Rene Almeling, Winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, on Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm

November 28th, 2012, by § Leave a Comment

I am deeply honored to be the recipient of the 2012 Diana Forsythe Prize for Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm (University of California Press, 2011).  It is a thrill to be considered to be working in the tradition of Forsythe herself, as well as the list of distinguished scholars who have received this prize since 1999, which includes many of my academic heroes!  In what follows, I provide a short synopsis of the book, and for those who are interested in reading more, there is a link to the Introduction on my website:

Unimaginable until the twentieth century, the clinical practice of transferring eggs and sperm from body to body is now the basis of a bustling market. In Sex Cells, I provide an inside look at how egg agencies and sperm banks do business. Although both men and women are usually drawn to donation for financial reasons, I find that clinics encourage sperm donors to think of the payments as remuneration for an easy “job.” Women receive more money but are urged to regard egg donation in feminine terms, as the ultimate “gift” from one woman to another.

In the first part of the book, I trace the historical and contemporary organization of the market for eggs and sperm.  Egg agencies and sperm banks are similar in that they are in the business of recruiting “sellable” donors who will attract recipient clients. It is the details of how they go about doing this that reveal the importance of gendered stereotypes in their day-to-day operations. For example, drawing on the stereotype of women as nurturing caregivers, egg agencies emphasize the plight of infertile couples in selecting women who want to “help” people by giving the “gift of life.” In contrast, sperm banks rarely mention recipients, and they encourage men to think of donation like a “job.” (One cheeky ad calls on them to “Get paid for what you’re already doing!”). So the market for sex cells is structured both by traditional economic forces (such as supply and demand) and by cultural expectations of women and men that are associated with reproduction and the family.

For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when I talk about comparing egg and sperm donation are biological sex differences. As a result of these differences, women who provide eggs must self-inject fertility medications for several weeks before undergoing outpatient surgery. Sperm donors do not face any such physical risks, to say the least. But many people do not realize that sperm banks require men to donate on a regular basis, usually once a week, for at least a year. It costs a lot of money to screen donors, so sperm banks have to make sure that the tiny fraction of men who are accepted produce enough samples to make the investment worth it. But neither biology nor technology explains why producing eggs for money is a gift and producing sperm for money is a job. That is why I look to cultural stereotypes of women as nurturing caregivers and men as productive breadwinners for part of the explanation as to why this market is organized the way that it is.

In the second part of the book, I trace how the gendered framing of paid donation affects the experiences of egg and sperm donors. Egg agencies are constantly thanking women for the wonderful difference they are making in the lives of recipients, so egg donors spoke with a great deal of pride about helping people have children. Some egg donors even described the money they received as a “gift” for the gift they had given. Sperm banks treat men more like employees who are expected to clock in on a regular basis, and sperm donors respond by calling the money “income” or “wages.” More importantly, several of the sperm donors said they felt like “assets” or “resources” for the sperm bank, which reveals a sense of self-objectification. I did not hear that kind of language from the egg donors, even though they are making much more money than the sperm donors. These kinds of differences demonstrate the power that fertility agencies have in shaping donors’ views.  Framing donation as a gift or a job is not just a matter of rhetorical flourish; there are profound implications for how women and men experience the exchange of sex cells for money.

Egg and sperm donors also had very different ways of thinking about their relationship to offspring.  Especially for anthropologists who are interested in kinship, egg and sperm donors make for an interesting comparison because they are each providing half the genetic material needed to create an embryo, so they have the same biological connection to any children who result. Yet, I found that sperm donors have a straightforward view of themselves as fathers, while egg donors insist they are not mothers. This is the opposite of what many people would expect, given the greater physical commitment of egg donation and our cultural beliefs about maternal instinct. However, it begins to make sense when you take into account the emphasis that egg agencies place on recipients. Egg donors consider the recipient to be the “real mother,” because she is the one who will carry the pregnancy, give birth, and raise the child. Women can make this distinction because, thanks to technology, maternity is more easily separated into parts than is paternity. One woman can provide the egg, another can carry the pregnancy, and a third (or more) can raise the child. All of these women can lay claim (or not) to the label of “mother.” However, fatherhood is more often reduced to a cultural equation in which sperm equals dad. Sperm donors rely on just this definition of fatherhood, particularly because they are not asked to think much about the people who use their donations to become parents.

In sum, Sex Cells brings together social scientific research on gender, markets, medicine, and the body to propose a new way of theorizing bodily commodification.  Drawing on a wide range of research methods — from interviews with staff and donors at egg agencies and sperm banks to historical research and statistical analyses — the book demonstrates how the gendered framing of paid donation, as either a job or a gift, not only influences the structure of the market, but also profoundly affects the individuals whose genetic material is being purchased.

Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition

November 20th, 2012, by § 1 Comment

During the first year of the Obama administration, there was considerable optimism that the United States might finally catch up with other industrialized countries by developing a national renewable portfolio standard and carbon regulation. However, the hope was dashed by the compromises of the Kerry-Lieberman bill in the Senate and its eventual defeat. Likewise, the rise of the Tea Party movement and influence of fossil-fuel money in the Republican Party has made green-energy policy an increasingly partisan issue. It is hard to believe that in 2008 both McCain and Obama agreed that climate change was real and needed policy attention. By 2012, the pervasive influence of fossil-fuel money and the Republican Party’s anti-green strategy had led even the president who promised five million green jobs to adopt a strategic silence on the issue.

In the Arctic in 2012, the planet passed a significant milestone: the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 ppm, a level that the planet has not had for at least 800,000 years. The summer ice melt also reached new levels. Unfortunately, climate change is occurring slowly enough in temperate climates that it is easy for political leaders to ignore the severity of the threat. Human societies face an adaptation problem that they have never experienced before, and it will be exacerbated by the 2-3 billion people who will be added to the planet during the next forty years. As ethnographic field research has shown, the effects are often magnified in marginalized populations located in coastal areas, in urban slums, and in polar regions.

My recent work has been oriented toward what I think of as the “problem behind the problem,” that is, the lack of political will to address the twin problems of environmental sustainability and social fairness that are becoming worse every year.  I have written a three-volume series that looks at the role of “alternative pathways” (loosely social movements plus other kinds of reform efforts, including in the private sector) as historical agents that could open political opportunities for sustainability politics. In Alternative Pathways in Science and Technology, I reviewed a wide range of industry-oriented reform movements and showed both their potential and limitations; Localist Movements in a Global Economy focused on the small business sector and community enterprises as another source of countervailing power to the anti-green segment of global capital; and Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy explored the much more mainstream politics of labor-environmental-green business coalitions in federal and state energy policy. Although the work is written for a scholarly audience, I have also been involved in the local living economy and state government policy fields by writing policy reports, engaging in public speaking, and also cofounding an independent business association with a living economy mission.

More recently, I have been working on a project that tracks the record of Republicans on environmental policy issues with the assistance of a very promising graduate student, Jonathan Coley. In both Good Green Jobs and a paper in Energy Policy, we track the reversals that have occurred since the election of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Although green-energy politics and policies have subsided from the national stage, in states where Democrats are in power there has been ongoing action. Furthermore, we also found that there are some areas of bipartisanship, especially if proposed legislation does not involve a reform that can be understood as a regulatory burden.

Although my work is highly interdisciplinary, and my institutional home is a sociology department and an energy and environment institute, I find that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform my thinking.  For example, I am particularly interested in the role of political ideologies as cultural systems in policy fields, and I am interested in ideology as way in to the study of change in political culture. In addition to the mainstream polarity of American politics between a neoliberal right and social liberal left, I have been building a case that there is a growing influence of other ideologies, notably localism and developmentalism. For example, in Good Green Jobs, I argue that the United States of the twenty-first century is showing signs of a return to its developmentalist politics of the nineteenth century (in the sense of support for industry and trade defensiveness), largely due to the general shifts in the world economy and the aggressively developmentalist policies of emerging industrial powers.

By understanding neoliberalism in the political field as one ideology among others, I am especially interested in the capacity for other ideologies to become embedded in both discourse and policy outcomes, often as compromise formations. The focus is less on the micropolitics of everyday practices than on the broad contours of the political field and its potential to undergo tectonic shifts similar to the transition in dominance from social liberalism to neoliberalism that occurred in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The approach allows me to ask the empirical question of “after neoliberalism—then what?” in a way that is not clouded by utopian hopes.

Although there is a green transition in place in both the United States and many other countries, I remain pessimistic that the world’s largest countries will be able to act quickly enough to avert the multiple environmental crises of climate change, desertification, persistent toxics in the biosphere, and exhaustion of land and water resources. The future of the anthropocene looks grim indeed.

On Building Social Robustness

November 12th, 2012, by § 3 Comments

by David Hakken, Information Ethnographer, Indiana University Bloomington

As many of you know, I am now directing a Social Informatics (SI) Group in a School of Informatics and Computing (SoIC) at Indiana University Bloomington. The SI group is quite unique in Informatics/Computer Science/Information Studies, it that is has chosen to oriented itself explicitly to the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS, also referred to as Science and Technology Studies). I am also thinking about retirement in the next 3-5 years. Being in these situations has shaped the research agenda that follows.

My current research is all framed generally within Socially Robust and Enduring Computing. SREC is based on the notion that developing a notion of social robustness, comparable to the technical notion of robustness in Computer Science, is a goal worth pursuing. I have developed SREC with colleagues in Trento, Italy.

My main research time commitment at the moment is to a writing project on Value(s) with Maurizio Teli, a young researcher at the <ahref Foundation in Trento, where I spend a couple months every year. My interest in this area grew out of efforts to identify the forms whereby and the extent to which computing professionals are responsible ethically for the current economic and social crisis set off in finance. Maurizio’s and my value(s) project is a continuation of this work on the crisis and is linked to the project of David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years, itself a work that builds on much of the recent anthropology of value. That is, we want to give a similar account of the ways in which value and values are and should be treated and thought about in the reproduction of current social formations. Such an account is made necessary by the ways in which contemporary reproduction is increasingly detached from the prior industrial dynamics but which has not yet established a new dynamic. In our view, establishing new social formation reproduction dynamics requires identification of new values, new institutions for pursuing those values, and new means to measure especially value relating to the success or failure of establishing these new values and institutions. A major point we wish to make regards the increasingly larger role in these new dynamics we see being played by common pool resources, the focus of Eleanor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, and, until she died last Spring, a valued colleague here in Bloomington.

It is my hope that this writing will be paralleled by a research and demonstration project in Trentino on new systems, including information systems, for supporting the independent living of Seniors. This Suitcaseproject will build on my previous work in disability studies and technology, as well as more general ethnography in this region. Another aspect of the Trento ethnography is an attempt to understand what has made the region relatively hospitable to Participatory Design. PD is the focus of what I hope to and expect will be my last permanent contribution to the curriculum in the SoIC. In addition, I am working on another, related writing project, a text on Organizational Informatics, with Stefano De Paoli, another <ahref researcher. This text will incorporate much of the work behind my 2011 AAA paper in the business anthropology sessions as well as my current teaching, including my course on the Ethnography of Information.

A final areas of research, this time in collaboration with two SoIC graduate students, Nic True and Shad Gross, is on Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). In this work, we engage the current interest in Big Data, intending to show how some of the epistemological shortcomings in its standard approaches can be address when it is triangulated with ethnography. In our case, we argue that a preliminary ethnography of gaming can provide clearer direction regarding what we should be looking for in the automated analysis of large corpora of game play data. This work is directly related to the effort in SoIC to create a professional masters degree in Big Data.

Presented in this way, it should be easy to see, as I said initially, the multiple ways in which this research agenda is a function of my current position. While I have participated in the AAA meetings and CASTAC occasionally since I went to Indiana in 2004, this occasional connection has not been enough to justify systematic orientation of my research toward anthropology. Ironically, when I studied the careers of anthropologists interested in STS in the 1980s, I found a similar phenomenon; there were few if any examples of individuals who developed these interests while sustaining strong connections with academic anthropology. I should mention that my efforts to interest Indiana University Bloomington Department of Anthropology scholars in this type of work has born little fruit.

I mention these things as a warning: Interest in the anthropology of science, technology, and computing is not automatically, or even generally, a good way to build a career in anthropology. Working in and through vehicles like CASTAC should thus be understood as essential to the work of anthropologists who wish to continue to do so.

Inaugural Post from the Editor

November 7th, 2012, by § 2 Comments

Greetings! Welcome to the CASTAC Blog, an exchange for ideas and information about science and technology as social phenomena. We hope to build on a thriving community of scholars from around the world who are concerned about the implications of technologized products and worldviews that are impacting human beings and other forms of life. Our focus is interdisciplinary and welcoming to a variety of scholars interested in a diverse set of research issues, ethics, and impacts of technology on increasingly blended forms of humans and machines in contemporary life.

The CASTAC Blog was created by Patricia G. Lange, Jennifer Cool, and Jordan Kraemer, who are all members of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC). CASTAC is a sub-committee of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). For more than 20 years, CASTAC has had a thriving presence at AAA, as researchers have come together to exchange views about what it means to conduct anthropological research in technologized arenas. Sometimes the opportunities and challenges we face are very different, given that we research everything from nanotechnology to new media. In other instances, though, we face similar challenges, such as public perception of how we as researchers question the effects and processes of science, technology, and computing (the so-called “science wars”). Other challenges we often face include working in interdisciplinary terrain and receiving resistance from the academy or industry about our contributions. Many of us simply wish to geek out and connect with other people who are doing cool things in the intersection of anthropology and sociology and science and technology studies.

Our goal is to encourage dialogue—in a truly polyvocal space—on research findings, tools, new events, and social connections to others in this intersection of domains. We welcome contributions from interested parties within and outside of CASTAC to post about their research, contribute off-the-cuff comments or ask stimulating questions that can bring greater understanding to processes and products of humans’ engagement with technology.

Even writing a simple description of this domain presents challenges. The discipline of anthropology has exhibited a long-standing, anthropos-centric focus; but scholars within our community are already writing about the importance of microbes, biological organisms, and artificial life in ways that inevitably broaden the terrain of consideration of anthropological inquiry. Those of us engaged in research of new media have also pushed the boundaries of anthropological practice by following the “action” and going online to investigate new social formations that increasingly rely on mediated communication.

In an important way, we are all pushing the boundaries of anthropology. We wish to create a space where this kind of intellectual risk-taking is safe and welcome. I think we all realize that what we are doing today is, in fact, going to be the taken-for-granted anthropology of tomorrow. When I faced resistance from certain quarters about my dissertation project on MUDs (multi-user dimensions) and the social implications of tech talk, a wonderful mentor at the University of Michigan told me that I was ahead of my time and that my colleagues would catch up one day. We suspect many, if not all of us, have similar tales to tell, and the stakes are considerably higher in a number of technical and scientific areas. Happily, we have a community to hand that is ready and eager to hear what you have to say!

Consider this space a dialogue in progress that’s about promoting community both within and outside of CASTAC. We are interested in hearing many voices rather than gathering journal-ready copy. Scientific and humanistic insights need not be produced from the single peer-review journal path, as we all know. The backstage conversations often spark the big ideas, and provide much-needed support in challenging times.

Of course social spaces like this only work if everyone contributes in some way. After many years of being relatively quiet, CASTAC’s business meeting at AAA in the Fall of 2011 showed that many of us wish to continue to meet and keep a space alive for interacting with our colleagues in this space. We have devised The CASTAC Blog to accommodate different kinds of dialogue and contributions. We welcome submissions from all scholars in this area and people from different perspectives, including students, faculty, practitioners, policy makers, and other interested readers.

  • People are encouraged to post about their initial observations, ongoing work, or research results in the Research section of the blog.
  • Other people may wish to talk about methods or tools that they found useful or problematic in our Tools & Techniques section.
  • Our section Beyond the Academy may be of particular interest to those who grapple with these issues in non-academic settings.
  • We have also included a Member Sound Off section to encourage ideas about how the community can be improved, and to encourage personal statements of what it means to be part of a community like this.

What do you hope being part of this dialogue will bring? What can The CASTAC Blog, the organization of CASTAC or even other scholars in this space do to help you attain your goals? Join us!

COMING SOON! We have wonderful posts from Lucy Suchman, David Hakken, and David J. Hess in the pipeline, so stay tuned to the CASTAC Blog!

— Patricia G. Lange, Editor-in-Chief

Anthropological investigations of MIME-NET

November 7th, 2012, by § 3 Comments

As a new year’s resolution for 2012, I started a wordpress blog titled Robot Futures (see The idea was to do some writing that could be more timely and critical than journal publications allow (though the deadlines of the latter and the rest of academic life have limited my posts!) about developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, particularly in the area of remotely-controlled war fighting. Increasingly distressed by the use of armed drones (see Medea Benjamin’s brilliant new book Drone Warfare: Killing by remote control, 2012, OR Books) and the arming of robots (including the 710 Warrior by Boston-based iRobot, makers of the Roomba vacuum cleaner), I’ve begun to focus my research on what James der Derian (Virtuous War, 2009) has identified as the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET), particularly as it has emerged over the past twenty years within the United States and Britain.

As someone who has made a concerted effort to avoid any involvement in military worlds, I face the challenge of how to locate myself as a researcher, and particularly as an anthropologist committed to an understanding of practices in situ. Following the MIME-NET thread and my own at-homeness in worlds of research and development, I paid a visit earlier this year to the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Given an extensive tour by the Lab’s director, I also had the great good fortune to meet a former member of one of the Lab’s premiere projects, Flatworld, who has provided me access to an extraordinary archive of project materials. While ethnographic work remains as an aspiration, archive fever offers a rich beginning.

The Flatworld project brings together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming and other modes of immersive computing to “create a modular and transportable mixed reality environment that can simulate a variety of real-world locations”; specifically, locations in which US military forces are currently engaged. Military analysts agree that despite their promise of illumination, information and communications technologies have intensified rather than dissipated what nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously described as the ‘fog of war,’ regenerating it in a matrix of ever faster and noisier channels of transmission. The enduring problem of ‘situational awareness,’ defined by military commentators as “the ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation including friendly and threat situations” (Dostal 2001) is the tether by which I connect my own previous research to the indigenous preoccupations of contemporary war fighting (more on this in an article in press in the journal Mediatropes).

For the AAA in November, I’ll be part of a CASTAC/SCA session titled ‘Warfare and Healthcare: Action at a distance and bodies in contact’ along with Joe Dumit, Hugh Gusterson, Caren Kaplan, and Rachel Prentice. The papers consider projects to extend human capacities for action at a distance, and forms of proximate, embodied co-presence that characterize realities ‘on the ground,’ across the seemingly disparate but always connected arenas of war fighting and healthcare. Our focus is on technologies in their broadest anthropological sense, including techniques as well as devices, and claims about technology as much as configurations of hardware and software. These are the topics that join us as members of CASTAC, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with you in San Francisco.

On Tools & Techniques

November 6th, 2012, by § 6 Comments

We all know that robust tools can help facilitate research, but we do not always have the time to test the latest products and processes. Here’s a place to offer advice, suggestions, and ask for help on how to tackle specific problems. What software have you found helpful for capturing data, transcribing interaction, conducting research, or analyzing findings? What problems tend to come up? Are there techniques in conceptualization, mapping, coding or other stages of the research process that you have identified as particularly helpful? Feel free to share information about what worked and what didn’t when using technology to gain insight into your projects.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for November, 2012 at