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

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

Axis 3: Biomedical taxonomies and governing bodies

The third axis examines biomedicine as a form of biopolitics. From this perspective, biomedicine constitutes an armamentarium of political technologies that ensure the social order by governing bodies and by making populations accessible to intervention. The ethnographic studies contributing to this axis focus on biomedical practices, forms of organizing, and legal regimes that aim to enhance well-being by controlling disease and, by extension, the suffering body. They focus in particular on how these biomedical practices, forms of organizing, and legal regimes are transformed by their encounters with individual sufferers, afflicted populations, and institutional environments.

Biomedical criteria, standardized by international agencies such as the WHO, are the lens through which public health officials perceive and intervene in reality. As with all taxonomies, however, medical classifications structure reality and thus affect social processes. Epidemiological measures taken against communicable diseases, including new hygienic standards, vaccinations, or quarantine, can be implemented on entire populations to varying degrees of success. The same is true of attempts to implement routine medical follow-ups, for instance in mother-child care. These medical practices of standardization necessarily strive to control individual bodies and in the process work to embody nationhood. The deepening health crisis on the African continent and the hollowing out of local state capacity to deal with this crisis have expanded the scope of humanitarian and biomedical intervention. As a result, the continent is increasingly viewed through biomedical lenses.

Medical classifications are also instruments of normalization. Medical ideas of normality and the practices through which they are generated shape individuals’ experiences of health, disease, and the body. This process does not necessarily result in docile, disciplined populations. Indeed, unexpected, unruly subjectivities may arise that disrupt biomedical taxonomies: New identities and social relations that emerge around biomedical classifications and normalizations that have consequences beyond the field of health. These consequences are often unintentional, caused for example, by medical institutions seeking to manage a marginalized population. They can, however, also be intentional, for example, attempts at self-empowerment in which biomedical categories and practices are employed in the pursuit of other goals.

The issues addressed on this axis will be studied primarily within contexts in which all or most forms of medical care have collapsed as a result of conflict and war and in which completely new medical infrastructures must be constructed from scratch. In these circumstances various international, state, and non-state actors are called upon to provide medical services and to establish a basic infrastructure in the affected region. In order to achieve this, the agencies in charge first have to categorize individuals and groups of people. In doing so, they apply globally circulating medical, administrative, and juridical taxonomies and technologies. Of particular interest for axis 3 are the translations of these taxonomies and technologies into local contexts and the converse flow of information about these local adaptations back to the global centers of medical care.

General questions of axis 3

  • How does biomedical care frame new categories and groups?
  • How are new medical and biometrical technologies generated from the intention to control populations?
  • How do people re-appropriate biomedical taxonomies?
  • How are biomedical taxonomies negotiated between the people who implement them and those at the receiving end?
Go to Editor View