Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

International Biodiplomacy and Global Ethical Forms: Relations of Critique between Public Anthropology and Science in Society

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

International Biodiplomacy and Global Ethical Forms: Relations of Critique between Public Anthropology and Science in Society

Article excerpt


This essay introduces the concept of "biodiplomacy" through a combination of philosophical reflection, historical and etymological arguments, media reports, critical analyses of bioethics controversies, and the author's own participation as a "diplomat" of anthropology for an international commission about science and society. It explores how the notion of corps diplomatique that once represented the Enlightenment ideal of an exclusive, "family of diplomats" is apparent today as the diffusion of an open, more participatory "global talk. " The effects of this development on critical social theory are discussed under the rubric of "biodiplomatica"; particular attention is paid to (i) the immanence of critique as a relational mode of action for interventions in public anthropology, and (ii) the theorist's role in seeking to engage a critically reflexive anthropology of bioethics. [Keywords: biodiplomacy, knowledge relations and critical theory, international collaboration, bioethics, science and society, interdisciplinarity]

Missions of Critique

Part of what we do as intellectuals is not only to define the situation, but also to discern the possibilities for active intervention, whether we then perform them ourselves or acknowledge them in others who have either gone before or are already at work, the intellectual as lookout.

-Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism

(2004:140, emphasis added)

One of the most powerful and under-explored ideas amongst Edward Said's final reflections can be attributed to the humanism of intellectual vocation: the notion that the virtues of good office-harnessed in the potential energy of democratic criticism-may be evidenced as practical missions. Aligning passion with dispassion, the figure of the public intellectual as "lookout" consolidates a type of mission work-makes the engaged life of the mind a particular vocation, so to speak.

Social anthropologists of course have always been native lookouts of one kind, or another, but the job done well is no easy one. We know ourselves as professionals through the service of critical observation and participation: what we see of "culture" shapes what we make of our interventions-how we proceed ethnographically and collaboratively, what we do with theory, the terms whereby we draw up the world. This reflexively engaged missionary work, which is quite separate from an earlier proselytising in the name of conversion and is also distinguishable from the modern missions underpinning science and human rights endeavours, might even be said to make anthropology one of the most-if not the most-authentic "lookout" for the humanities and social sciences. I am referring here quite specifically to a body of work in political critique currently organizing around "public anthropology" which examines the mission of engagement as public reasoning, public interest and public policy intervention forms, be it for political emergency and disaster relief or quotidian welfare (e.g. Sanday 1976, Shore and Wright 1997, Edgar and Russell 1998, Farmer 2003, Werbner 2004, Wilson 2005, Englund 2006, Eriksen 2006).

This paper offers a new direction for anthropology's involvement in the public arena of science and societal engagement: it is a speculative snippet culled from the particular "missions" that inform contemporary diplomacy in the age of biological politics and medical science. The argument proceeds by putting forward the novel notion of "biodiplomacy" in order to examine the following three sets of issues.1

(i) Biodiplomacy relations for international science. Emerging forms of governance in international science, I suggest, require analytical strategies for detailing the complexities by which active interventions in biodiplomacy can come to be known: how citizens, professionals and para-state entities are discerned and invested with socio-political value. While an explicitly cultural focus on knowledge biodiplomacy depends in part on empirical exegesis for its descriptive future, this is a topic notably overlooked by some of the most sophisticated debates in critical theory and social anthropology today. …

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