ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Science and the cultural politics of reproductive technologies

Contact Convenor: Tulsi Patel

Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics
University of Delhi

Tel: 91-11-7667858. 

Panel abstract

Reproduction is among the most controversial of the developments in the light of technological advances in science during the 20th Century. This symposium will explore the cultural politics in realms of human reproduction. Newer politico-economic and politico-cultural issues have been emerging with the advancements in science and technology. The complexity increases with globalising world economies and post-colonial discourses. Matters of value and consensus become palpable problems, legally, and morally as well as in terms of kinship and ethnicity. In the absence of minimum consensus what complexities and regulations emerge as far as decisions and arbitration are concerned? What do disagreements and confusions amount to and what are their wider implications? What and how are meanings assigned to technology? And most importantly, why are the meanings assigned the way they are assigned? What cultural micro-politics is at play in bringing about transformation?

The panel will probe into systems of meaning in the context of technological advances, particularly in the domain of human reproduction. Three sectors of human reproduction are taken up for consideration: childbirth, contraception, and conception. Panelists are invited to consider, amongst other things, cultural politics at individual, familial, and kinship levels; third party involvement and public anxiety around dispute and uncertainty; human morality, ethics and the political and cultural economy of emotions.

Partisanship and science: the story of sex-selection technique in India

Tulsi Patel, Delhi School of Economics

Birth as well as birth control has been a controversial issue for women, for the family and the state for more than a hundred years. Birth control has at times brought feminists close to eugenists over this period. Science and t4echnology had been adopted to suit the socio-cultural and political preferences of certain groups over others. Science has been used to the service of controlling, reducing or removal of the unwanted and undesirable, in other words, the wrong people. This paper asks how is this cruelty brought closer form the state machinery to the family through scientific advancement?

The paper examines the micro-politics of emotions and gender at the household and the family level where culture is evoked to deploy science at the service of the family. The selective adoption of sex determination technology and abortion of the wrong baby has reached alarming proportions despite it being illegal to do so in India. How does all this take place? How is the technology accessed and used? How is the use organised in the everyday life of the users’ present? How is this zone seen to be under one’s control and how is it adjusted with another zone beyond one’s control, spatially and temporally? What are the considerations in people’s minds? How is the practice interpreted and justified?

Medical science and technologies of childbirth in a public maternity hospital in Salvador, Brazil: young women’s perspectives

Cecilia McCallum, University of Manchester & Ana Paula dos Reis, Federal University of Bahia

The paper is an exploration of the experiences of young patients in a public maternity hospital in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. It focuses on their view of medical science and the technologies of childbirth as these are applied to their bodies (or not) in the hospital setting. An ethnography of the relationships developed with health professionals and other hospital users contextualizes the paper’s analysis of  these young women’s narratives about their experiences. The adolescents and young women who are the focus of the paper include both those who experienced childbirth in the hospital setting and those who suffered miscarriage, complications from induced abortion or other problems. The paper also draws on comparative research among young women with little or no direct experience of applied medical science, in order to highlight the processes whereby people belonging to specific social and cultural groups develop or reformulate cultural understandings over time and through lived experiences.

(M)Othering Instincts: the ultrasound scan, sex selection and the politics of ‘choice’

Navtej K. Purewal, University of Manchester

The use and availability of technologies such as the ultra-sound scan for detecting the sex of the fetus has caused a sense of uneasiness within feminist discourses which have debated over whether or not the use of medical interventions have resulted in an enhanced autonomy for women over their bodies.  The social and gender implications of the application of such technologies have led to a close scrutiny of the social context within which reproductive technologies are being used. However, even the notion of choice is a mediated one which can both empower and disempower women’s decision-making abilities vis-a-vis reproductive technologies. This article looks at some of the impacts and repercussions of sex selective technologies, namely the ultrasound scan, upon the attitudes and experiences of South Asian women in Britain towards sex preference and reproductive 'choice'. The article argues that culturalist analyses of son preference and sex selection are not only limiting but are problematic in their reliance on the ‘othering’ of culturalised women.  Such analyses also fail to adequately take into account an ever increasing commodified reproductive market which exists in a wider, not merely culturally defined, social milieu of diverse attitudes towards reproductive technologies and sex preference.

Penetrating Roots and Encountering Barriers: The Politics of Pregnancy for Bangladeshi Women in Britain

Sultana Mustafa Khanum, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh & Ursula Sharma, University of Manchester

This paper maps the spaces within which individual Bangladeshi women are able to exercise agency in relation to reproduction in the migrant situation. The Bangladeshi women in Britain experience pregnancy, childbirth and the fertility regulation process largely in terms of their situation in the household, family and (in relation to the wider society) their membership of what is regarded as a very low status community. The extent to which women can actually control their own fertility or pursue health in pregnancy and postpartum according to their own ideas and wishes is limited by their need to defer to husbands and to senior family members. This paper seeks to discover different aspects of the politics of pregnancy among a community of Sylheti Bangladeshis settled in a British city. The paper explores the fact that cultural resources are neither simply imported nor abandoned wholesale by migrants from Bangladesh.  Which resources are deployed and how they are deployed are products of the pregnant woman’s exercise of personal agency within a political nexus in which the power of both family elders and medical personnel are crucial factors, as also is the experience of being a minority subject to the effects of racist stereotypes and actions.

My vaidya and my gynaecologist: a narrative of a post-modern childbirth

Harish Naraindas, Delhi School of Economics

Contemporary literature on birthing practices in Japan indicates a new institutional form of post-modern births, which unlike the ‘traditional’ (that is, the modern hospital setting), birthing is not delivery-centred. These post-modern clinics are run by ‘mid-wives’ who have had a long formal training in modern hospitals, supplemented by other kinds of traditional techniques learnt from a generation of mid-wives before hospital delivery became the norm.

While such hybrid institutional forms are certainly yet to be in India, I examine the case of a doctor formally trained in one of the Indian systems of medicine, namely Ayurveda. Practising in South Madras with a large (but not solely) middle and upper class clientele, she seems to point to a future of hybrid births in India. A small but increasing number of women have put themselves under her care for the entire period of pregnancy. But since she does not deliver children they are also simultaneously under the care of a gynaecologist who is the one who delivers the child in a maternity nursing home. 

The dual course that the patient runs between two practitioners and two systems often sets up an amazing conflict, especially at times of crisis. I examine one such narrative to indicate how the woman (and her husband, mother, etc.) negotiates this minefield. It offers a commentary between lay and expert knowledge, on notions of authority and decision-making, and most importantly between two systems of medicine; and it invites us to reflect on the politics of childbirth, both as representation and practice, and how the cognitive contours and the institutional forms of knowledge shape them.

Discussants: Ursula Sharma, University of Manchester, & Robert Simpson, University of Durham