Biotechnology and Culture: Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics

By Paul E. Brodwin | Go to book overview

Chapter 12
Biotechnology on the Margins
A Haitian Discourse on French Medicine

PAUL E. BRODWIN

In this essay, I focus not on a specific apparatus or procedure but rather on the panoply of biomedical technologies and the meanings it acquires as an ensemble for a given community. These meanings are not determined by the technologies or their clinical applications. They emerge instead from the historical trajectory of the community in question, the social contradictions it faces, and the strategies to resolve them. I examine this process through an ethnography of the Haitian migrant enclave in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. Haitians arrived on the island no more than twenty-five years ago, and, as a group, they constitute the poorest sector of the population and are subject to occasional public harassment as well as immigration sweeps and deportation. At the same time, they have surprisingly good access to state-of-the-art French biomedical services at the island’s largest hospital. The way Haitian migrants talk about French medicine sheds light on more general questions: What are the discourses of biotechnology in an era of globalization? What cultural and political work do these discourses accomplish?


BIOTECHNOLOGY AND GLOBALIZATION:
TWO CONTRASTIVE LOGICS

In the world at present, biotechnologies continually move away from their point of origin in First World laboratories and hospitals and enter communities with far less political and economic power. This movement demands enormous investments of money and energy, and it proceeds under several banners: liberal schemes to improve the health of developing countries or underserved populations, the search for new markets, and the international expansion of biomedicine’s authority. However, these paternalistic and professional rhetorics about biotechnologies are less convincing for people living at a great distance—economic, political, or geographic— from their point of origin.

The talk about biotechnologies in marginal communities indexes the embattled relations between them and the dominant social order, between

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