Exploring anthropologies of medicine and health across borders at 4S 2018

This year’s annual meeting for the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) had an intriguing new component: an exhibition on the histories of STS in flux internationally, befitting the theme of transnational STS around which the conference was developed. The exhibition represents the various turns and epistemological orientations towards the critical studies of science and technology in locations decidedly outside of the Euro-American sphere where much of STS has publicly emerged, although Euro-American institutions are also represented within the exhibition. The exhibition intends to show a clear progression of STS as a field coming of age independently across nations. Aptly titled STS Across Borders, the initiative behind the exhibition aims to make legible the traditions of critical social, cultural and political studies of science and technology including those that have at times evaded the label of STS. Several different regional formations of STS across the world, including ones centered in India, Japan, Chile, Australia, the US, and Africa were explored through a variety of key questions guiding the exhibition. As a co-curator of the STS in “Africa” in Formation portion of the exhibition, I am familiar with the challenges surrounding definitions of STS, science, knowledge production and regionalisms that confounded my fellow curators. We hoped to create a dynamic platform through which semiotic concerns are explored in a more flexible way while also aiming to create a robust archive of STS-related work.

The works of medical anthropologists feature prominently in STS Across Borders, since forms of knowledge about health and healing have traveled across the world and have been interpreted divergently. Medical knowledge exchange between nations have long been explored by medical anthropologists, so it is no surprise that questions of healing, medicine, knowledge production and the creation of expertise around such concepts are well represented within the exhibition. Closely related to questions of medicine were reflections on disasters, both natural and anthropogenic or a combination thereof, that have had significant impacts on human health. Let’s explore some of the posters from the exhibition which relate to themes of health.

A significant aspect of the STS in “Africa” in Formation exhibit were scholars who are working on issues of medical knowledge production and application within the African context. This has included MIT’s Clapperton Mavhunga, who is writing a monograph on African modalities of chemistry, for use in medicine and in applications of poisons. Noemi Tousignant is a historian of medicine working in the context of colonial and postcolonial Senegal. Finally, Iruka Okeke, a microbiologist working on pathogenesis and microbial resistance, whose work is integral to vaccine development was showcased as part of the exhibit. This particular set of scholars show both the diversity of STS genealogies in development in the African continent, as well as socially oriented scientific research that may at other times not be categorized as STS.

The practices of STS and medical anthropology have always included work dedicated to public outreach and pedagogy. Initiatives such as courses, conferences, workshops and other events are vital to the creation of networks of interlocutors within the field and audiences across other fields. Artifacts such as Deakin University’s “Medicine in Society” study guides, the set of monographs published on various aspects of health, medicine and the pharmaceutical industry from regional medical anthropology hubs of Keio and Osaka Universities in Japan, and the various events with synthetic biology institutions undertaken by the Institute for Science and Society Engagement at the University of Nottingham are testaments to the diverse developments in STS and medical anthropology infrastructures to support scholarly communities around the world.

STS Across Borders also sought to situate the distinct traditions of STS and medical anthropology that have emerged in specific locations in the globe to their historical, socio-political and cultural context. To this effect, specific analytic questions were created to guide the curators of the exhibits: “What external conditions have influenced this STS formation?” and “How has the work of this STS formation engaged audiences beyond the university?” Among various other considerations, the curators of STS Across Borders reflected on India’s Bhopal gas tragedy, and the more recent public hearings on Bt-brinjal and the combined legacies of Minamata disease, earthquakes and the large elderly demographic on Japanese society as key contributors to the characteristic STS traditions of the respective nations.

The STS Across Borders exhibit is held online here. As my co-curator of the STS in “Africa” in Formation, Angela Okune said:

This exhibit is a starting point for what we hope will be a living work-in-progress that will keep growing and changing. If the exhibit can spur discussions on some of the issues we have mentioned and also highlight work that has been done, that would be a fruitful start. In addition to problematizing scale, one other intent of the initiative is also to build community. By bringing together a diverse group of works into one frame, the intent is not to say that this is the canon or that these are the only people that are doing the work. Definitely not. But rather to say check out all of this interesting work going on in these different disciplines, part of the world, etc. etc. Again, this is just a start. What is exciting about using the PECE platform for this initiative is that it is not a written “annual review” type of genre that is inherently quite static in form; the online platform is something that people can and should keep contributing to. So for 4S 2019, we hope that the STS in Africa exhibit will be taken up by others and added to and published again! You can think of it like a second volume of a book that keeps growing (with different authors). So we hope this first attempt will be well-received and critiqued and continue to live, grow and be a facilitating space for discourse and debate.

More than anything, the STS Across Borders exhibition is meant as a provocation that will unravel and develop further in the coming years as more content gets added to the unique PECE (Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography: an open-source digital format developed by UC Irvine to support collaborative ethnographic research) platform. As an experimental living archive, the hope of the curators is that it develops alongside contemporary advances in STS infrastructure and scholarship so that curators can update and annotate the exhibits and their component artifacts accordingly. This is the first effort of its kind within the global STS community, and we hope that it serves allied disciplines such as medical anthropology well in the coming years.

Aadita Chaudhury is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Program in Science & Technology Studies at York University, in Toronto, Canada. For her dissertation, she plans to conduct a multi-sited ethnography examining the praxis and materialities of fire ecology, with particular consideration to the more-than-human relationalities and material-semiotic assemblages that are implicated in the study of wildfires. She is a Student Representative of the Council of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S). She was one of the founding co-curators of the STS Across Borders exhibit, where with Angela Okune, she developed the ‘STS in “Africa” in formation’ exhibit. You can find her on Twitter at @ThylacineReport.