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Seminar: Unsettling Science at the Limits of Life: postgenomic biology, interspecies entanglements and the problem of ageing

December 3, 2019 @ 15:00 - 16:30

Health and Life Condition Research Group, Department of Anthropology

Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies, Department of Public Health

Center for Healthy Ageing, University of Copenhagen

announce a joint seminar with Joanna Latimer and Simon Cohn

Professor and director Joanna Latimer,

University of York

In this paper I draw on my ethnography of biological research which took place between 2008-2018.  The biologists who I studied are concerned with ageing and life-long health – with some figuring ageing as a disease and others attempting to find a cure for ageing.  Their attachment is to the mechanisms of ‘ageing’, which they distinguish from being ‘aged’ or ‘old’. Specifically, I explore the interspecies entanglements upon which biologists rely to do their theorising and their experiments – this includes animal modelling, as well as natural histories and genome sequencing of animals to understand differences in longevity.  I show how these methodologies rely upon switching between Darwinian notions of the unity of creation and the ordering of relations by comparison (Strathern 1997) to reproduce notions of human exceptionalism.  Here I explore how the aged, and becoming old, maps onto these shifts to suggest that being and becoming old creates problems for biology at the limits of life.

Joanna Latimer is Professor of Sociology, Science & Technology & Director of the Science & Technology Studies Unit (SATSU), University of York, UK. “Having studied English Lit. as an undergraduate, I then trained and worked as a nurse, and won a fellowship to do a PhD about older people, diagnosis, and care in acute medicine at Edinburgh University.  Joining Keele as Senior Research Fellow in Nursing in 1994, I moved to being Research Officer in the Keele Centre for Social Gerontology and honorary research fellow in Sociology in 1996. I then took up a lectureship in Sociology at Cardiff in 1999, progressing to chair in 2009. My research focuses on the cultural, social and existential effects and affects for illness and disability, and of how science, medicine and healthcare are done. In addition, I have researched and theorized human-non-human animal relations. At the moment I am working ethnographically on the beginnings and ends of life, examining everyday processes of inclusion and exclusion. Making contributions at the leading edge of social theory, I have written extensively about affect, care, ageing, animals, dementiaolder peopledwellingthe politics of imaginationbody-world relations, nursing, genomics, reproduction and class.  I have published many articles and books, including The Conduct of Care (2000), (Un)knowing Bodies (2009), The Gene, The Clinic and The Family (2013), awarded the 2014 FSHI annual book prize, and Intimate Entanglements (2019) with Dani López Gómez.  Currently I am writing up my study of ageing and biology as a new book for Routledge, Naturecultures at The Limits to Life: Ageing, Biology and Society, and have recently co-edited with Richard Milne a special issue on contemporary developments in Alzheimer’s research for New Genetics & Society.”


The entanglements of doing and not doing and what gets noticed in end of life care 

Professor Simon Cohn,

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Within the context of healthcare delivery, one of the key underlying tensions is whether to intervene or not; between action and inaction, to treat or not treat, to do or not to do. These distinctions appear to play a significant role in the organisation and structure of services; for example, which particular actors are responsible, where agency lies, what drugs should replace existing ones, and indeed how best to engage with the messy material body as it continually alters. But ethnography has the potential to evoke a field that has not yet been fashioned by such orchestrated categories – where the very entanglement of actions and inactions means that distinguishing between the two is not an imperative. Drawing on observations and a small number of case studies collected as part of a research project currently conducted with colleagues Annelieke Driessen and Erica Borgstrom, I want to illustrate how doing and not doing are often not the antithesis of each other when it comes to looking after those at the end of life. Instead, they invariably occur together, such that it is only in combination that staff understand what they do as caring for someone who is dying.

I want to go on to propose that rather than the differences between action and inaction serving as the basis upon which health professionals organise their work, it is frequently the many different organising features of healthcare that determine what gets counted as action or inaction. Not only does this have a consequence for which practices are rendered visible and valuable, but also how they come to be regulated in ways that foreclose precisely what makes them caring practices.

Simon Cohn is a Professor of Medical Anthropology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. My research to date has focused on issues related to diagnosis, contested conditions and chronic illness in the UK and other high-income societies. With a strong commitment to contemporary social theory, I am interested in how innovative social science might provide both critical insight and influence in aspects of contemporary biomedical practice. I have become fascinated by the role of fluids, both inside and outside the body: how they relate to health and practices of care, their general absence in medical anthropology and sociology accounts, and the extent to which their constant movement and flow might demand a new way to think about old problems. Projects on end of life care, blood & blood donation, a project on urinary incontinence, and preliminary work on human waste, are all serving as introductory cases to think with.

December 3, 2019, at 15:00-16:30, room 4.1.12 (Etnografisk laboratorium) at CSS, Øster Farimagsgade 5A

Everybody is welcome!


December 3, 2019
15:00 - 16:30