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Transgression as the Life-World

Four Maya Elders standing around a small fire. One is holding a colorful red textile that reads, in Spanish, "Great Confederation Ixim Ulew 2020." In the background are other research team members.

That Sunday morning the words came from my colleague José, secretary of the Q’eqchi’ Council of Elders Releb’aal Saq’e’(ACGERS), located in Poptun, Petén… “Tata Mingo is dead, he was lit on fire by his own neighbors a few minutes ago… He was accused of witchcraft.”  My knees succumbed, unable to let sink in the story José kept repeating over the phone, as if to make sure I was grasping the full gravity of what happened. Domingo Choc Che, a gentle soul and wise Ajilonel, expert on medicinal plants and practitioner of Maya Spirituality, and my research colleague, had been murdered.  “The others are afraid,” José went on, “what if they start coming after all of us?”  At that moment, the weight of my academic decisions felt like a punch in the stomach. I told myself we had been careful; we knew the area and had researched the risks extensively. Yet my ignorance of the subjacent complex local dynamics seemed unequivocal. The ACGERS Council was pushing the boundaries of a new type of research, in full trust of our partnership. That day changed me as an anthropologist and as transdisciplinarian. In this article I reflect on what it means to push and transgress the boundaries of collaborative research and how we may be asked to become a new species of social scientist. (read more...)

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Corridor of Chernobyl aftermath

Crackles of Science and other Signs of the Unseen in East Africa

After hearing that several villagers stored bags full of radioactive sand inside their family houses, the nuclear scientist explained that he went into a man’s home with a Geiger Counter. Moving through the house, closer to the bag of sand, he recounted how changes in the quality of the sound corresponded to an increasing presence of radiation. He knew that the people in this village, which is located close to Tanzania’s first uranium mine, kept the bags in their homes because they did not want to give away something that they knew was valuable, like gold or the gemstones mined in the area. He explained they didn’t realize keeping the bags in their homes was not a good idea, though he never said why. The sound emitted by the radiation detector voiced a difference that couldn’t be seen by the human eye: it was a moment when the normally unseen, unheard, odorless, and tasteless forces of ionizing radiation were made apparent. (read more...)

Medical reguulation of the female body

“Un-fixing” hormones: searching for the multiple in hormonal selves

What are hormones? While biomedical notions of hormones focus on their biological functions in bodies, hormones are also cultural artifacts, shaping understandings of health, normalcy, and what it means to live “hormonally balanced lives.” These molecules activate processes across emotions and physiology, social and material worlds, mental and physical health, organic and synthetic biology, the gendered and the non-gendered, and the normal and the pathological. Thus, hormones carry multiple, sometimes conflicting meanings, and sit at the meeting point between many different biomedical and social spheres of life, making them subject to multiple kinds of knowledges (Roberts, 2007). (read more...)

Photo of a male neurologist and a female nurse looking at neurodiagnostic brain scans. The nurse has a stethoscope hanging down from her neck and a folder with documents in her hands. The doctor is pointing at a particular brain image, drawing the nurse's attention to it. 

On The Social Life of TBI

A Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a common injury that occurs when a physical blow or force to the head damages the brain inside the skull—full stop. As such, TBI is a natural part of life in a world in which it is possible (and easy) to hit one’s head. It is often fatal, one of the leading “causes of death and disability” in the US (CDC 2015). This straightforward conception is codified in biomedical publication and practice, enshrined in the federal TBI Act of 1996 and national disability policy, and has even made brief appearances in popular film and public debate about the health risks of contact sports. This bio-political consensus is thus clear and plain: “TBI” indicates a singular event and its direct and natural bodily consequences.[1] (read more...)

an artistic drawing of a mouse, space background and seen inside the mouse

Pain-Free Mouse, being ‘human,’ and more-than-human ethics

In the opening scene of Blade Runner, a fictional diagnostic called the Voigt-Kampff test distinguishes human from android. The test, as imagined in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel and later adapted into the film adaptation, exploits a primary autonomic response: the so-called ‘shame’ or ‘blushing’ reaction to a “morally shocking stimulus.” In the novel, the ‘moral shock’ stimulus invariably involves nonhuman animals: (read more...)

An image of DNA molecules

Consumer Genetics and the Capitalization of Hope

In the twilight of the last millennium, an audacious scientific project was started by an international team of researchers. Their objective, like the countless scientists who came before them, was to advance humanity. But unlike all of the proceeding projects, this effort would map out what it meant to be human. The project, known as the human genome project (HGP), had the seemingly impossible goal of describing every gene within the Homo sapiens genome and mapping all 3 billion base pairs. If completed, the applications were said to be limitless. From social science research to medicine, the innovation gatekeepers of the world said that our lives would change for the better. But who has benefited from the HGP? Surely all of humanity, right? But at what point, and will it be equitable? These are questions I wrestle with, though I didn’t always. (read more...)

The left side of the image shows birch trees in the summer. The right side of the image is overexposed and white

Environments that Could’ve Been

Speculation is inevitable in social science. Infinite variables exceed what a researcher can grasp, making confidence hard to attain. There are always gaps in our knowledge of reality, and we fill those with guesses and hunches. Along these lines, in my own work, I am in the same camp as Alan Klima’s Ethnography #9, which tries to do away with non-fiction realism in the social sciences and instead invites literary sensitivities to understand the world beyond what is representable. (read more...)

Textbook lateral view of a drawn mosquito in black and white.

The Vector, the Viruses, and the “Healthy World”: Placing Aedes aegypti in Brazil

Mosquito: the “most dangerous animal in the world,” human’s “deadliest predator.” This insect is often described as the most probable target for gene-editing technologies that have the potential to eliminate the unwanted. Mosquitoes are usually presented as the number one enemy of humankind, a globally hated pest: the most killable of all beings. (read more...)