Programme

(T041)
Biosocial futures: from interaction to entanglement in the postgenomic age
Location 124
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3

Convenors

  • Aryn Martin (York University) email
  • Megan Warin (University of Adelaide) email
  • Maurizio Meloni (Deakin University) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Aryn Martin (York University, 1), Megan Warin (University of Adelaide, 1), Stephanie Lloyd (Université Laval, 2), Maurizio Meloni (University of Sheffield, 3)

Short Abstract

This track seeks to bring together diverse empirical and theoretical approaches that defy the biology/society dichotomy.

Long Abstract

This track seeks to bring together diverse empirical and theoretical approaches that defy the biology/society dichotomy. While networks, hybrids, and entanglements have long been features of STS analysis, the relevance of the social to biology and vice versa are increasingly marks of 21st century life-sciences. Epigenetics, neurological plasticity, microbiomics, extended inheritance, and multi/trans-generational trauma bring an increased appreciation of "the social" to the practices of biomedicine. In biology these changes are gathered under the notion of postgenomics, by which an unprecedented temporalization, spatialization, permeability to material surroundings, and plasticity of genomic functioning is expressed. Meanwhile, in STS, sociology, cultural anthropology, and feminist studies, we've seen a wave of calls for increased engagement with biological materiality. We thus invite papers that chart the specificities of this biosocial domain in different disciplinary contexts. These papers might think with fertile concepts already in play (the biosocial, the biocultural, new materialism, new vitality etc) or propose new ones. In keeping with the meeting's theme, we hope that some contributions will imagine futures where this tired dichotomy is laid to rest not just in the vanguard of academy, but in public life as well. At the same time we don't want simply to celebrate the new biosocial: we suggest to critically reflect on its social and political translations, how this will or will not contribute to the remaking of key modern notions like race, class, and gender.

SESSIONS: 5/4/4

This track is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Post-genomic medicine and the remaking of race/ethnicity in Asia

Author: Shirley Sun (Nanyang Technological University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper attempts to contribute to this growing body of literature on the problematic and fluid construction of reference populations in genome medicine by raising the question of “why the interest in ‘Asians,’ what is at stake and ‘who is an Asian’?”

Long Abstract

Drawing on documentary analysis and interviews with leading human geneticists and medical oncologists in Singapore, a multi-ethnic country in Asia, this paper suggests that the construction of the reference groups are simultaneously shaped by a particular configuration of global forces and local histories. Specifically, on the one hand, the category is "racialized" ("Asianized") primarily because (1) the prospective and growing drug markets in Asia and the national government's push to build a world-class bio-medical industry, (2) the dominance of genome science publications in the US, and (3) the efforts on the part of some researchers to use race-as-a-signpost to uncover the molecular basis of disease and drug responses.

On the other hand, ethnic categorization is also a salient feature in study designs and research reports mainly because the notion of "Asian" is mostly interpreted as the combination of local ethnic categories -- Chinese, Indians and Malays. These categories are a legacy of British colonial governance, but currently defined variously by scientists based on the human subjects' names, and/or the designation of "race" on their National Registration Identity Cards (NRIC), and the interest on the part of researchers and policy-makers to assess the prevalence of particular molecular biomarkers in the local population. Taken together, these findings illustrate the centrality and interconnectedness of highly variable definitions of race and ethnicity in the development of genome-based medicine, but which all clinicians in this study say should ideally be implemented based on the genetic information of the individual patient without regards to his/her racial and ethnic background.

The human microbiome at the intersection of culture and biology

Author: Gabriela Sheets (Emory University)  email

Short Abstract

The human microbiome is a pathway by which culture becomes biologically embodied. Drawing from a biocultural study of infant development in El Salvador, the author illustrates the field’s potential to imagine a more complete picture of humanity's cultural and biological variation, origins, and futures.

Long Abstract

Emerging research on the human microbiome indicates that the gut should be seen as a unique anatomical niche where biological and social phenomena interact to become mutually constitutive. The microbiome initiates development at birth and stabilizes in the first year, performing key functions for its host. In contrast to other important biological systems, however, the microbiome is entirely sourced from the external world during development and throughout the life-cycle. In return the microbiome impacts the daily-lived experience and outer world of its human host. Thus a sophisticated understanding of the human gut demands an integrated biocultural framework that explores the social lives of both humans and their microbial partners.

This paper draws from a longitudinal, biocultural study of infants from a semi-rural village in El Salvador. Beyond the commonly studied factors of birth mode and early feeding, I explore how distal political economic processes impact more proximal household ecologies and ultimately the infant microbiome. In this way I elucidate a pathway of embodiment through which culture becomes biology. Next I critically examine the promises and pitfalls of this nascent field, and its potential to draw a more complete picture of humanity's cultural and biological variation, origins, and futures.

Eating in Relation to Others: Digestive Entanglements of the Human Microbiome

Author: Stephanie Maroney (University of California, Davis)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the discursive landscape of nutrition and human microbiome science, with attention to how knowledge about microbes is expressed in and through concerns about the modern diet and how dietary 'rules' are changing in response to conceptualizing bodies as multi-species ecologies.

Long Abstract

Human microbiome science presents a paradigm shift in the biological sciences and popular culture - away from thinking of microbes as largely pathogenic and toward the commensal work of microorganisms (Paxson, 2008) - which has produced new ways of understanding the human body, and enlisted different metaphors, narratives, and conceptual framings to explain the relationship between food, humans, and microbes. This paper takes a critical nutrition studies perspective to recognize the ways that scientific knowledge about food is not neutral, natural, or objective; rather, particular biomedical conceptualizations of the body produce forms of dietary advice aligned with and bounded by that particular understanding of what the body is, what food does, and how this impacts health.

I examine the discursive landscape of nutrition and human microbiome science with a focus on the ways in which knowledge of microbes is expressed through concerns about the modern diet, and how dietary 'rules' are changing in response to conceptualizing bodies as multi-species ecologies. In particular, this paper challenges a dominant thread of human microbiome research in which scientists warn that "western guts" are in trouble. How is the promise of microbiome science shaping contemporary dietary advice, and how have concerns about diet framed human microbiome research? What different forms of social relations are possible in thinking of our microbiome as an 'organ' or 'garden'?

The Naturecultures of Lyme Disease in North America

Author: Aadita Chaudhury (York University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper seeks to explore how the phenomenon of Lyme disease in North America challenges nature-society dichotomies through exploration of patient narratives from contact, diagnosis and treatment.

Long Abstract

This paper aims to account for the ways in which nature and culture coproduce the so-called North American epidemic of Lyme disease. I argue that Lyme disease is a result of techno-ecological interfaces and networks endemic to the Anthropocene such as climate change and that the mechanism of the disease itself challenges anthropocentric notions about boundaries of the self, agency and identity. Thus, through cascading links between various human and more-than-human actors, Lyme disease presents a veritable challenge to particular views of human individuals, their agency and implied mind-body dichotomies that originate from Renaissance and Enlightenment humanist thought. Through the examination of a collection of Lyme disease patient narratives, a reconfiguration and renewed understanding of the illness is proposed that casts new light on the boundaries between the human self and the non-human other, as well as the increasingly suspect dichotomy nature and culture.

Human-microbe relations in the clinic: antibiotics, immune hypersensitivities and asthma

Authors: Jennie Haw (University of Guelph)  email
Kieran O'Doherty  email

Short Abstract

Microbiome science disrupts the biology/social dichotomy. In the clinic, human-microbe relations are multiple; bacteria are now both symbiont and pathogen. We examine clinicians’ views on microbiome science and asthma care to consider microbiome science and biosocial futures in biomedicine.

Long Abstract

Human microbiome science is opening up new understandings of the human body that disrupt the biology/social dichotomy. Our bodies contain and coevolve with trillions of microbes leading proponents to speak of the body as ecosystem and humans as superorganisms or holobionts. One's unique microbial 'fingerprint' is shaped by social factors such as lifestyle, diet, geography, and community, leading to new understandings of how the social is woven into one's biological fabric. Human health and life are increasingly understood to depend on bacterial partners, or symbionts, supporting views of human/nonhuman sociality. In the clinical domain, human-microbe relations are multiple as bacteria are now both symbiont and pathogen, both friend and foe.

In this empirical paper, we examine healthcare professionals' reflections on microbiome science and asthma care to consider how multiple human-microbe relations may complicate understandings of conventional biomedical bodies and practice. Asthma is one of several chronic conditions for which human microbiome research is thought to hold significant promise. Researchers have recently demonstrated that the presence of 4 bacterial strains in the gut microbiota is associated with reduced immune hypersensitivities and lower rates of asthma. Drawing on qualitative interviews with doctors and nurses in Canada who treat people with asthma, we examine their views on clinical implications of microbiome research to gain insight on how microbiome science may be opening up new temporal and spatial arrangements of bodies, health/illness, and treatment/prevention. We conclude with thoughts on biosocial futures in the clinic.

Collaboration as object and method in the study of epigenetics

Authors: Eugene Raikhel (University of Chicago)  email
Stephanie Lloyd (Université Laval)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic research with an epigenetics research group, we consider collaboration as object of study and as method. We trace the styles of reasoning which allow for collaborative practice, and ask how this practice engenders or challenges engagement between the life and social sciences.

Long Abstract

Environmental epigenetics has attracted the attention of social scientists and challenged how sociologists, anthropologists, and historians conceptualize the relationships between social and material environments and bodies. Over the past decade, research from this burgeoning field has been described as the grounds for a renewed biosocial research agenda, or characterised as the basis for a more fundamental rethinking of collaborative work across the life and social sciences. In this paper, we consider collaboration both as object of study and as method, drawing on our ethnographic research with the McGill Group for Suicide Studies (MGSS), a multidisciplinary research group based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal. We begin by tracing the distinct styles of reasoning, methodologies, and material infrastructures which allow for epigenetics research at the MGSS to be enacted as a fundamentally collaborative practice. We then ask how work across and between the life and social sciences is engendered or challenged by the collaborative character of epigenetics research itself. We are particularly interested in what kinds of epistemological and ethical commitments are suggested by different metaphors for inter- and trans-disciplinary collaboration ("trading zones," "entanglements," "co-laboration," etc.).

The uterus as a social space: epigenetics and the reproduction of environments

Authors: Aryn Martin (York University)  email
Megan Warin (University of Adelaide)  email

Short Abstract

This paper takes a critical lens to the concept of 'the environment' and its differing spatio-temporal scales in postgenomic landscapes of developmental origins of health and disease and fetal microchimerism.

Long Abstract

The environment is an oft-cited term in the new post-genomic models of life, ranging from references to environmental epigenetics (exposures, feasts and famine) in diverse geographical locations and historical times, microbiomal habitats, intrauterine environments and maternal and molecular landscapes. From its inception in the 1940s epigenetics was itself metaphorically defined as a landscape. The environment and its descriptors thus travel across time and space, through and into bodies at molecular and metabolic levels, and across generations. In this paper we explore these multiple scales of 'the environment' through specific case studies of obesity and fetal microchimerism, critically reconceptualising the gendered relationships between bodies, environments and the self. Epigenetics offers a context for rethinking the limits of binaries (nature/nurture; self/other; time and space)- and in focusing on pregnant bodies and intergenerational life course effects we examine the value of such reframings.

Parental Responsibility, Epigenetics and DOHaD. Emerging imaginaries of reproduction in the age of epigenetics

Authors: Luca Chiapperino (University of Lausanne)  email
Umberto Simeoni (CHUV)  email
Francesco Panese (University of Lausanne)  email

Short Abstract

This talk shows how developments in epigenetics, under the aegis of the so-called Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) hypothesis, partake to an imaginary that rewrites normative, epistemic and social orders of parenting and reproduction.

Long Abstract

This talk shows how developments in epigenetics, under the aegis of the so-called Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) hypothesis, partake to an imaginary renegotiating responsibilities to protect the health of future generations, which rewrites normative, epistemic and social orders of parenting and reproduction. Drawing from interviews and a co-laborative (Niewöhner 2015) approach based at the University of Lausanne, the talk focuses on knowledge-production on epigenetic inheritance and DOHaD as both a promissory discourse for reproductive scientists, and a promising laboratory of biopolitical action (Rabinow and Rose 2006).

The talk proceeds as follows. First, we map the set of allegedly factual discourses that characterise the intersection of epigenetics and DOHaD. These discourses, we show, are not 'biological' in the contemporary sense of the discipline; rather, they build upon the hybridity of biological and socio-political styles of thought that are distinctive of epigenetics. Second, we highlight the strategies for intervention upon collective existence these discourses embed, and the allegedly compelling "moral imperative to provide a healthy start to life for the next generations" (Hanson and Gluckman 2011: S5) they impose, according to biomedical scientists in the field. Third, we identify the modalities of subjectification triggered by this knowledge-claims. In particular, we detail how individuals, relate epigenetics to discourses of "parenting" and "reproduction", and consequently how they are brought to work on themselves (both as prospective parents and citizens) in the name of those who are yet to come.

Epigenetics and the Morbidity Gap. Imagining Biosocial Futures in Aging Research.

Author: Ruth Müller (TU München)  email

Short Abstract

In science and policy, aging is increasingly debated not only in terms of life span, but also in terms of health span. Epigenetics points to early life experiences as key factors for health span. I explore how such insights shape notions of aging as biosocial and milieu-specific in aging research.

Long Abstract

In science and health policy, aging is increasingly debated not only in terms of life span (years lived), but also in terms of health span (years lived in good health). Epigenetic studies now point to early life experiences and exposures as key factors shaping health span. This paper investigates how such new insights from epigenetics are received and negotiated in an aging research consortium. Based on observation, interviews and document analysis, it shows how epigenetics becomes part of a reformulation of aging as an assemblage of acquired and inherited disease risks, a process through which aging is implicitly rendered an inherently pathological phenomenon. Some disease risks particularly relevant to differential aging are increasingly considered milieu-specific, with decreasing life and health expectancies for socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Researchers' suggestions about how to close this gap, however, do not address unjust social structures but focus on information and interventions for ever-younger individuals, families and mothers-to-be. Such interventions are framed as particularly urgent as to avoid the further broadening of the morbidity gap through possible inter- and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Here we see how the specific temporalities introduced by the possibility of epigenetic inheritance shifts visions of biomedical progress further away from engaging with slow-changing macro-political structures and towards imagining and addressing the individual as the only readily accessible target for responsibilization, intervention and change. Even in this biosocial conceptualization of aging, only some aspects of the social and the biological appear as malleable and plastic, while others are framed as set and determining.

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living"- an epigenetic reinterpretation

Author: Maurizio Meloni (Deakin University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims to widen the notion of biopolitics to the new scenario of twenty-first century bios, by incorporating the key epigenetic notion that injustice can be temporal and not merely spatial (Guthman and Masfield, 2013; Kabasenche and Skinner, 2014).

Long Abstract

That "the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living" (Marx, 1852), was known by social theorists even before the rise of neuroscience, epigenetics, and their postgenomic combination. This paper aims to widen the notion of biopolitics to the new scenario of twenty-first century bios. Notions like microbiopolitics and symbiopolitics have already been proposed to enlarge the spatial dimension of biopolitics to "the scales and values through which human lives are entangled with microbial life" (Helmreich and Paxson 2011; Paxson, 2008; Helmreich, 2009). Here I suggest to coin (possibly through a collective discussion) some new notion that help us thinking that our human boundaries are not only broken horizontally by unseen forces like microorganisms (McFall-Ngai, 2002) but also vertically by various slices of past exposures of our own or our most direct ancestors. If epigenetics points to the multiple and often delayed temporalities that act simultaneously on the present of our biological time, if the tradition of all dead generations (what they ate, the toxins, stressors, exploitations they were exposed to, but also, why not? the social conquests they achieved in their lives) weighs as never before on the brains and genetic functioning of the living generation, what kind of justice, biopolitics, responsibility should we think for our postgenomic times?

Ordering biosocial life. Political ontologies of solidarity and responsibility.

Authors: Kim Hendrickx (KU Leuven)  email
Ine Van Hoyweghen (KU Leuven)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper, we propose to approach the ‘biosocial’ from a pragmatist angle, by asking how the notions of responsibility and solidarity are at stake in a biosocial world. How does biosociality require us to rethink solidarity and responsibility?

Long Abstract

In this paper, we propose to approach the 'biosocial' from a pragmatist angle, by asking how the notions of responsibility and solidarity are at stake in a biosocial world. How does biosociality require us to rethink solidarity and responsibility? How does the concept affect a world full of institutionalized moral and political judgements about responsibility for health and disease? We argue that thinking the biological and the social together implies cultivating new political ontologies with respect to the notions of agency and cause, in ways that severely challenge how they are institutionally mobilized in Western politics and organizations, aimed at what we call the 'imputation' of final responsibilities (e.g. insurance practice and public health policy). We borrow the term 'imputation' from law and jurisprudence to signify a move that identifies a responsible agent, while at the same time defining what it means to be 'responsible' or to act as a 'cause'. We hold that a biosocial world engages its participants into a more difficult and deliberative process of ordering, where the notion of responsibility functions not to settle questions of agency, but as an invitation to rethink both agency and cause in a relational ontology where agents are enabled to respond (response-ability) and become solidary. Taking cue from the pragmatist and speculative works of Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, we move away from both nature-nurture as a dichotomy and its annulation as a holism, by placing 'biosociality' under the sign of risky engagements to be made.

Undoing Colonized Bodies: Leveraging Biosocial Understanding of Health Disparities for Future Generations

Author: Chikako Takeshita (University of California, Riverside)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how biosocial understanding of health disparities in minority populations might be used to generate a new discourse of "undoing" the effects of colonization in future generations.

Long Abstract

Biosocial understanding of health disparities sheds light on the history of oppression experienced by racial and ethnic minorities, the high rate of type-2 diabetes in Native American populations being a case in point. Once their ill health is examined through the lenses of epigenetics, transgenerational trauma, and extended inheritance, its biological roots will be found in the history of colonization and social marginalization of the tribes over several generations. Meanwhile, the plasticity of epigenetic traits, which can be modified while being shaped in-utero or over the offspring's life history, might open up avenues for ameliorating the people's health in future generations. Incremental improvements in pre-natal care, pregnancy outcomes, birth-weight, infant immune system and metabolism, childhood diet and exercise, health management of pre-conception youth, and the well-being of persons of reproductive age may help intervene in the cycle of epigenetic deficits. While the maternal body tends to be heavily scrutinized under the biology/society dichotomy, the biosocial healthcare paradigm will give a greater role for men to play, namely taking strides to mitigate the impact of stress on their families and community that impairs health. I postulate that because the biosocial body can be temporalized into the past as well as the future, it represents a hope for reversing the multi-generational colonization of the body and may become a motivation for a community that shares a history of uprooting, violence, malnutrition, and poverty to work towards a long-term recovery of the health of its descendents.

The 'Glasgow effect': a political laboratory for localised biologies

Authors: Maria Damjanovicova (European Institute of Oncology and University of Milan)  email
Giuseppe Testa (European Institute of Oncology / University of Milan)  email
Luca Chiapperino (University of Lausanne)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the configuration of biosocial entities in the fields of social and environmental epigenetics. Based on fieldwork data from Glasgow we advance the notion of localised biology as a further analytical tool for describing the cultural and political situatedness of epigenetics.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how biosocial entities are configured within the emerging fields of social and environmental epigenetics. Starting from a study on the association of epigenetic markers with socio-economic status among Glaswegian communities (McGuinness et al. 2012), we conducted an observational study and in-depth (semi-structured) interviews with members of the interdisciplinary team involved in this project. Based on our fieldwork data, we defined the existence of a community-level problem in Glasgow, which is above all of social and political character, as the driving engine for scholarly co-laboration (Niewöhner 2015) around epigenetics. The concept of local biologies (Lock 2015; Niewöhner 2015) has already been used to describe how epigenetics has been taken up in the investigation of social and cultural practices. According to Niewöhner, epigenetics is localizing biology in the sense of bringing different levels of context into the experimental toolbox of biomedicine, as well as opening up its epistemic repertoire to cultural investigations from the epistemic categories of social and political sciences. Here, we engage with the concepts of 'local biology' and 'localising biology', and use the Glasgow case to propose a distinct notion of localised biology as an additional analytical tool for describing how epigenetics is mobilized as an epistemic tool to address complex socio-political matters. Rather than pointing to a shift in the ontologies of disciplinary identities prompted by epigenetics (Niewöhner 2015), we show that it is the context of Glasgow - with its stark health inequalities and political struggles - that shapes distinct uses of epigenetics across disciplinary boundaries.

Bees and Biosocial Becoming: Biology, Politics and the Social in Entomology

Author: Richie Nimmo (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper critically examines a confluence of neo-Darwinism, game theory and neoliberalism in recent developments in entomology, before drawing on new materialism and relational ontology to problematise this and outline a way of thinking human and apian forms of life as complex biosocial becomings.

Long Abstract

Honeybee colonies have long been thought of as nonhuman societies or communities in nature, and perceived as the epitome of cooperation and collectivism. Bees have therefore been energetically enrolled into social and political discourse, and the cultural history of the honeybee has been a barometer of changing political inflections of the ideas of collectivism and individualism. This paper argues that this 'bee politics' is not restricted to quotidian discourse but encompasses scientific knowledge of bees, and thus examines the political and social ontologies entangled with the turn to conflict in modern entomology, tracing a confluence of neo-Darwinism in evolutionary biology with game theory and neoliberalism in political and economic thought. Theoretical resources from science studies, new materialism and relational ontology are drawn upon in order to disentangle and problematise the shared assumptions underpinning these discursive assemblages, and to outline an alternative way of thinking about both human and apian forms of life in terms of complex biosocial becoming.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.