scrutinize the black box of biomedicine through studies of laboratory and clinical life in the West. There has, however, been little scrutiny of biomedicine on the more difficult terrains of non-Western countries, which frequently are intertwined with humanitarian crises and complex emergencies involving refugees, wars, and epidemics. Our program, which focuses regionally on Ivory Coast, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, and South Africa, aims to remedy this gap

This research program examines the making of biomedicine in Africa within the context of political and economic changes such as deregulation, privatization, decentralization, and the devolution of the nation-state in an era of globalizing markets and globalizing networks. These changes affect relations between the state, health care, civil society organizations, and capital – in Africa perhaps more than elsewhere. They give rise to new regimes of governance requiring stricter forms of standardization of medical procedures and new kinds of accountability and auditing, both of which are highly vulnerable to misuse and failure.

For this reason we are interested in demonstrating how the making of biomedicine in Africa is not only a scientific enterprise with political and economic dimensions, but also a legal enterprise. This legal dimension encompasses the juridical definition of responsibilities and entitlements in the area of public health and medical research as well as issues of intellectual property rights, health insurance, and the governing of human bodies through medical taxonomies.

We understand biomedicine as a circulating set of technologies, practices, and ideas that – as a by-product of prevention and healing – links individual bodies to the political order. We take Africa to be central for understanding global shifts in bodies and subjectivities as well as in social, political, and juridical forms precisely because the African continent is so marginalized in the global political economy and thus a site of intense conflict and experimentation.

Finally, by examining the making of biomedicine in Africa we also address epistemological issues arising at the intersections between the different forms of classification and ideas about the causation of bodily disorders and their remedies.

The program is comprised of ten individual research projects grouped along four thematic axes. The first axis concerns embodiments of biomedical technologies and focuses on shifts in biological and social reproduction. The second axis examines biomedicine’s intersections with traditional medicine and focuses on new forms of legal, organizational, and experimental practices that function as a means of translation between science, healing, herbs, ancestors, and spirits. The third axis focuses on biomedical taxonomies and governing bodies, paying special attention to how political subjectivities and populations are reconstituted through the deployment of biomedical forms of organization. The fourth axis concerns the experimental character of normal biomedical research and health interventions in zones of crisis and states of emergency as responses to life-threatening diseases and the failure of political states but also as newly emerging forms of “therapeutic domination”.

The term “traditional” should in one sense always be placed in quotations marks or inverted commas because its meaning can be understood only in relation to a particular discursive order. Colonialism made most African medical practices appear traditional, and genetic medicine currently makes most of conventional modern biomedicine appear traditional. We have for this reason abandoned the use of inverted commas or quotation marks in all such cases. Readers should be aware that we have done this not only for the term “traditional,” but for numerous other terms as well, for example, for “male” and “female.”

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