Revisiting bio-objects and bio-objectification: Categories, materialities and processes central to the (re)configuration of "life".
Location 125
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Andrew Webster (University of York) email
  • Ingrid Metzler (Vienna University) email
  • Bettina Bock von Wülfingen (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email
  • Aaro Tupasela (University of Copenhagen) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

We invite papers that use the bio-objects conceptual tools as heuristics for understanding the (re)configuration of "life", which can be seen as the articulation of collectives that do not fit within traditional dichotomies, actors and institutions in life-sciences and health technologies

Long Abstract

Bio-objects, bio-identification, and bio-objectification are a set of conceptual tools that have been developed over the past 10 years to help make sense of the re-configuration of life, the life-sciences and health technologies. These tools help us to make sense of the processes through which conventional boundaries and dichotomies surrounding life, the life-sciences and health technologies are challenged, resisted and/or redrawn. By tracing these processes through diverse laboratories, clinics, bio-economies, and digital realms we are not only able to come to a better understanding of how these novel materialities emerge and operate (i.e. bio-objects), but also of the relationships that are generated alongside them and the practices that seek to govern them. The bio-objects concept hints at the objects' material and socially ordered form; it is distinct from being a mere 'thing' without internal (material) or social (exterior/embedded) order. These two modes of ordering are always relational processes that can be traced in/to empirical situations. We therefore invite both empirical papers investigating processes of bio-objectification and bio-objectification, and theoretical papers seeking to revisit this conceptual toolkit. These papers could include the following areas:

-Crafting bio-objects within digital realms

-Bio-objects and generative relations

-Bio-objectification and biobanking

-Bio-objectification and bio-identification: papers on managing the unruly, mainstreaming the alternative

-Alternative bio-economies: critical perspectives on a dominant discourse

-Failed bio-objects and resistance to bio-objectification: revisiting (past) imaginations of bio-futures or failed attempt to work the identity of bio-objects in particular directions.

-Historization of the bio-object conceptual tool kit


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Generating Bio-Objects and Bio-Subjects through Next Generation Sequencing

Authors: Stefan Timmermans (UCLA)  email
Tanya Stivers (UCLA)  email

Short Abstract

Exome sequencing generates molecular objects of various causalities tying together kin and clinical networks in new configurations

Long Abstract

Clinicians engage the new technique of exome sequencing to provide a molecular diagnose for patients with intractable symptoms. The resulting output, a laboratory report, contains genetic variants of different levels of causality classified in three categories: pathogenic variants, likely pathogenic variants, and variants of uncertain significance. Based on observations of genetic counseling sessions in a clinic, we examine how even variants of low presumed causal functionality become objectified in the interaction between clinician and patient, taking on a life of their own in the patient's diagnostic odyssey with consequences for diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. However, the objectification does not stop with the patient. Due to the genetic nature of exome sequencing, the laboratory report has family spillover potential. We investigate how clinicians aim to contain these spillovers to the patient with one important exception of reproductive risks where the clinician presumes a recurrence not simply of symptoms but also of diagnosis in unborn siblings. Patients, in contrast, evaluate the variants in the context of extended kin, blurring the boundaries between symptoms and genotype. We then evaluate the processes by which very different variants become objectified as socioclinical relevant biologies and tie together different configurations of people in risk and susceptibility categories. Our argument speaks to the literature on the materialization of biological ties in kinship and clinical networks.

Life at Risk: the EDC-MixRisk Project and the Reconfiguration of Risk across Societal, Epidemiological and Molecular Scales

Authors: Giuseppe Testa (European Institute of Oncology / University of Milan)  email
Nadav Even Chorev (European Institute of Oncology)  email

Short Abstract

We present the first results of the H2020 EDC-MixRisk project that integrates STS into a research design aimed at defining, through the integration of epidemiology with expeirmental biology, policy-relevant thresholds for endocrine disruptive chemicals, a class of compounds at the peak of public salience.

Long Abstract

Exposure to human-made chemicals has become a ubiquitous feature of contemporary life. In recent years, a class of chemicals that interferes with the endocrine system, known as Endocrine-Disruptive Compounds (ECDs), has risen to public attention due to accumulating evidence of their critical causative role in major metabolic and neurodevelopmental disorders, triggering widespread efforts for regulating their circulation on a societal scale.

Here we present the first outcomes of the Horizon2020-funded EDC-MixRisk project that integrates STS and policy scholarship into a research design aimed at defining policy-relevant EDC-dependent risk thresholds. To this end, the project integrates the largest epidemiological cohorts targeting EDC-related adverse health outcomes with molecular studies on the impact of EDC in innovative experimental models, including human cortical organoids.

From an STS perspective, particularly within a bio-objectification framework, the project design reconfigures life as constantly 'at EDC risk', by operationalizing 'life at risk' at all scales from the governmental to the societal to the cellular and molecular. Specifically, in this paper we combine theoretical groundwork and preliminary empirical data to show how the definition of EDC risk thresholds emerges from the convergence of epidemiological and molecular studies, investigating the epistemic assumptions, regulatory constraints and evidence negotiations through which distinct disciplines interact in the definition and systematization of EDC-relevant bio-objects. In turn, this analysis adds to the current notion of bio-objects as both socially and materially ordered entities that blur entrenched dichotomies, by highlighting the differential impact of distinct epistemic and political scales on the practices of bio-objectification.

Tracking mitochondria as a bio-object: blurring and reconfiguring reproductive frontiers

Authors: Nolwenn Bühler (University of Neuchâtel)  email
Cathy Herbrand (De Montfort University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on two research projects, one on reproductive ageing and the other on mitochondrial disorders, we track the bio-objectification of mitochondria, revealing new conceptualisations of embodiment, ageing and inheritance, and the traffic between regenerative and reproductive concerns.

Long Abstract

This paper tracks the bio-objectification of mitochondria and explores how they contribute to the reconfiguration of socio-biological processes in the field of reproductive biology and medicine. Mitochondria are cytoplasmic organelles producing cell energy. They possess their own DNA, which is maternally inherited. Over the past decade, mitochondria have become the focus of increased attention in various spheres, primarily in scientific research but also in the media and in the context of socio-cultural practices. Their existence has been highlighted in mitochondrial replacement techniques, 'anti-ageing' products, genealogical research, and fertility treatments. As research on mitochondria generates considerable hope for promissory applications, it also attracts substantial funding.

Drawing on two empirical fields, one on reproductive ageing, the other on the use of reproductive technologies in the context of mitochondrial disorders, we examine the 'traffic' between the regenerative and reproductive sociotechnical projects (Squier 2004) and the new relations generated by biotechnological manipulations of mitochondria. We first describe the processes through which mitochondria have been constructed as a 'bio-object' in scientific research, as well as within public and policy debate. We then document how the manipulation of mitochondria is part of wider efforts to redirect and transform living processes by acting on reproductive and ageing processes. The biotechnological targeting of mitochondria not only disrupts notions of genetic identity and inheritance by creating new biological distinctions - e.g. nuclear and mitochondrial DNA - but also challenges current understandings of reproductive ageing by opening up the possibility of 'rejuvenating' oocytes and extending fertility.

Practices involving genetic resources: exploring ontologies in the bio-objects world

Authors: Fabien Milanovic (Sup'Biotech)  email
Etienne Verrier (AgroParisTech)  email
Andre Charrier (SUPAGRO)  email
François Lefèvre (INRA)  email

Short Abstract

This text addresses several issues related to the life-forms that are produced by biotechnologies or-and used in biological sciences. In particular, it raises questions regarding the nature of the ordered world and the ontological variability of the world’s constituent entities.

Long Abstract

This text addresses several issues related to the life-forms that are produced by biotechnologies or-and used in biological sciences. In particular, it raises questions regarding the nature of the ordered world and the ontological variability of the world's constituent entities. Especially between "natural" entities and "manufactured" entities emerged a new mixture of relations to life, the so-called "bio-objects", that is useful to explore for a best understanding of the reconfiguration of "life". The goal is to study relational ontologies, or rather the life's modes of existence, while empirically addressing the nature of specific bio-objects.

Grounded on a socio-anthropological approach, we empirically explore a specific bio-object: genetic resources. We sought to empirically relate plant and animal "genetic resources" to the practices in which they are enacted and thus come into being as "resources", thus bringing awareness to potential practices that enact alternative realities.

As a result, we first argue that the vernacular category of "resource" is overly simplistic given the ontological fluctuations associated with the practices in which these bio-objects are enacted. Second, we assert that several forms of living entities are enacted via different practices and that they vary in agency. This agency results from multiple factors that we identify in our analysis. We conclude with this kind of bio-object, connected to life, and able to support variable ontologies that are gradually describing the space that exists between being and resource.

Eggs as condensations: frames of intelligibility within Biology of Reproduction

Author: Sara Lafuente ( CSIC (Spanish National Research Council))  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic observations of Reproductive Biology courses and reflecting on concepts of bio-objects/bio-subjects and their relation to agency, this paper studies the discursive-material entanglements through which biologists learn what oocytes are-can, and what is to be expected from them

Long Abstract

Bio-objects have been defined through their capacity to challenge boundaries (Vermeulen, Tamminen and Webster 2012). I use this theoretical framework around bio-objects to think instead about how some bio-actants might be entangled in preserving certain boundaries. How do agency recognitions work in the tension between change and stability? Through a focus on oocytes, key actors within Spanish bioeconomies of reproduction, I analyze how particular hierarchical world orderings are entangled in views around biological matter. Drawing on ethnographic work in graduate and undergraduate courses of biology -where future reproductive workers learn about reproduction- I analyzed the frames of intelligibility through which reproduction is learned, showing how these processes collude with broader capitalist and heteronormative imaginaries. Directing Butler's insights on precariousness towards the cell level, I argue that reproduction is explained as a phenomenon that happens through unequal agency distributions, in which some entities, mainly sperm, act as (sovereign) subjects while others, eggs among them, are seen as relational/frontier-like entities. This scheme is reinforced through what I call technologies of simplification, to be found both within courses and clinics, allowing only certain entities to be recognized, presented, and acted upon as bio-subjects. Understanding materiality through a theoretical dialogue between perspectives around care (Puig dela Bellacasa 2011, Pérez Orozco 2006, 2014) and speech/performativity (Butler 1997, 2009) we aim at showing that what eggs are within these contexts is part of complex discursive-material entanglements in which coproduction between biological matter, biomedical technologies and socio-political nets of hierarchical ordering of the world become tangible.

Translating regenerative medicine: Fetal cells between drugs and transplants

Author: Paul Just (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

This empirical paper explores the bio-objectification of human fetal cells in translational regenerative medicine. Drawing on interviews, document analysis and focus groups with PD-patients two modes of ordering are identified that stabilize the emergent bio-objects between drugs and transplants.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the bio-objectification of human cells for therapy within innovation regimes of emerging fields of biomedicine. Recently cells derived from aborted fetuses have regained scientific interest and are currently used as transplants in advanced therapies for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's disease (PD). This empirical paper follows these bio-objects by focusing on its emergence and the pratices that seek to govern them in contemporary Germany.

Scholarship dealing with bio-objects underlined its heuristic value in order to understand the fundamental transformation of what "life" means and where its boundaries lie (Vermeulen, Tamminnen & Webster 2012). Research in this field has focused on bio-objectification processes - understood as relational processes between the bio-object's material and socially ordered form and the crucial role regulation and standardization play in the emergence and stabilization of such bio-objects (Metzler 2012).

This paper starts from the ambiguous ontological status the cells inhabit in the first place. Drawing on qualitative data generated through interviews, document analysis and focus groups with PD-patients and their relatives in the context of one EU-FP7 project two divergent modes of ordering are identified. First, cells for therapy are governed as drugs in terms of regulating and standardizing clinical trials. Simultaneously PD-patients as potential trial participants understand these cells as organ transplants. The paper will show, how these divergent materializations are played out in regards to the governance of biomedical research and how matters of concerns are subsequently produced in both modes of ordering in multiple and different ways.

"Stay Tuned" - Understanding citizens' connections to donated bio-objects in biobanking

Authors: Johannes Starkbaum (University of Vienna)  email
Melanie Goisauf (University of Vienna)  email
Anna Durnova (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

Based on empirical data gathered from several discussion events in Austria, this paper elaborates on how citizens enact their “connection” to bio-objects in the context of biobanking and how their understandings are related to actual debates on consenting practices.

Long Abstract

Providing different kinds of body material for research purposes has been subject of debates for many decades. Bio-objects - such as urine, blood or tissue - contain information about the subjects or groups of origin. This instance has inspired a bulk of literature that discusses the ontological status of these materials as well as the "nature" and impacts of the connection between bio-objects and their originators.

Building on these studies, our paper seeks to explore this question in the context of the Austrian biobanking landscape. It draws on empirical data from nine discussion events (Citizen-Expert-Panels) where Austrian citizens, patient representatives and professional experts from the field of biobanks debated biobanking in Austria and Europe. These data allow insights into how citizens build a connection to their body material, in discursively dividing the sample into its physical materiality and, foremost, understanding it as a personalized data storage medium. Hence, it was anticipated that donors should have the possibility to "track" their samples in order to have proof that their sample and data had been used for the purpose they consented for, and, at least for some of the participants, to know what results and research advances were made from the biobanks or studies in which they were participating. These empirical findings are becoming even more relevant in the context of the (expert) debates on re-consent for the novel data protection directive of the European Union.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.