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

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

Axis 1: Biomedical technologies and their embodiments

The first axis deals with issues of biological and social reproduction in Africa today. The central focus here is biomedical technologies that have in various ways become significant for how people in Africa imagine and enact the future. We have selected four exemplary technologies: (1) Antiretroviral therapy, which has become a powerful social operator in restoring individuals to health and allowing those being treated to envisage a future where having children, for instance, becomes a real possibility. (2) Biomedically supported understandings of sex and the evolving practices that have rendered both sex and gender malleable have made available a new range of gender identities in the African context. (3) Reproductive technologies ranging from contraception to fetal ultrasound are reshaping social relations as women gain access to increased control over their own reproductive health. (4) Particular forms of citizenship have been established through the deployment of international medical norms and practices that aim at standardizing populations and thereby making them accessible to biomedical interventions.

These four paradigmatic developments indicate a shift from the classical anthropological view of the body as blank slate onto which society inscribes its norms (e.g., through scarification, genital alteration, and body techniques) to a contemporary view in which biomedical technologies are seen as facilitating the simultaneous co-production of new embodiments and novel subjectivities. As possibilities change, the embodied subjectivities into which individuals are interpolated, mis-translated, or denied access to also shift.

In our studies, particular interest will be paid to the ways in which individuals become entangled – or do not become entangled – in medical technologies and to the biological, political, and economic factors that affect these entanglements. This will serve as an ethnographic lens for our examination of the translation of global technologies, practices, and ideas into local forms as well as the translation of local technologies, practices, and ideas into global forms. These practices of translation are framed and enabled through the mediation of various discursive structures, the most important of which are dominant cultural patterns and disputes, social movements, juridico-political controversies, the state, and trans-national institutions.

For this reason, we will focus on diverse legal mechanisms as well as the policies, protocols, and rhetorical strategies employed by state and non-state actors. This will also allow us to account for the way in which these global forms increasingly enter the private sphere, potentially enacting intimate forms of colonialism.

General questions on axis 1

  • How do medical technologies shape the identities available in the African context?
  • How are medical technologies drawn upon to create and fashion new selves in the African context?
  • How do these novel identities lead to changes in social and political relations?
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