2009-10 Pembroke Seminar

"Markets and Bodies in Transnational Perspective"
Kay Warren
Chesler-Mallow Senior Faculty Research Fellow, Pembroke Center
Charles B. Tillinghast, Jr. ‘32 Professor of International Studies and Professor of Anthropology

"Markets and Bodies in Transnational Perspective” raises questions about global flows of people and technology that involve reimagining the body and transforming what it means to be human. We want to understand the changing ways bodies are being commodified, and the individual experiences and ideological constructions of these processes. The seminar explores innovations in international migration and biotechnology that push ahead of the law. How are these sites moralized and politicized? How are international norms and regulatory strategies formulated to define rapidly moving currents of change?

The seminar deals with markets as particular historicized innovations whose complex social and political fields mediate their development. To bring these questions into focus, we will examine:

  • The simultaneous recruitment and deterrence of migrant labor across borders and regions.
  • The simultaneous normalization and rejection of human bodies with the global circulation of public health and biotechnological regimes.

These topics speak to each other in mutually revealing ways about the contested limits of the commodification of human beings. Both involve the policing of bodies – across regional borders and across notions of health and illness. Both involve the recruitment of bodies (for migrant labor or for medical intervention) and the simultaneous deterrence of bodies (as potential “burdens” on state or medical resources). And both generate sites of anxiety and hope where people’s emotions and sense of right and wrong explode into public view to be debated, consumed, and politicized. How do states, NGOs, and other social and political formations intervene in populations with the intent of envisioning a body specifically for the market? What are the limitations of these forms of power? How do current struggles around policing bodies and creating markets differ from earlier struggles and forms of anxiety surrounding the management of bodies?

Legal Norms and Migration. An important trend in the recruitment of mobile labor has been the creation of UN norms born of hybrid human rights and criminal justice frameworks. Human trafficking, child labor, debt bondage, slavery, and, increasingly, international adoption rings and the sale of human organs for transplantation fall under this umbrella. International norms have moved from criminalizing the victim of trafficking to prosecuting the criminal enterprises involved in providing commodities for these markets. What structural and political issues cause states and NGOs to resist, appropriate, or ignore these normative frameworks? What currents of activism mobilize around these issues? What are the unintended consequences of the ways that international norms target certain populations as “vulnerable” and identify workers engaged in exploitative labor as “victims” rather than as people with their own complex histories and identities? How do these discourses inform the work of NGOs, the development industry, the criminal justice system, and organized crime? Why has this diversified market often outrun the capacity of policing and judicial systems to intervene or regulate these markets?

Norms and Biotechnological Regimes. In dealing with the global circulation of new public health paradigms – such as the marketing of technologies for the genetic screening of wider publics -- scholars note the shift in focus from infectious to genetic diseases and the emergence of a language of expectations about “fitness” and“survival.” How does the medical field deal with the fact that technological innovation seems to be running far ahead of the international consensus about these issues? How do norms pose the double-bind of unequal access to the products of new research alongside quandaries about the allocation of expensive medical resources? We will be particularly attuned to the ways medical technology is appropriated in different parts of the world. How are local understandings of the body, health, and care changing with this newly developing biotechnology? How is social difference part of this story?

There are profoundly interactive and convergent forms of inequality and marginalization that cross-cut migration and health intervention, particularly in the context of the erosion of state welfare across the globe. In both cases “biology” or “migrant labor” are made to appear as if they have their own internal logic and impetus. What might their juxtaposition reveal about their social and political characters?

This seminar will benefit greatly from scholars working in various parts of the world on contemporary migrant labor, health, and market issues, or in historical perspective on topics relating to the interplay of the body, labor, and technology. We welcome social scientists, humanists, and historians whose work troubles conventional definitions of these issues. It would be an asset to attract legal scholars who study interplay of the market and the law, or are participants in debates about the efficacy of norms and rights versus regulatory strategies and corporate self-governance. We also hope to attract scholars who in their ethnographic research demonstrate the creative tensions between locally distinctive meaning-makingversus discourses that appear to be globally hegemonic.