Medicine, Citizenship, and Race

     In what follows, I attempt to pull out of Anne Pollock’s 2012 text, “Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference”, certain aspects of Pollock’s project that I believe shed critical insights into analyzing difference specifically in the U.S. today through biopolitics. Using my own research interests and analytic struggles as a guide, I identify the critical connections forged by Pollock in her focus area of African American medical/biological citizenship that carry significant implications for other types of potential research one might carry out in the U.S. today. Ultimately, I also critique the book itself as a text, by identifying certain aspects of it that I believe amount to shortcomings, but which I also find to be productive in highlighting the type of work left to be done in advancing projects like the one Pollock takes up here, ethnographically.Medicating Race To briefly summarize “Medicating Race”, this book studies the “durability of preoccupations with race in medicine” (p.1) through the racialization of hypertensive heart disease in the United States. Pollock argues that “medicating is an excellent analytical framework for the STS [science and technology studies] critique of race because medicine intervenes on the boundaries between social and biological, material and semiotic” (p.5). That is, as she demonstrates through her first several chapters, negotiations of “Americanness” and belonging today have very long histories rooted in the fields of medicine and biology, which have all always been discussed in fundamentally racial terms. She shows that the durability of race in the U.S. lies in the category’s capacity to travel between, mediate, and co-articulate social and biological truths about belonging and inclusion. The recent failure of BiDil, a heart disease medication marketed for “self-identified African Americans”, is ultimately taken up as the field of debate representative of race’s durability in negotiating biological citizenship, and the challenges it poses to individuals and doctors alike, today.

     One of the first significant texts covered in this seminar on biopolitics, for me and my research interests specifically, was Elizabeth Povinelli‘s 2011 book, “Economies of Abandonment”. This book offered a critical theoretical framework for helping understand biopolitical projects of inclusion/belonging in late liberal governmentality and its crises in cultural recognition. In many ways, I felt Pollock’s book was deeply inspired by Povinelli, though Pollock never cites or directly references her. Significantly, there seems to be a connection between Pollock’s emphasis on the durability of race and Povinelli’s work on endurance in late liberal governmentality in the biopolitics of making live, making die, and letting die. Yet there is also something qualitatively different in their uses of these terms, ‘durability’ and ‘endurance’. Pollock, unlike Povinelli, is looking at the endurance of race as a category that is inextricably tied to the shaping of projects of recognition and inclusion in late liberal governmentality. While Pollock does not reference D.T. Goldberg’s work on the Racial State, one might read her project as one that mediates between and productively merges and extends the work of Goldberg and Povinelli into the context of racialized medicine and biological citizenship today.

     Pollock identifies an “American form” of A. Petryna‘s biological citizenship concept, in which “the damaged biology of a population has become the grounds for social membership and the basis for staking citizenship claims” that are simultaneously “democratic and deeply racialized” (p.40). Similarly in my own research into racialized educational outreach programs for minority inclusion into STEM, race as a stake in both social and biological life today constitutes grounds for new types of membership claims that tie belonging and Americanness to participation in a new STEM workforce of post-racially racialized STEM citizen subjects. The ability to participate in the STEM production of knowledge has been newly opened to non-white claims for citizenship in the U.S., and is increasingly marketed as a democratizing effort in and by the sciences through categories of race, just as Pollock suggests of medicine. Indeed, as chapters one and two point out, the scientific fields of medicine- which is integrally included under the STEM umbrella today -have historically been shaped by racial discourses of modernity that determine who can access and participate in the knowledge and healthcare productions of these fields, and who are viewed as bioscience’s objects and subjects. Racializing medicine is a biopolitical strategy that emerges out of this history of science and citizenship in the U.S., in a very similar way to the strategy racializing STEM education outreach constitutes.

     “Medicating Race” is arguably my new favorite text, because of the numerous developments it produces in moving along biopolitical analyses of race in the U.S. that parallel many of the types of STS questions I hope to explore as well. However, Pollock is not trained as an anthropologist but a history and STS scholar. As such, her text is dominated by her own authoritative voice more than I believe would be suitable for a truly ethnographic account of the same social context, which I believe would have to spend substantial time on the subjective voices and experiences of African American heart disease patients and activists- something Pollock does not do at all. This possible shortcoming notwithstanding, where her project might be seen as methodologically intervening the most is in her mediations between biological/genetic determinist anti-racism arguments among medical professionals and academics, and sociocultural and environmental determinist anti-racism arguments among the same types of experts. Her concluding discussions about race as the many-headed hydra underscore her particular positionality in a most productive way. That she argues for taking as a starting point the shared interest in improving the welfare of underserved populations, for nurturing understanding between the two counter-productively oppositional views on race in medicine, marks out the space in which she is attempting to intervene as an ethically-engaged researcher committed to positive social change.

     In “Medicating Race”, Pollock gets to some deeper issues about race and difference through a biopolitical approach that integrates the work of science and technology studies (STS), medicine, race, capital, and citizenship, in a way that I believe speaks with an as-yet unmatched degree of salience to debates that are specific in characterizing the U.S. today. For any critical scholar struggling to position themselves, ethically and analytically, within research efforts focused on analyzing biopolitical projects of racial redlining and inclusion through various market-based forms of outreach, Pollock’s book will likely be an important text. I have attempted here to draw out some of the key areas Pollock might usefully be advanced for other research areas, as well as to situate her contributions within other prominent discussions that relate to her work within the body of literature included as the anthropology of biopolitics.



Pollock, Anne
2012     Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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