Upcoming Lecture: Reproductive Labour in/of Science and Medicine

On October 23 (note: start time was changed; 2:30pm-4pm AQ 6106 Burnaby Campus), I will be giving a lecture for the Labour Studies Program and the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. I feel very privileged to be invited to give this talk at my alma mater. Here is the title and abstract! All are welcome!

Reproductive Labour in/of Science and Medicine

In labour studies, reproductive labour is typically defined as the activities involved in taking care of others on a daily basis in households. Reproductive labour, including cooking, cleaning, and socializing children, is typically unpaid as well as gendered and racialized, being performed disproportionately by women and minorities. However, in emerging research in labour studies, scholars are also increasingly paying attention to new forms of reproductive labour performed by women in conjunction with biomedicine and biological sciences. In developed countries everywhere birth rates are declining, impacting economies in profound ways and leading to shifts in public policy on labour markets, retirement, and immigration. At the same time and in the interest of mitigating these shifts, the advancement of reproductive technologies and new medical interventions into pregnancy and labour have commercialized, managed, and modernized reproduction. Women’s and fetal bodies are not only the sites of these interventions; increasingly, they are the sources of their ‘raw materials,’ which include stem cells, embryos, and other tissues of pregnancy such as placentas. The meaning of women’s labour, including their reproductive and economic labours, is thereby redefined. This lecture explores women’s labour in the context of reproductive sciences and medicine. Discussing results from two empirical research studies in placentology, or the science of placentas, the lecture explores how women are simultaneously marginalized, empowered, and interpellated into the projects of reproductive science and medicine. It also explores fundamental questions about how different academic disciplines study and theorize reproduction in a world in which science is increasingly defining and managing it. It is argued that transdisciplinary approaches to studying reproductive labour, which pursue novel methodologies and theories that are integrative of different knowledges, can help to democratize science and medicine while also advancing the health and wellbeing of women, children, families, and communities.

Rebecca Scott Yoshizawa Poster

Rebecca Scott Yoshizawa Poster(1)

Farewell, Brasil, Despedida

Tomorrow I leave Brazil to go home to Canada, a parting that will be bittersweet. Brazil was a pleasant surprise in my life. I never could have guessed I would be living in Brazil for 5 months in the last year of my PhD. It is true that Brazil did not seem to come at an ideal time. I was just beginning to write my dissertation when I decided to come to Brazil. I had to come up with a brand new research project that could be conducted in a few months in a country I knew little about. But then again, Brazil came at the perfect time, because I now feel more ready than ever to write a dissertation about the science of the placenta. I’d thought my study of the science of the placenta was done when I finished my fieldwork. But now I realize it had only begun and will go on, even after the dissertation is gathering dust.  That is the nature of all knowledge: always a production, in production. There will always be more to find out – about the placenta, and anything else worth studying.

I had the opportunity to accomplish a lot in Brazil. Along with my collaborators, we undertook a large-sample questionnaire study in a very busy maternity ward. We weathered many challenges, and succesfully navigated the waters of Brazilian bureaucracy at the government, bank, and university. I delivered 6 lectures at UNICAMP, the Universidade Federal de Alfenas, the Universidade Federal de Goiás, and the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Goiás. I gave a lecture to a high school class about the culture and geography of Canada. I spent time tutoring English and editing manuscripts and posters. I attended a Portuguese class and did a talk about Canada entirely in (terrible, but working) Portuguese.

I took the chance to do some travelling to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I went white water rafting with new friends. I even enrolled in a capoeria class (but let’s just say that I didn’t exactly become the skilled capoeirista I’d envisioned). I so much enjoyed tasting the many wonderful fruits available in Brazil that I had never even heard of before. I had the chance to pick the most beautiful and gigantic avocados straight from the tree. I danced a bit of samba.

Principally and with as much earnestness as can possibly be mustered, I want to relay what a privilege it has been to have been guided and supported by Dr. Maria José Duarte Osis, Dr. José Guilherme Cecatti, Dr. Aureo T. Yamada, Dr. B. Anne Croy, Dr. Myra J. Hird, and everyone at the Centro de Pesquisas em Saúde Reprodutiva de Campinas (CEMICAMP) and the Centro de Antenção Integral à Saúde da Mulher (CAISM). What a pleasure it has been to collaborate with Simony Lira do Nascimento, Suelene Coelho, and Ana Carolina Godoy on the project. I am lucky to be able to consider these people my colleagues and friends. I hope our work together continues into the future.

Tchau, Brasil. Até mais.

*Many thanks to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES), Brazil, for funding the project.

Always a researcher… even in the middle of a lecture

I spent the last two days in Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil, presenting three lectures at the Universidade Federal de Goiás and the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Goiás. It was a wonderful and productive trip organized by Profa. Simone Maria T. de Saboia Morais, a UFG and UNICAMP researcher who generously invited me to talk about my sociological research on the placenta with her colleagues and students. They formed a genuinely animated audience. During one of the lectures while I was talking about various cultural perspectives of the placenta, an audience member informed me that there is a joke in some parts of Brazil that might have an impact on the perception of the placenta. As I understand it, if a child is misbehaving they will say it’s because the mother accidentally took the placenta home, instead of the baby, and raised it. It is as if the placenta is the “evil twin,” or merely just a “bad egg.”

I have been living in Brazil for nearly 5 months studying perspectives on the placenta and have yet to hear of this joke. Needless to say I was excited and intrigued by the bit of information and took the opportunity, perhaps as a true ethnographer should, to make a detailed note of the observation… in the middle of my lecture. Everyone laughed and it was a really wonderful moment of sharing knowledge and research.

Thank you for the opportunity, Dr. Simone!

Update: Here is a little news item about my lecture at PUC (in Portuguese).
Isso é uma notícia sobre a palestra no PUC.

Upcoming Conference: International Federation of Placenta Associations Annual Conference

I will be attending the International Federation of Placenta Associations annual conference, “Placenta, Predicting Future Health,” held in Geilo, Norway, from September 14th to September 17th. Last year, I attended the IFPA conference in Santiago, Chile, to conduct fieldwork for my study, “Laboratory Lives of Afterbirths: Placentas as Working Objects of Study,” which is a sociological investigation of placenta science. This year, I’ll be presenting the results of my study in both a poster and a plenary talk.

♦ Invited Plenary Talk: “‘It’s this all-singing, all dancing organ’: A Sociologist’s Perspective on how Placenta Scientists see the Placenta, their Science, and Themselves.”

♦ Poster: “A Sociology of Placenta Scientists: Towards Transdisciplinary Collaboration.”

I’m very excited to share my findings with conference delegates, some of whom contributed to my study, as well as to hear about the latest science on the placenta.

The Census is Important

While I normally write about science and society on this blog, I want to take some time to comment on the recent major changes to the 2011 Canadian census. My Canadian readers should have by now received their short form census notification directing them to a URL where a few questions can be answered online or informing them of how a paper form can be requested. Canadians have also now realized that the long form census, which for its entire history has been obligatory, is being administered this year to 1 in 5 households as a voluntary household survey.

This year at the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference in Fredericton, Dr. Monica Boyd, Professor at University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Immigration, Inequality, and Public Policy, delivered a lecture about this most significant change to the census. Thoroughly researched and compellingly presented, it has me worried.

Dr. Boyd pointed out that such a major change to the census is unprecedented. Cabinet has the power to determine the contours of the census – but this has always been exercised in developing the questions asked in the census, not its fundamental methodology. As Cabinet discussions are in camera, there was no consultation and no warning regarding these changes.

The voluntary nature of the long form has a profound impact on the quality of data that can be obtained from the census. In fact, Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh criticized the changes and resigned over them. There are many consequences that negatively affect Canadians (detailed for example in this open letter from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). Most close to me is the impact is has on researchers, who use this data extensively in analyzing Canadian society. But Dr. Boyd also pointed out that this affects businesses, who use the data to determine feasible markets; government services that require information about populations and their needs; the government in determining equalization payments; cities, provinces, and school boards; nonprofits in establishing the nature and needs of marginalized populations; and the list goes on. The data is integral to the functioning of our country.

Tony Clement, Minister of Industry who is responsible for Statistics Canada, justified the change by saying that the obligatory nature of the long form census represented an unjust infringement on the privacy rights of Canadians. However, Dr. Boyd pointed out that in 20 years, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada had received but a few handfuls of complaints regarding the census. It does not seem that this concern accurately reflects the views of Canadians.

Why did the Conservative Cabinet decide to change the census? I think there are two reasons:

1. Ideology. Having an obligatory program mandated and financed by the government that asks Canadians to reveal private data, no matter how important it is and how anonymous and confidential the responses, is not consistent with the ideological underpinnings of the Conservative Party

2. With less and less reliable evidence on the nature of the Canadian population, the Conservatives can be less accountable to their needs and make more “executive” decisions.

I’m angered by this unfounded, unhelpful, and unnecessary change to the census. I do not support the move to change the Canadian long form census from obligatory to voluntary. If you are also against the changes to the census, you can:

1. Contact Minister Tony Clement.

2. Sign this petition which has over 18000 signatures as of today.

Thank you Dr. Monica Boyd for urging me to think more about the changes to the census.

July 7/2011 Update: According to this CBC news article, census workers are already observing issues in data quality in the voluntary household survey, “raising concerns the data will be even more compromised than originally feared.” We’ll have to wait till the data is released to know for sure just how limited it will be. I continue to urge readers to sign the petition and contact Tony Clement.

Announcement: ‘Environmental Responsibility without Limits’ Symposium

On April 19th, Queen’s University will have the privilege of hosting scholars Nigel Clark and Peter Van Wyck for a symposium entitled “Environmental Responsibility without Limits.” Click here for the promotional poster.

There is a graduate student chat session with the two from 10-11:30am in room WAT 517, followed by the symposium from 1-3:30pm in the Robert Sutherland Building room 202. Nigel Clark’s talk is entitled “Climate Justice: Indifferent Nature, Indifferent Responsibility”; Peter Van Wyck’s talk is entitled “Memory, Witness, and the Archive: At Work on the Highway of the Atom.”

The event is sponsored by the genera Research Group, Network in Canadian History and Environment, and the School of Environmental Studies, the School of Policy Studies, the Department of Geography, and the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University. Many thanks to Myra J. Hird for organizing the event.

All welcome! It’s sure to be an engaging event.

Carol J Adams: Animal Activism vs. Transdisciplinarity?

Graduate students in the Department of English at Queen’s University organized a great conference last weekend entitled “Animals and Animality Across the Humanities and Social Sciences.” I attended the workshop entitled “Ethics and Activism: Living with and for Animals” by animal, food, and feminist activist Carol J Adams. Carol J Adams is perhaps best known for her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she makes links between meat-eating, the treatment of animals, and gender politics. She also frequently referred to her book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook. Adams’ workshop was incredibly thought-provoking and her experience and wisdom were apparent.

Adams’ informal and interactive talk gave participants a chance to voice some of the ethical dilemmas and burdens they experience with regards to animals, vegetarianism/veganism, research, and activism.  How we can deal with with the trauma experienced from witnessing a world that is cruel to animals as well as the difficulties of living as a vegetarian/vegan in a meat eating world were significant themes. I had a rather specific set of concerns with regards to the topic of the day’s workshop. This is because I research scientists who do research with laboratory animals.

My contribution to the discussion (well, I did my best to articulate it) was to point out that while I am certainly someone who cares deeply about animals, the ethics of relations with animals that Adams is advancing don’t seem to be compatible with transdisciplinary research. Adams suggested that researchers in that position could think of their fieldwork as “covert” or “undercover activism,” where the costs of participating in something “unethical” is outweighed by the potential benefit of being able to expose what happens to animals in lab. However, such a position, in my opinion, is not tenable with regards to the legal, professional, and ethical codes by which social scientists are bound. I think it would constitute a form of deception if researchers did not disclose to participants that they intended to “expose”  the “secrets” of animal research; in addition, this may cause them harm. We are bound by these codes to put our human participants first. The scientists, within this system, are the ones who are responsible to the animals, and they are bound by their own professional and ethical codes in that regard. This system does not appear to permit “covert activism.”

I have a further, perhaps more philosophical, concern, but one with considerable practical implications. My work is transdisciplinary. It involves mutual interrogation and transformation of disciplines that normally do not engage each other. Much of the literature on transdisciplinarity suggests that in order for this to occur, the assumptions and commitments of disciplines need to be laid bare. Only then can dialogue happen, and only with dialogue can we begin to bridge the significant gaps between the disciplines. How could a social scientist  study the health sciences in manner that moves beyond simple critique and towards collaboration if they do as Adams had suggested? It seems that Adams’ suggested form of activism is incommensurate with transdisciplinarity. At a practical level, if it were exposed that transdisciplinary researchers were undertaking research with “covert intentions” they would never be invited back by any researcher and their transdisciplinary work would be over. It is also very unlikely that scientific researchers would take their criticism seriously or make any changes. The “us-versus-them” dichotomy that is implied by the idea of “covert activism” is not, in my opinion, compatible with the collaborative nature of transdisciplinarity. And all of this assumes that there is, in fact, something to “expose.”

I stick with what Donna Haraway (in When Species Meet, 2008) says about eating when thinking about the questions of animals in labs:

Maybe God can have a solitary meal, but terran critters cannot. In eating we are most inside the differential relationalities that make us who and what we are and that materialize what we must do if response and regard are to have any meaning personally and politically. There is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace. (P. 295)

There are no absolute answers with regards to the ethics of animal research. And since there can be no final peace, we must always be reflecting and transforming. Is that possible if transdisciplinary research is not possible? I’m not so sure.

Apart from these tough questions, my favorite thing she said that day was this excellent bit of advice for the budding scholar:

This is either going to be published, or it’s going to be perfect, but it’s not going to be both.

Congress 2010: Evelyn Fox Keller, Climate Change Science, and Scientific Literacy

The Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science hosted a lecture by prolific science studies scholar Evelyn Fox Keller during this year’s Congress. In her talk “Climate Science, Truth, and Democracy,” Keller discussed how, why, and towards what outcomes scientific experts have thus far engaged in public and political debates on climate change. She argued that nothing in scientific training prepares scientists to communicate their findings with publics; furthermore, many scientists are unwilling to do so because they fear being perceived as being “unscientific” or “political.” Scientists are committed to the belief that science is capable of delivering value-free access to truth. Instead of strengthening the case for their claims about climate change, this has weakened them precisely because it is used as a reason to shy away from public discourses and debates, which are then not as informed by scientific knowledge as they could be.  This disengagement of scientists from public debates has enabled the climate change “deniers” to have an incredible and unbalanced amount of airtime and attention.

Scientists then, must engage with publics, and this will mean that they recognize that science is not apolitical. But confidence in science is still possible. Scientific claims are made very carefully; with proper understanding of the basis of scientific claims, we can see them as “true enough” for us to make decisions about whether and how to act on them. Keller suggested that scientific claims give us our best shot at understanding the past, present, and future – especially of climate change.

Keller’s recommendation is that their needs to be training on how to clearly and effectively articulate the findings of science built  into the education and professionalization of scientists. This is a reformulation of conventional understandings of “scientific literacy,” which normally refers to the need for publics to be better educated on how science works and why its claims are compelling. Instead, Keller advanced a kind of “public literacy” for scientists.

While I appreciated Keller’s argument for the public literacy of scientists, I felt it rested very heavily on her belief in the evidence supporting the existence of anthropogenic climate change. While I certainly support this, I wonder how her analysis would play out differently for phenomena for which there isn’t such unified scientific consensus, or for which there are competing knowledge claims coming from outside of science (like knowledge with a religious or experiential base). I’m left wondering whether Keller’s reformulation of scientific literacy is really the same thing as the dissemination model of public understandings of science, in which there is a one-way flow of information between scientists and publics – particularly if the training she argues for better equips them to “tell their story,” but not to hear the stories of others.

Do scientists make the most compelling knowledge claims? What should be the weight and credence of their expertise? For me, Keller’s talk has provided a provocative basis upon which to start to think through these questions.

Post edit: My colleague Mark Vardy is doing some great work on climate change and democracy that you should check out.

The Barker Hypothesis: A Call to Transdisciplinary Responsibility

World renowned epidemiologist and reproductive biologist David Barker visited Queen’s University this week to give two lectures on his pioneering work that has spurred a paradigm shift in understandings of the etiology of disease. Thanks to my supervisor Dr. Myra Hird and Dr. Anne Croy in Anatomy and Cell Biology, I was given the incredible opportunity and privilege to have a 10 minute audience with Dr. Barker during his visit to the department. I took that opportunity to argue that his work demands that we undertake transdisciplinary research, and emphasized the kinds of contributions sociologists could make to his projects.

In his 500 or so academic publications, Barker has advanced what has come to be known as the “Barker hypothesis,” or the developmental origins of adult disease. According to his theory, conditions in the maternal womb have a programming effect on fetal physiology, a phenomenon called fetal programming. Much of Barker’s work has focused on the effect of maternal nutrition on fetal programming. It has been found that if a fetus is deprived of adequate nutrient supply in the womb, it will be irrevocably “programmed,” predisposing it to a whole host of diseases: cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer to name a few. Thus Barker emphasizes developmental plasticity, the malleable quality of life in development, as important to the etiology of disease. Barker has further shown that there is a significant generational aspect to disease, profoundly challenging today’s “lifestyle” discourse. Using data from the Helsinki cohort (a group of people born between 1934 and 1944 in Helsinki, about whom a rich amount of data was collected including their mother’s height, weight, age, parity; the weight and shape of the placenta; antenatal follow-up data; and socioeconomic status), Barker has shown that a woman’s lifelong nutrition significantly impacts her children’s risk of disease. Thus Barker’s talk was entitled “Your Mother’s Mother: The Key to your Health.”

Low socioeconomic status is associated with poorer access to nutritious food. This makes the transdisciplinary implications of Dr. Barker’s work quite clear. I’m quoting here from my talk:

Significantly, what this means is that social structures do not merely determine relations between people; they can also have biological effects. In this way, we can say that although social structure is often thought to be intangible and abstract, it is part of tangible phenomena like fetal programming. Conversely, biology can have social effects. For example, generational patterns of disease match patterns of socioeconomic status, suggesting that living and dealing with disease may be a cause of poverty. In other words, there is a dynamic cross-talk between the social and the biological.

This is not a biologically-essentialist argument. I further argued in my talk:

The problem is that social scientists tend not to favour biological explanations for what they deem to be social phenomena like poverty. They observe social phenomena, determine social facts, and give social explanations for those facts. Similarly, scientists observe biological phenomena, determine biological facts, and provide biological explanations for those facts. In the case of the Barker hypothesis, these strict distinctions are challenged: social and biological facts are irreducibly the same type of fact. Fetal programming has biological and social dimensions that cannot be separated apart if a comprehensive understanding is sought – and I believe that this is what we seek.

Transdisciplinary approaches to the study of health and disease then are, in my opinion, called for when considering the prolific work of Dr. Barker.

It was my pleasure to share this argument with Dr. Barker during his visit to Queen’s University.

Update: An article I wrote on this topic appears in the journal Social Theory and Health.

Talking Transdisciplinary, Doing Transdisciplinarity: Sex and Gender

On Friday I had the privilege of sitting among a highly trandisciplinary crowd to hear about gender, sex, health, and CIHR‘s Institute of Gender and Health from its Director, Dr. Joy Johnson. Her talk was for me not only informative, but a fine example of how to talk compellingly for and with transdisciplinarity. She was clearly versed in social scientific understandings of sex and gender as well as the everyday demands and commitments of scientific practice, and was able to find points where these two can meet and be mutually informative. At times I disagreed with what she said but I found these moments to be extremely productive because it is in those spaces that the true challenges of transdisciplinarity emerge and must be confronted. Her vision of transdisciplinarity is a pragmatic approach of focusing on issues. She emphasized that ongoing interrogation is needed to ensure that issues of sex and gender are addressed as best as they can be in scientific practice and health care. Such a project must be transdisciplinary. Dr. Johnson’s talk has given me new ideas as to how this project can be undertaken.

See this publication coauthored by Dr. Johnson:

Johnson, J.L., Greaves, L., & Repta, R. (2007). Better Science with Sex and Gender: A Primer for Health Research. Vancouver: Women’s Health Research Network.

On Thursday I enjoyed a talk delivered by Dr. Londa Schiebinger entitled “Exotic Abortifacients: Bioprospecting in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.” Abortifacients are plants that induce miscarriage in pregnant women. Dr. Schiebinger spoke about why these plants of the “new world” were not mined by European explorers and colonizers like other resources, including medicinal ones. I don’t really need to say more than to quote from her talk: “Today, I am not going to tell you the history of a great man, or a great woman. Rather, I am going to tell you the history of a great plant. This talk is about the gender politics of plants.”