How we talk about things betrays our assumptions, ideological perspectives, and social categorization of particular objects or practices. This is why we look at discourse. All discourse really means is how we talk about things – but when we talk about discourse, we talk about the wider public sphere of media, texts, and even conversations. Anthropologist Emily Martin looked at medical discourse and found that textbooks, courses, and other elements that are used to transform students into medical doctors are heavily gendered, revealing how doctor’s perspectives show particular ideological perspectives on the human body, where the body is portrayed as a nation-state. As an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins, she did fieldwork on their medical school system – work that is central to one of her main contributions to STS and anthropology, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction.
In Martin’s 1990 article that we read for today, the focus is not on reproduction but on immunology. Martin’s theoretical perspective can be seen in the quote from Donna Haraway which she cites in this article: “the immune system is an elaborate icon for principal systems of symbolic and material ‘difference’ in late capitalism” (Haraway, in Martin 1999, 358). In fact, although Johns Hopkins started the first department of immunology in 1916, it was bounced around as microbiology emerged; in the late 1980s when Martin was doing this work, immunology wasn’t as institutionalized as it is now more than 30 years later. The popular discourse, as seen in widely consumed media of the time (we used to call them magazines!) portrayed immunology as a ‘regulatory-communications network,’ where the body is a battlefield, a scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders. Martin notes the constant repetition of words such as invasion, attacking, strike, assault, weapons, etc. In textbooks and classroom discussions, where Martin’s discourse analysis is at its best, she found a variety of sources that reinforce the argument about the use of war metaphors for immunology. The discourse was not just martial, but also gendered, as in the hierarchical division of labor – female associations with the engulfing and surrounding of phagocytes (the house keepers) and obviously male associations with the penetrating or injecting of T-cells: “The feminized, primitive phagocytes kill by engulfing and eating “the enemy” (Martin 1999, 363).
Here is one example, quoted in Martin, of the popular discourse on immunology:
When you are the ever-vigilant protector of the sacrosanct environment of a body, anything foreign that should dare to invade that environment must be rapidly detected and removed. However, finding certain invaders and recognizing them as foreign can be very difficult…. It can be as difficult for our immune system to detect foreigners as it would be for a Caucasian to pick out a particular Chinese interloper at a crowded ceremony in Peking’s main square. (Martin 1999, 362).
What is the effect of this kind of discursive system? According to Martin: “One main image in virtually all scientific literature on the immune system is the distinction between self and non-self, a distinction that is maintained by a defense based on killing the nonself” (1999:361). So on the one hand, there is a normalization of a constant state of war that the body as nation-state is involved in, and that some kind of internal purity is the desired health outcome. Note how our contemporary understanding of microbiomes contradicts this portrayal of good health. Second, there is a naturalization of warfare, where violent destruction becomes a necessity of everyday life. Hierarchy reflected in biology can be seen as justifying hierarchy in society, where not just the science itself but the discourse on science can impact social and cultural practices. The question then is how much the imagery of warfare in scientific discourse shapes scientists’ perception of immunological system. Martin describes how one scientist (who happens to be a writer of textbooks) found it difficult to find words and imagery that were did not use the warfare metaphor, which for him seemed to be the only one to fit the facts. The issue, however, is how much the use of such metaphors limits thinking.
There is also staying power in the use of such imagery, in that the link between the body and the nation suggests some kind of state of purity for the human body. What is the the impact of alternative images of the body:
“The question of whether scientific knowledge is objective or relative is at least in part a question about the claim of scientists to absolute authority. If there is only one truth and scientists are privy to it (i.e., science and nature are one), then the authority of science is unassailable. But if truth is relative, if science is divorced from nature and married instead to culture, then the privileged status of that authority is fatally undermined.” (Fox Keller 1999, 239)
The main argument is that the engendering of knowledge helps us see epistemic power. Do we do science to dominate nature? Or should we do science to understand nature?
Becoming a Scientist – Sharon Traweek
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a 17th century novel that emphasizes the slow, gradual ascent into heaven; like becoming a scientist, this ‘becoming’ can be seen as liminality, the period where someone is betwixt and between, on their way to empowerment as a professional scientist. In her study of high-energy physicists in the United States and Japan, Traweek notes that there are three distinct stages in the education of a scientist — undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc – where each stage is marked by “distinctive intellectual qualities which the novice must display; each stage also cultivates certain emotional states” (Traweek 1999, 525). What is interesting is that there is more in common among Japanese and American physicists than difference: “Regarding their scientific activity as supranational and supracultural is a way for physicists to isolate their community from conflicts between their countries and maintain the stable communication networks for their work” (Traweek 1999, 527).
The Collider, 60 Minutes
As undergraduates, students are not supposed to question the textbook, which results in the devaluation of theoretical perspectives that are not mainstream (the current paradigms). Their courses are highly choreographed, with laboratory exercises that resemble cookbook recipes. One of the key issues here, according to Traweek, is that students rarely design experiments themselves.
As graduate students, they become further separated into subfields for focused professionalized, into a master-apprentice relationship with their advisor. In this stage, graduate students are expected to be more into clarification rather than interpretation, where as novices they are to to validate their understanding of the original by making a model of it” (1999, 529) In this phase, life is also more clearly gendered, as Traweek notes through the wife of the high energy physicist “The families are part of the culture of high-energy physics and the stages of a career in physics mold the family, much as one might expect in other vocations such as the military, religious groups, and the arts” (1999, 531).
In the postdoctoral period for physicists, there is a separation of theorists from experimentalists, as well as a shift from oral rather than written information. So while there is a network, not all physicists are the same (as in cultural differences), and there is a tension between independence vs. teamwork: one physicist described this as “behaving British and thinking Yiddish” (1999, 533). There are behavioral rules in professional science that are informally spread and reinforced that are emphasized in the postdoc period.
“I am not suggesting that only biological males can participate in the cycle. I am claiming that in this cycle a certain cluster of characteristics is associated with success, a cluster that is part of our culture’s social construction of male gender. These stories about a life in physics define virtue as independence in defining goals, deliberate and shrewd cultivation of varied experience, and fierce competition with peers in the race for discoveries. Independence, experience, competition, and individual victories are strongly associated with male socialization in our culture” (Traweek 1999, 539)