ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Technologies of re-membering: constituting life courses, past, present and future

Contact Convenor: Allison James

Dept of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield
Elmfield, Northumberland Road
S10 2JU

Co-Convenor: Jenny Hockey (changing after May 1st)

Panel abstract

The focus for this stream is conceptualisations of the life course and the differing roles which science and technologies of all kinds may have in the shaping of the passage of time in individual lives. It asks us how it is that identities are made, re-made over the time of a life and the ways in which people use “science” to both remember the past and come to re-member themselves in new ways in future social contexts and relationships. The session therefore engages broadly with the role which science comes to play in the presentation of ageing selves.

Through focusing on those technologies which enable age and identity to be socially constituted in new and different ways the session therefore also explores the extent to which biological determinants of the life course and its trajectory may be distanced, altered or supplanted through social action. 

Any number of themes might be explored such as: 

  • The role of medical science in explaining the past and predicting the future of individual’s lives through the use of techniques of screening and monitoring.
  • The role which technological devices such as the camera, the video, the tape recorder, the computer might have for documenting, displaying and narrating the passage of time in individual and family lives or for envisioning futures
  • The use (and abuse?) of statistical information in the generation of norms and standards for the chronologisation of the life course and the impact which this has for the life trajectories of individuals
  • The role of science and technology in the material shaping of bodies, life styles and identities, through their ability to re-mould the past, re- construct the present or envision the future.
  • The use of computerised data banks, the recording of personal information, data protection issues as they relate to the personal pasts, presents and futures for individuals. Here are the implications for traditional and more technologically based anthropological methods are included.

Mediating identities: how science and technology positions bodies in social space

Jenny Hockey & Allison James, University of Sheffield

Arguably science and technology both reflect and shore up western conceptions of an individualised self  residing within the boundaries of flesh.  This fusion of self and body has, for example,  come increasingly to inform medical science such that issues to do with self identity and control of the body are now core to medical ethics debates.  Indeed there is hardening of the individuated self/body boundary and a consequent escalation of tensions within medical practice.  Autonomous control of the body is now being claimed by a wide range of people - by teenagers seeking cosmetic surgery; transsexuals seeking gender re-assignment; and people who are terminally ill calling for legalised euthanasia. 

On the other hand, science and technology also permit conceptions of an inter-subjective or relational, rather than individual, body in examples such as:  the transmission of organic matter between bodies, intra and inter species organ transplant, the AIDS virus, CJD, donor insemination and surrogate pregnancies. Here the individualised self/body boundary appears dissolved. Core to this paper, therefore, is an exploration of the tensions which arise out of these different conceptions of  self identity, body ownership and control  as a result of scientific development and technological change within the medical arena.

They all say the same, ‘she remains an enigma’: a narrative analysis of patients who live with ‘medically unexplained symptoms’

Sarah Nettleton, University of York

How do people live with symptoms of illness which are medically unexplained or undiagnosed? This paper reports on an analysis of the narrative accounts provided by neurology outpatients in the UK who have long endured profound illness symptoms and yet are living in ‘diagnostic limbo’. Existing research on the ‘experience of illness’ has revealed how people draw upon a range of culturally available discourses in order to make sense of their situation, and to re-establish their sense of self and their social identity. Whilst they draw upon moral, political and other cultural beliefs and values these tend to be woven into biomedical discourses. The clinical diagnosis has been found to be  pivotal, indeed some authors have observed that illness stories begin at, or near, the diagnosis. For those who live with an undiagnosed illness the recourse to biomedical discourses can be more problematic in not least two ways. First, they are not able to draw upon medical science to secure a socially legitimate explanation for their illness. They cannot enter the ‘sick role’. Second, because of the content of the biomedical discourse itself. The medical literature on ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ focuses on the demographics of patients who present with such symptoms; their mental health status; the reliability of diagnostic techniques; and the effectiveness of various psychological therapeutic interventions for dealing with patients. Thus those who live in ‘diagnostic limbo’ hover precariously between partial and provisional psychological and physical explanations for their illness. Maintaining or resurrecting one’s sense of self and one’s social identity is extremely difficult within the context of the discursive and diagnostic limbo.  

Life course and epoch: the texture of time in accounts by London sex workers collected over a period of 15 years

Sophie Day, Goldsmiths College & Helen Ward Imperial College London

“The fact that men can look back with regret to their past, and forward with lively expectation to their future, suggests that there is ordinarily [a] …  tension and sustained suspense which tends to break up established habits and to hold those habits not yet established in solution.” (Robert Park 1931:25)

Life course studies are commonly conducted with older people reflecting on their lives. Yet, relationships between the present and the future may differ within the life course, and when studied prospectively.  From 1998-2000, we re- interviewed 60 women we knew in the 1980s and thereby gained at least two constructions of the life-course. Earlier stories tended to privilege radical breaks between different epochs of time while later stories about what was now past constituted more integrated narratives. For example, key future changes that were initially anticipated in terms of biological ageing were later represented as a process of continual modification by technological means (HRT, surgery, health/fitness/beauty regimes). However, a discontinuity between present and future was commonly reproduced. Life stories collected at just one point in time may gloss over basic temporal constructs that motivate everyday life, differ from one context to another and change over time.

Timescapes of belonging: photographing the “local environment” in Swedish farming community

Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist, Göteborg University

The siting of technological infrastructure projects such as waste incinerators or nuclear power plants can exert great pressure on a local community. The building of a huge train tunnel in the south west of Sweden where a local farming community has been seriously affected through a sinking of the ground water level and a toxic chemical spill, present such a case. In this study, members of the local community were given one-time-use cameras and asked to photograph ‘their local environment’. Their pictures portray places associated with childhood memories, family history, and the work and lives of past generations. In this study, an intensified recognition and re-evaluation of the local community and its shared social identity, its past, present and future as well as traditional knowledge, meanings and values, taken for granted and collectively shared dimensions of everyday experiences and practices became present by the means of ethnographic photography.

The building of a train tunnel through the Hallandsås ridge in the south west of Sweden has seriously affected the local farming community through a sinking of the ground water level and a toxic chemical spill. The tunnel project has contributed to a questioning of what is happening to the local environment and increasing attention is being paid to what people value in their community and in the landscape. A re-evaluation and recognition of the local community, its past, present and future, and what is regarded as vital assets of the community, have emerged. An awareness of memories of the past and past generations has been evoked. Side by side with the need of advanced technologies to fulfil the ending of the 8,6 kilometre long train tunnel, thrives uncertainty, doubt and fear of the future among members of the local community.

Risk and siting have mainly focused on economic and property implications for local environments. Large-scale projects can also threaten non-commodified shared community assets. Visual imagery compared to verbal communication has the capacity to communicate intuitive and emotive symbolic meanings. In this study, visual images have been used as a methodological device to probe perceptions of environmental risks.

This paper reports a study conducted in the spring 2002, in which members of the affected local community on the Hallandsas were given one-time-use cameras and asked to photograph ‘their local environment’. The photographs were subsequently discussed in in-depth interviews with each photographer. In these interviews, vital assets of the local environment, such as places associated with childhood memories and family history, constituted a main focus. Those assets, however, are not merely private but are also associated to broader collective contexts relating to nature and social continuity.

It has also brought to the forefront an awareness of intangible yet vital assets of the local community. Interviewing people about their own photographs facilitates the verbalization of meanings, values, and traditional knowledge but also taken for granted and collectively shared dimensions of everyday experiences and practices in a traditional community. The device of collaborative photography allows us to capture local interpretations of historically and culturally important aspects of the environment brought into bold relief by a vast infrastructure project entailing an indeterminate future.

Reflecting back on the compromised opportunities of movement and technology: narratives of mobile professionals

Vered Amit, Concordia University

This paper focuses on the life narratives of several Canadian consultants who have deliberately organized their occupational lives around frequent long distance travel.  While I had initially asked these professionals to reflect back on the role and impact of such occupational movement in their lives, I became aware that their stories were as much accounts of the opportunities afforded by as well as the limitations of the spread of technologies.  First, these ëexpertsí were being recruited to advise on the introduction, likely impact and management of ëwesterní technologies into Third world economies.  Secondly, their movement was made possible by the availability of an international network of airline connections.  Thirdly, their capacity to maintain their social networks and participate in several occupational sites at one time has been greatly enhanced by the introduction and global spread of electronic communication systems.  These are, however, far from triumphal accounts of the ëprogressí of technology.  After long term and diverse experiences in a wide variety of national and regional settings, most of these consultants are well aware of the limitations of western technological expertise.  Airline travel makes their work possible but it takes a constant physical toll and occupies many hours of interstitial time.  Electronic forms of communication make it possible to maintain contact with family members, friends and colleagues in ways which were not possible even a few years ago but cannot replace actual face-to-face contact and presence. Indeed if it ever could, it would eliminate the very travel they hoped their work would make possible. Technology connects the compartments of their lives as it does the sites they inhabit and visit but it is a highly comprised and double-edged form of connection.