Centre for Health, Technologies and Social Practice

Lessons from the everyday affects of biomedical practice: Reconsidering knowledge, ethics and accountability

Jamie Pawlus' “Care, Don't Care” - Photo used under Creative Commons from Shawn Hoke

Jamie Pawlus’ “Care, Don’t Care” – Photo used under Creative Commons from Shawn Hoke

Science and Technology Studies (STS) has been transformative for medical sociology, focusing attention on the agency of objects, processes of standardisation, lay-expert relations, especially in relation to genomics, reproductive medicine and clinical trials.  STS has shown us how bodies and emotions are entangled in ways of knowing and working with laboratory materials, measures and models  as well as how scientists negotiate disciplinary boundaries and ethical quandaries in their work.

But this analysis seems to stop short of engaging with a broader repertoire of affect, bodies and emotions in science. There are still quite a lot of ‘neglected things’ we seem not to care about, in Puig de la Bella Casa’s terms, in STS studies of the lab, the project and the scientific collective. STS has focused on how affect produces knowledge or technologies, but the role of emotions and bodies in the mundane, everyday practices of science has been largely overlooked. Humour, friendships, career worries, gossip seem to be a kind of ‘affective noise’ that STS blocks out or ignores in the quest to understand the production of knowledge and technologies.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Gerry Dincher

Photo used under Creative Commons from Gerry Dincher

Feminist scholars of technoscience have long challenged us to understand bodies and emotions in science, including invisible or devalued, often feminised work in science.  So, in learning to care for neglected things it is important to explore this wider gamut of affect in scientific practice as a potential source of inspiration for thinking differently about what science does, and for whom it brings benefits.

Thinking about what kinds of care are associated with these ‘mundane’ emotions and embodied practices of getting along in science is a good way into this hidden terrain of affect because, as feminist sociologists have demonstrated, care is central to social reproduction, linking the state, the market and the family – spanning feelings, emotions, affects and political and economic processes of social organisation. Understanding who does the work of care, how that work is recognised, valued, and experienced is therefore crucial to understanding social arrangements.

Photo used under Creative Commons from Roger Blackwell

Photo used under Creative Commons from Roger Blackwell

At the same time, feminists have also taught us that care cannot be romanticised. It is bound up in a complexity of affect – compassion, dependency, empathy, disgust even hatred for carers and the cared-for. Care has also been capitalised – not just in terms of being a form of low paid, flexible labour which is transacted on a global scale – but also in terms of the commodification of care through affective labours, for instance, self-care and the beauty industry. Foucauldian scholars locate caring for oneself and others within self-governance in the context of neoliberal capitalism, and the work involved in becoming the responsible autonomous ideal subject.  There are also tensions around resources, and between the needs of carer and cared for, as disability activists and scholars have shown.

Attending to these dynamics of care in the everyday practices of science and the emotions and bodies that they involve, challenges what and how we currently study affect in science, along three main axes.

First, it requires us to ask different kinds of questions about the work of being a scientistwhat kinds of caring, emotional labour or body work is required to reproduce the scientific collective? How does this affective labour shape the kinds of science being done, and the kinds of scientists, collaborators, clients and institutions? It should matter more to STS that scientists are taking on increasing responsibilities for being approachable, caring, responsible as part of their work, bringing stress and anxiety as well as an intensification of work, perhaps at the expense of intimate family life. This should also cause us to question our own role as social scientists in heaping on more responsibilities onto scientists or healthcare practitioners to be reflexive and responsive.

Second, attending to everyday affects invites us to ask who is expected to do what particular kinds of emotional, embodied work as a consequence of particular kinds of scientific practices? To answer this we need to look to the ripples of care across networks of scientists, healthcare workers, patients, families, communities.  Can we understand expressions of outrage or disgust or concern about the latest biomedical developments by thinking about how affects travel, rather than dismissing concerns on the grounds of irrationality, lack of knowledge or vested interests?  Can we understand failures, errors and mistakes as breakdowns of care, blocks in emotional flows and inattention to the embodied labours of others? Tracing ripples of care around bioscience could also generate new ways of thinking about controversies around large national infrastructure initiatives, to policy and regulation of new technologies and patenting and open access.

Third, attending to care demands that we think about how science could be done differently. STS scholars (with the exception of those in the feminist tradition) tend to shy away from engaging with affect in this way – focusing on performativity instead of normativity.  We need to recognise the traps here, but it feels disingenuous not to think about how to care when confronting what care actually means in practice. Could thinking about emotional, embodied labour in and beyond science generate other ways of regulating or arranging science and biomedicine? Could we audit the economy of care as an alternative to crude cost-benefit analyses, for example?

In each of these ways, focusing on affective practices as matters of care invites us to take a broader approach to the value of care, how it is derived and remunerated. It links affect to the economy, profoundly challenging the topics, data, rationale and implications of social research on science and technology.

Photo used under Creative Commons from walknboston

Photo used under Creative Commons from walknboston

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