By Kaylenz Niko Arranz
Contributing Writer

The Sciences, Technology and Medicine were the primary ways of which to categorize human beings in ways that deemed them fit and unfit. Medicine primarily housed the function to determine what parts of the human body is not needed in order to fully function. Through a critical Ethnic Studies lens, I explore the ways in which scientific and technological development were not only valorized and celebrated as undisputed indicators of innovation and modernity, but also how they have been linked to complex issues of rights, choice, property and privacy. Scientific discourse and practice reproduce social inequalities, influencing our common understanding of the world, often with deleterious effect on racialized, ethnic, gendered and poor communities. Although scientific claims to objective truth give science authority and legitimacy, the production of scientific knowledge in fact reflects the interests and experiences and vantage point of the researcher and his/her community (Fausto-Sterling). As evident by the experiences of racialized groups across space and time, scientific practices and medical ethos have produced systems of social hierarchy and ways of seeing that have greatly harmed those racialized to be scientifically and medically inferior. Moreover, low-resource and racialized communities are often subject to medical research and intervention, effectively having their bodies probed, modified and commodified for the medical or personal benefit of more privileged persons, the medical profession and global capitalists. Through an examination of the cases of the trade in human organs, intellectual property and piracy, plastic surgery and repatriation of native remains, this paper shows how scientific and medical advances have reproduced and even instigated social inequalities through the claiming of ownership over human data and body parts and intellectual property – all while espousing rhetoric about the promotion of individual choice, private property, free market and privacy in order to mask the exploitation of “inferior” bodies and their intellect all in the name of scientific advancement and corporate profits.


Recent advances in biomedicine, transplant surgery, biotechnology and experimental genetic medicine have led to the international commodification of bodies in the growing business of organ harvesting – bodies that can be “bartered, sold or stolen in divisible and alienable parts” in response to the demands of the market (Scheper-Hughes 1). Cohen links the development in science and technology to this emerging global phenomenon, arguing that the rapid growth of the organ harvesting business in south India was part and parcel of the development of powerful immune system suppression drugs that made it no longer necessary for clinicians to search for a close match for transplants, which opened up the transplant business to far-flung places, as well as the medical institution-building boom that took place in India in the 1990s. Cohen’s findings call attention to the relationship between scientific progress and the reproduction of social and class inequality, sometimes without the researchers intending those outcomes.

For neo-classical economists of the global economy and a new group of bioethicists, these emerging body markets promote individual choice and autonomy and should be governed by market demands, free of state or governmental regulation (Scheper-Hughes 3). They argue that the traffic in organs can be a win-win situation: “You get a kidney, I get money, and we both therefore survive against all hope” (Cohen 670). In this analysis, body parts are treated as the private property of individual owners, who can dispose of them at will to the highest bidder. However, social theorists have argued against this notion of free market and individual choice by showing that commercialized transplant medicine has replicated and further divided global society into two unequal populations: organ receivers who are cherished and treated as suffering and deserving individuals, and organ givers who are invisible and treated as anonymous suppliers of spare parts (Scheper-Hughes 4). While organ receivers are often affluent white patients, organ donors, from India to South Africa, are impoverished men and women of color who sell their body parts in order to pay existing debts or to feed their families (Cohen; Scheper-Hughes). Given this context of unequal exchange, the organ transplant business is not a simple matter of individual choice and private property. Instead, the “commodified organ becomes an object of desire for one population and a commodity of last resort for ‘the other’ and socially disadvantaged population” (Scheper-Huges 2).

Plastic surgery constitutes another important arena to examine how scientific and medical discourse and practice have reproduced gender and racial inequalities, even while giving the appearance of personal choice to improve one’s body image. In her discussion of the “racial nose,” Gilman shows how in the world of nineteenth-century science, Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper’s claim about ideal facial angle and nasal index became a means of creating a hierarchy of the races, with African features ranked as the least attractive because they were deemed closest to the ape’s physiognomy (87). Over the years, advancement in scientific knowledge and techniques has made cosmetic surgery more accessible to a larger general public – as common as piercing one’s ears (Gilman). Socially constructed and scientifically validated hierarchies of beauty have led to numerous attempts over the years by individuals racialized as “ugly” to turn to aesthetic surgery to provide them with new faces and bodies that would bring them closer to Western ideals of beauty (Gilman). As Morgan concludes, “what is being created…is not simply beautiful bodies and faces, but white, Western, Anglo-Saxon bodies in a racist, anti-Semitic context” (36). Morgan argues that while women who undergo cosmetic surgery appear to represent a paradigm case of self-creating choice, they are in fact conforming to racialized, gendered and classed norms of beauty that rely on the “pathological inversion of the normal” and that are dependent on male assessment, medical experts and “technological beauty imperative” (Morgan 35).

These body ideals, fortified by relations of power and economic differences among the world’s people, are not only related to beauty and attractiveness, they also mark “who is and is not acceptably human, who can and cannot be trusted” and “who can and cannot be honored with acceptance as an equal” (Gilman 115, 118). As an example, many young Asian-American women in the San Francisco Bay Area undergo cosmetic surgery to escape racial ideologies that conflate their “Asian” features with “dullness, passivity and lack of emotion” and to present themselves as “modern” (Kaw 74; Gilman). The boom in cosmetic surgery among women of color thus elucidates the connection between medicine and race and gender, as the Western science and medical system, “legitimized by scientific rationality and technical efficiency,” produces and promotes gender and racial stereotypes that in effect encourage racialized women to mutilate their bodies to conform to these norms (Kaw 81). In other words, through its highly specialized and validating discourses and practices, medicine effectively convinces racialized women to participate in the “production and reproduction of the larger structural inequalities that continue to oppress them” (Kaw 87).

Scientifically validated racial ideology can also be found in recent efforts to require biological tests to determine who is truly Indian, which then is used to support or deny indigenous groups’ claim to cultural and political rights (Tallbear). The reliance on DNA analysis to determine native identity is based on scientists’ claim that there exist specific Native American genetic markers that provide a valid test of native identity. Tallbear argues that the claim that a native tribe exists only as a biological entity undermines tribal self-determination since “tribal ideas of kinship and community belonging are not synonymous with biology” (84). The assumption that a native people’s political rights and cultural identity are biologically determined has also impacted the controversial issue of the repatriation of ancient human remains. Since the unearthing of the “Kennewick Man” in 1996, several tribes in Washington State have sought jurisdiction over his bones for immediate reburial. However, prominent anthropologists have sued for the right to study these bones, thus DNA testing was ordered to determine the cultural affiliation of the bones and tribal authority over the remains. Although scientists were unable to extract DNA from the bones, conducting the tests further damaged the bones, offending the tribes. Further, the tribes insisted that DNA analysis would tell us nothing about the Kennewick Man’s social and cultural affiliations and claimed the remains as their own based on “an assumed cultural affiliation that in their eyes is more valid than genetics” (Tallbear 88). Tallbear concludes that reliance on DNA analysis to determine who is Indian constitutes a dangerous return to the essentialist view of race as a biological fact.

Finally, the contemporary controversy over piracy and intellectual property provides an important lens to examine the uneven and unequal distribution of new forms of technologies and information to the world’s poor, thus reproducing social inequalities. Twenty-first century piracy discourse represents the pirate figure as a raced, gendered subaltern, which effectively racializes the “Third World” as a natural area for fraud and piracy (Philip 200). This discourse fails to take into account the history of colonialism, economic exploitation and repressive copyright laws that favor technological development in the West and discourage progress in the non-West. Moreover, when computing technology has unexpectedly flourished in the developing world, including India, China, South Korea and Taiwan, it is represented as an illicit economic threat posed to the west by these Asian countries, threatening the lives and livelihood of Western software programmers (Philip 215). Thus the feminized Third World is a racialized figure who “employs methods outside of first world rationality, in order to steal jobs that properly reside in metropolitan office towers or suburban strip malls” (Philip 215). As such, Philip argues that questions about technocultural legalities have to be understood in the context of the production of difference – “at the intersection of specific colonial and postcolonial geographies and histories” (216).

The usage of science and technology in tandem creates and reproduces systems of social inequality that benefit those who reside in the global north while systematically exploiting the bodies and resources of the underprivileged who live in the global south. While scientific progress is often touted as leading to more individual choice and freedom, it in fact has further constrained the lives of poor women and men of color. Historically, scientists and medical authorities have relied on the poor and the illiterate in developing nations to supply a disproportionate share of subjects for scientific research; today, these economically marginalized individuals continue to supply the personal and scientific needs of the West by selling their organs in the global body market. Medical advancement in cosmetic surgery has created a multi-billion dollar industry by encouraging women of color to mutilate their bodies in order to achieve the ideal Western-centric norms of beauty. Finally, the availability of DNA analysis has made it difficult for native tribes to claim jurisdiction over remains and over their identity and tribal membership. In the case of technological authorship and intellectual property, these claims of ownership have made it very difficult for resource-poor countries to develop their own information infrastructure. In sum, the cases of trade in human organs, plastic surgery, repatriation of human remains and intellectual property and piracy together demonstrate how the mission of progress in scientific and technological development is intimately linked to the production of social inequalities in the United States and the world, whether or not these are the researchers’ intended outcome.

Works Cited

Cohen, Lawrence. “Where It Hurts: Indian Material for an Ethics of OrganTransplantation.” Zygon 38, No. 3 (2003): 663-88.

Gilman, S. (1999). “The Racial Nose.” In S. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Princeton: Princeton U. Press. 85- 118.

Kaw, Eugenia. (1993). “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 7:1, 74-89.

Lock, Margaret. “Living Cadavers and the Calculation of Death.” Body and Society. London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004. 135-152.

Morgan, Kathryn Pauly . (1991). “Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women’s Bodies.” Hypatia, 6:3, pp. 25-53.

Phillips, Kavita. (2005). “What is a Technological Author? The Pirate Function and Intellectual Property.” Postcolonial Studies. 8:2, 199-218.

Scheper-Hughes. “Bodies for Sale: Whole or in Parts.” Body & Society. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE Publications. 7. (2-3). 2001. 1-8.

Tallbear, Kimberly . “DNA, Blood and Racializing the Tribe.” Wicazo Sa Review. 18:1. Spring 2003, pp. 81-107. CW

Photo by Flickr user Rich Anderson, used under a Creative Commons license



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s