Mexican Exposures is a multi-sited and interdisciplinary study of the interactions of bodies, environments, and life circumstances that aims to forge new models for reflexive “bio-ethnographic” research. This NSF and Wenner Gren funded project involves a three-year collaboration between myself and a team of environmental health researchers at the University of Michigan, where we seek to integrate biological and ethnographic data about conditions that shape disease and development. Since 1995, the ELEMENT project (Early Life Exposure in Mexico to Environmental Toxicants) has studied the long-term and intergenerational physiological effects of in utero and early childhood exposure to chemicals like lead and has begun to link these exposures to disease states, like obesity and diabetes through new methods, i.e epigenetic analysis. While ELEMENT has made several key findings about chemical exposures, its approach has tended to situate disease-transmission mechanisms inside individual bodies rather than within larger historical and economic processes. My objective is to build on and expand correlations between individual health and environment through the integration of ethnographic data about the broad social and material contexts of ELEMENT participants’ lives, as well as data on how participant’s live are shaped by ELEMENT research itself.
The starting point for the project is the growing critique, among anthropologists and scholars of science and technology studies (STS), of nature and culture as a priori explanatory devices and their replacement by an insistence on the contingent histories of human lives, bodies, and biologies. This critique provides the potential for new explorations of the interaction between environments, bodies, and health, and of the concept of exposure itself. In this vein, Mexican Exposures combines two different kinds of methodologies, ethnographic observation and biological sampling, through a symmetrical bio-ethnographic approach that understands environment-body interactions as always relational and constructed phenomena. For example, by linking participants’ blood lead levels with their family relational histories, this approach takes biological data seriously but precludes such data from being viewed as representing the “real” exposure story or the universal story of lead everywhere. The goal of Mexican Exposures is to produce innovative questions and more complex accounts of exposure, epigenetics and the relationship between disease and life circumstances than would be possible through either ethnography or environmental health science alone.
Assisted Reproduction in Ecuador
From 2000-2007 I conducted an ethnographic study of patients and medical practitioners in private IVF clinics in Ecuador, a primarily Catholic nation. That research became the basis for my book, God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes. Drawing on science studies, medical anthropology, and feminist scholarship, the book analyzes IVF in relation to religiosity, kinship and economic practices within the context of Ecuador’s unequal, neoliberal, and racialized terrain. I found that IVF and gamete donation was folded into an understanding of reproduction as always assisted, whether through extended family or through God.
Reproductive Governance in Latin America
Population and reproductive discourses throughout Latin America are increasingly framed through contestations over “rights,” where rights-bearing citizens are pitted against each other over claims to reproductive, sexual, indigenous, and natural rights, as well as the “right to life” of the unborn. Lynn Morgan (Mt Holyoke) and I have been tracking these changes as a new mode of what we call “reproductive governance.” In fall of 2009 Prof. Morgan and I convened a workshop at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan designed to produce an overview of reproductive governance at a regional level. Our collaboration has resulted in a published commentary, several conference presentations and a piece in Anthropology and Medicine for a special issue on “Irrational Reproduction”.
Based on a Wenner Gren and NSF funded workshop, Christopher Roebuck, Nancy Scheper-Hughes and I co-edited a themed issue on Medical Migrations: Global Quests for Health and Life. The issue and the introduction is one of the first efforts to conceptually link the international migrations of medical tourists, medical refugees, and the organ trade. Our aim was to consider ethnographic cases in relation to how travel for health and medicine transforms the economic, ethical, political and bodily states of the various migrants involved.