Top of the heap: Martyn Pickersgill

This article is part of the following series:

This week Martyn Pickersgill of the University of Edinburgh speaks to “Top of the heap” about some recent books on humanitarianism, pharmaceuticals, dementia and expertise.

Martyn Pickersgill

Amongst other bits and pieces, I currently have two large projects on the go: one, on access to therapy in mental health, and the other, on neuroscience and family life. With regards to the former, I’m thinking a lot about what each of those key terms (‘access’, ‘therapy’, and ‘mental health’) actually mean in practice, and who are the people imagined to require therapy and why. The scholarship of the wonderful Didier Fassin has been central to my work in this area, and I’m finding myself returning again and again to Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (UC Press, 2011) – not least because of Fassin’s attention to how ‘needs’ and ‘the needy’ are constituted through a range of affective, epistemic and bureaucratic tools. It’s a beautiful example of a how a carefully descriptive text can also be analytically insightful and carry normative weight.

Relating to access, one of my collaborators, Emilie Cloatre, has a new book out: Pills for the Poorest: An Exploration of TRIPS and Access to Medication in Sub-Saharan Africa (Palgrave, 2013). In it, Emilie interweaves insights from socio-legal studies and STS, exploring the ways in which these traditions might speak to each other (and the limits to this), especially regarding her case studies: the circulation of pharmaceuticals around Djibouti and Ghana. For me, this is really helpful for thinking about the governance of other kinds of care, much closer to home (especially in terms of the social lives of therapeutics, and role of law in shaping these). Pills for the Poorest has just been shortlisted for the 2014 Hart Socio-Legal Book Prize so get your copies whilst Amazon still has them in stock!

As for books that quite literally are at the ‘top of the pile’, I’ve just bought Margaret Lock’s The Alzheimer Conundrum: Entanglements of Dementia and Ageing (Princeton UP, 2013). This should be directly relevant to my ongoing work on neuroscience, and a new project on epigenetics, but I would have bought it anyway: Lock gave the Monroe Lecture at Edinburgh back in 2011, and whetted my appetite for the full text even then. I’m looking forward to having a chance to sit down and really read it properly. There’ve been some great monographs and edited collections out recently around the brain sciences and this will surely be a major contribution to those.

Finally, I’m planning on getting a bit more into the political science literature. I’m part of a new group at Edinburgh – the Centre for Science, Knowledge and Policy (SKAPE), aimed at bringing STS and politics into closer alignment – and I recently bought one of my Centre colleague’s books – Christina Boswell’s The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge: Immigration Policy and Social Research (Cambridge UP, 2009). Christina’s work explores in detail the ways in which expertise is leveraged to facilitate and legitimate political action – themes which have considerable relevance for the research I’m doing around access to care, but also in respect to my interests in the ‘use’ of neurobiological knowledge in a range of contexts.


Martyn Pickersgill is an STS scholar at the University of Edinburgh. He currently holds awards from the Wellcome Trust, Leverhulme Trust and AHRC concerned with the social and legal dimensions of biomedicine and the health professions. Martyn sits on the Editorial Board of Sociology of Health & Illness, is Book Reviews Editor for New Genetics and Society, and is co-editor of Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences.

Image: Beverly Fishman, “Pill Spill,” Toledo Museum of Art, Glass Pavilion, Blown glass, 2011

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