Placentations: Agential Realism and the Science of Afterbirths

It is now possible to download my dissertation entitled “Placentations: Agential Realism and the Science of Afterbirths” from the Queen’s Research and Learning Repository (QShare). Follow this link! And the abstract:

According to biological sciences, placentas are transient organs that are necessary for mammalian fetal development and produced by interaction of maternal and fetal cells, a process called “placentation.” The aim of this dissertation is to understand as well as elucidate effects of placentations. I employ an agential realist framework to do this analysis. As developed by Karen Barad, agential realism is a performative theory of the irreducible entanglement of matter and discourse that relates knowing and being as inseparable. Intra-action is the foundational operationalization of agential realism. Unlike interaction, which assumes that agential entities pre-exist their meeting, intra-action refers to the entanglement of mutually constituted agencies. Informed by this ‘onto-epistemology,’ I define placentation as the differential and entangled intra- and inter-species, intra- and inter-cultural, and intra- and inter-disciplinary production of placentas. This definition is ‘naturalcultural,’ presuming that nature and culture are not distinct realms occupied by distinct kinds of beings. Rather, such a duality is a performative effect of what Barad calls agential cuts enacted by the specific apparatuses that are employed to understand it. To understand placentation naturalculturally requires the breaching of disciplinary boundaries that relegate ‘culture’ as a topic proper to the social sciences and ‘nature’ to science. This dissertation breaches these boundaries, and in so doing opens up new avenues for thinking about placentations and their consequences. In order to empirically explore placentations, I interviewed and/or observed 31 scientists who study placentas, and reviewed scientific and other secondary sources. The main findings of this dissertation concern differences made by theorizing placentas in particular ways. Based on these findings, I argue that understanding placentations naturalculturally is not only a more accurate approach than the one predicating dominant scientific explanations, but also prompts new ethical, theoretical, and practical considerations concerning pregnancy, bioethics, environmentalism, health, and more.

New Publication: The Barker Hypothesis, Obesity, and Transdisciplinarity

I have an article appearing in the most recent issue of the journal Social Theory and Health entitled “The Barker hypothesis and obesity: Connections for transdisciplinarity and social justice.” It is the culmination of work on the Barker hypothesis and obesity first set in motion by a visit to Queen’s University in March 2010 of epidemiologist David Barker and an invitation to present to him a 5 minute talk regarding sociological perspectives on his work. Here is the abstract:

Obesity is the object of incredible amounts of resources and attention purportedly aimed at reducing corpulence and increasing health. Despite this, consensus with respect to the definition, causes or solutions is lacking, making obesity a prominent knowledge controversy. In this article, I argue that the Barker hypothesis, a theory of foetal development, can support the redistribution of expertise necessary to address this knowledge controversy. A vast scientific literature confirms its argument that many diseases can be traced to the conditions for development in utero determined by the commingling of temporally and spatially complex processes. The Barker hypothesis does not support solely reductionist, biophysiological paradigms of health and disease, but rather evinces complex understandings that span biology, social positionality, place and generation. I argue that this makes the hypothesis significant for transdisciplinary studies of health and disease, and prompts consideration beyond the conventional bounds of epidemiology to new sites of understanding and action that may support movements concerned with body politics and justice for fat people. I point to literature on the potential for injustice engendered by the Barker hypothesis, and suggest that these critiques reveal the very necessity for transdisciplinary collaboration on obesity in the first place.

Alongside Dr. Barker’s visit, I found critical inspiration and challenges for ideas in this article in what is sometimes called “the fatosphere,” a nebulous collection of blogs and bloggers who write about fat. For example, I highly recommend Australian blogger Definatalie (Natalie Perkins) for her critical and candid writing style and her powerful artwork regarding fat.

The arguments I present in the article are tendentious and represent my attempt to contribute to the already-tendentious terrain of obesity. I welcome any feedback on the article.

Curiosity Between, Beyond, Across, Outside

Using the phrase “between, beyond, and across disciplines” is a common and quick way of describing the imperative of the transdisciplinarian in the literature on transdisciplinarity. “Outside” is also sometimes added and rightly so, as lines that demarcate matters of disciplinary concern must also inquired upon.

As revolutionary as they might sound, these terms position transdisciplinarity in relation to disciplines assumed stable. They can construct a tautology in the very same disciplinary boundaries the transdisciplinarian is challenging. Asking how we can not only destabilize disciplines, but how they have come to be seen as stable in the first place, is therefore a critical question.

That means trying to be a transdisciplinarian is ultimately iterative and frustrating. Transdisciplinarity is a moving target, and the measure of successful hits is murky. I will admit that sometimes I even wonder exactly what I mean when I say “transdiscipline.” Ultimately, transdisciplinarity seems to me to mark a spirit of inquiry, rather than a set of practices that can be prefigured, described, or taught.

It is for this reason that the tagline to this site begins with “curiosity.” The move toward transdisciplinarity will always include this because, I think, curiosity is the desire for experience beyond the experienced, and that includes wondering what experience itself is.

I hestitate to say that curiosity is, according to a more common understanding, the desire to know beyond the known, because knowledge is only one kind of experience. More expansive a concept, experience encompasses all kinds of relations in place and time that may lie between, beyond, across, and outside matters of disciplinary concern.

Curiosity about curiosity may be the most important talent at the disposal of the transdisciplinarian. If that recursion doesn’t frustrate you, maybe you’d make a good transdisciplinarian.

Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies: Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference Session

My session proposal for next year’s Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference during Congress (held next May  28th to June 4th in Fredericton) was recently accepted by the organizing committee. I’m looking for papers that discuss some aspect of “Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies.” Here is the description for the session:

Defined as a research practice in which ‘boundaries between and beyond disciplines are transcended and knowledge and perspectives from different scientific disciplines as well as nonscientific sources are integrated’ (Flinterman et al, 2001), transdisciplinarity has gained currency in academia and public discourse as part of a growing recognition that responses to wide-ranging problems must be multi-pronged, multidimensional, and draw on many forms of data and analytic resources. Sociologists have much to contribute to such projects. Yet sociologists working collaboratively across disciplines face many challenges, one set of which pertains to methodology. This panel addresses methodological challenges faced by transdisciplinary researchers. In particular, paper will focus on novels approaches to research that overcome these challenges.


We’ve scheduled two panels for the theme. Here are the papers:

May 31 – 1:30-3:00pm

Jacqueline Low, University of New Brunswick
Recruiting Seniors And Social Workers: Implications For Research Designs Across Disciplines

Will C. van den Hoonaard, University of New Brunswick
The Colonization Of Social Research By Bio- Medical Paradigms

Peter Duinker, Dalhousie University
Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, Antidisciplinarity: What To Choose For Resource And Environmental Studies?

June 2 – 8:45-10:15am

Jenny Godley, University of Calgary
Using Social Network Analysis To Assess Collaboration In Obesity Research: Evidence From A Canadian University

Cathy Holtmann, University of New Brunswick; Steve McMullin, University of New Brunswick; Nancy Nason-Clark, University of New Brunswick
Interweaving Research On Abuse In Families Of Faith And Social Action: The RAVE {Religion And Violence E-Learning} Project

Rebecca Scott, Queen’s University
The Barker Hypothesis and Transdisciplinarity: The Case of Obesity

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.

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.”