Friday, August 11, 2006

Taking rumor seriously

Much of academic life is spent trawling through largely uninspiring articles in search of some minor insight. But every once in a while you read an article that, unlike the usual stuff, grabs you and does not let go.

This was the case for me with an article that was recently published in, of all things, Tropical Medicine and International Health. Entitled 'Popular concerns about medical research projects in sub-Saharan Africa -- a critical voice in debates about medical research ethics', the authors P.W. Geissler and R.Pools article recast the meaning of popular African rumors surrounding what Western biomedical researchers and institutions are doing in their countries. It is not uncommon to hear talk about organ, body part, blood and placenta theft, and about AIDS and other diseases being deliberately spread by Western scientists to decimate the African population. Instead of regarding these rumors as mere distortions of fact or throwbacks to traditional 'magical' thinking, Geissler and Pool see such rumors as expressions of concern about how foreign research institutions tend to take more than they give to local communities, and how biomedical research in resource-poor countries is suspected to be part of a larger network of exploitive global relationships, a network with long historical roots.

In fact, according to Geissler and Pool, these rumors are a way of doing bioethics; what might condescendingly be called the 'rumor mill' is really a collective meditation on the ethics of international research:

Given local unfamiliarly with the conceptual models and terminology of the international medical ethics debate and the lack of direct engagement of study populations in discussions about ethical concerns, local communities make use of their own models and terminologies to express and debate their concerns. They use a collective set of narrative elements, plots, themes and images that have been used to faciliate discussion of colonial and post-colonial inequality and exploitation ... These rumors are modern debates about ethical practice in a context in which experiences of alienation and exploitation form the backdrop of medical research.

As if to drive home the point about global inequalities, this article is only available if you or your academic institution has a costly subscription to Tropical Medicine and International Health. But if you want a copy, just send me an email.


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