What is Cyborg Anthropology?

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Cyborg anthropology is a recent subspecialty launched at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1993. Within the AAA cyborg anthropology is associated with the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology and Computing (CASTAC). From the start cyborg anthropologists have located themselves within the larger transdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), attending with frequency the annual meetings of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (SSSS) and applying cyborgian perspectives to a wide research spectrum that has ranged from the culture of physicists in Japan (Traweek 1988) to organ donation in Germany (Hogle 1999) to extended work on the new reproductive technologies.

Anthropology, the study of humans, has traditionally concentrated on discovering the process of evolution through which the human came to be (physical anthropology), or on understanding the beliefs, languages, and behaviors of past or present human groups (archaeology, linguistics, cultural anthropology).

A cyborg (shorthand for “cybernetic organism”) is a symbiotic fusion of human and machine. Humans have always developed technologies to help them survive and thrive, but in recent decades the rapid escalation and intensification of the human-technology interface have exceeded anything heretofore known. From satellite communications to genetic engineering, high technologies have penetrated and permeated the human and natural realms. Indeed, so profoundly are humans altering their biological and physical landscapes that some have openly suggested that the proper object of anthropological study should be cyborgs rather than humans, for, as Donna Haraway says, we are all cyborgs now.

From: Cyborg Anthropology Joseph Dumit PhD, Assistant Professor, Program in Science, Technology and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Robbie Davis-Floyd PhD, Research Fellow, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin

Relations to other fields

New diagnostic technologies, from genetic tests to brain imaging, and new therapeutics from antidepressants like Prozac to organ transplants, create new ways of living and deciding that are at once exciting and troubling. For instance, testing for the BRCA-1 breast cancer gene, which identifies an increased risk of cancer in some women, often restructures a woman's relationship to the healthcare system, to her family, and to her self. Taking the test can lead to losing insurance coverage and to accelerated treatment choices like prophylactic mastectomy; in other words, identification of genetic risk can result in the woman being treated as if she already has breast cancer. The existence of the test thus creates a new cyborgian category—the presymptomatically ill—and a new set of risks posed by the “prophylactic” treatments prescribed for its members.

The most developed cyborg anthropological work in women's studies concerns reproduction, addressing everything from technologies of conception and prenatal diagnosis and treatment (Rapp), to the technologization of birth, to the commodification of disability and pregnancy loss (Layne). For example, Rayna Rapp's long-term fieldwork among genetic counselors and her attention to racial, class, and religious differences in how women make choices given uncertain information about amniocentesis constitute outstanding examples of simultaneous attention to technology, its mediators, and its implications for women. In the contemporary world, there is almost no such thing as normal labor, as giving birth without the assistance of prenatal testing, hospitals, electronic fetal monitoring, drugs, and forceps is generally considered unsafe, despite the demonstrated safety of midwife- attended out-of-hospital births. The mothers and children whose lives are structured and whose bodies and development are altered by birth technologies can be fruitfully analyzed as cyborgs who demonstrate the full range of ambiguity and possibility that concept encompasses.

Various chapters in Cyborg Babies probe these ambiguities, asking whether the sense of control provided to women and practitioners by the routine application of such technologies compensates for the very real physical damage they often do.

Other exemplary ethnographies in the wider arena of cyborg studies include Emily Martin's work on immunological science; Deborah Heath's work on the science and activism around Marfan's Syndrome; Diana Forsythe's studies of artificial intelligence and expert systems; Joseph Dumit's studies of brain imaging practices; and Karen-Sue Taussig's work on genetics clinics in the Netherlands.

Much work needs to be done to expand cyborg anthropology to address non-middle-class and non-Western issues such as the multiple effects of pollution, pesticide use, and bio-engineering in agricultural production and racial and gendered exclusions from access to cyborg technologies. The strength of cyborg anthropology is its ability to combine attention to scientific practices and working technologies with critical analyses of technophilia (cultural fascination with high technologies), social control, and hegemonic and popular appropriations of technology. Its weakness is that the same fascinating lure of science and technology keeps its practitioners focused on the cyberdazzle of the newest technologies, Big Science, and Western market power.

References and further reading

  • Davis-Floyd, Robbie and Joseph Dumit (1998) Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots. New York: Routledge.
  • Downey, Gary Lee, Joseph Dumit, eds. (1997) Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences, Technologies and Medicines. Seattle: SAR/University of Washington Press. (Includes essays by Joseph Dumit, Deborah Heath, and Rayna Rapp).
  • Forsythe, Diana (2001) Toward an Anthropology of Informatics: Ethnographic Analyses of Knowledge Engineering and Artificial Intelligence. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Gray, Chris Hables, ed, with Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor (1995) The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge.
  • Haraway, Donna (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.

Hogle, Linda F. (1999) Recovering the Nation's Body: Cultural Memory, Medicine, and the Politics of Redemption. Rutgers University Press

  • Layne, Linda, ed. (2000) Transformative Motherhood: On Giving and Getting in a Consumer Culture. New York University Press.
  • Martin, Emily (1994) Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in America from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Rapp, Rayna (2000) Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. New York: Routledge.
  • Taussig, Karen-Sue (forthcoming) Just Be Ordinary: Normalizing the Future through Genetic Research and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Traweek, Sharon (1988) Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.