Biosecurity and Vulnerability

Advanced Seminar

October 9–13, 2011

Biosecurity and VulnerabilityBiosecurity and VulnerabilityAdvanced Seminar co-chaired by Nancy Chen, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz and Lesley A. Sharp, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College, October 9–13, 2011.Biosecurity and VulnerabilityAdvanced Seminar co-chaired by Nancy Chen, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz and Lesley A. Sharp, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College, October 9–13, 2011.

Biosecurity is understood widely today as referencing the urgency with which nation-states must police citizenry, transient populations, border zones, and resources in a world where safety is conceived of as tenuous at best. As a result, biosecurity measures are inevitably imagined and managed on a grand scale. Global initiatives—frequently administered under the aegis of such bureaucratic entities as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization—underscore the critical actions necessary for anticipating, preventing, and responding to a range of security threats, including pandemics, natural disasters, and scarcities in food, water, medical care, and biofuels. In recent decades, particular global events—most notably, the AIDS pandemic, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004—have instigated “high-alert” security responses. Despite the intensification of bureaucratic control in national and increasingly international arenas, basic human survival on a daily basis is all too frequently overlooked, devalued, or reframed as unachievable. As a result, the well-being of local populations is especially vulnerable in the face of wide-ranging bureaucratic measures that target economic stability on a grand, rather than grounded, scale.

This advanced seminar originated as a panel on “bioinsecurities” organized by Nancy Chen and Lesley Sharp for the Society for Applied Anthropology conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in March 2009. From this modest effort emerged several critical questions that guided the seminar: What are the historical antecedents of biosecurity? How might the “bio” be put back into biosecurity by focusing on threats to the well-being of human bodies? If biosecurity is in large part about scarce resources, what sacrifices, fears, and consequences are at stake, and how might the scramble for these resources generate other forms of bioinsecurity? Of what relevance is the market in shaping biosecurity measures, and how do such measures affect the daily survival of local populations? Finally, what are biosecurity’s moral dimensions, and what possibilities exist for proposing more ethically and socially engaged responses? The fact that the Occupy Wall Street movement arose during the seminar added special poignancy to the gathering.

The seminar proved to be an occasion for constant lively discussion focused simultaneously on theoretical critiques and grounded, ethnographic examples of biosecurity and human vulnerability. Participants’ expertise included the history and ideological underpinnings of biosecurity in arenas such as public health and military initiatives and also encompassed knowledge of food and water security, urban land tenure, health care access, and the dangers associated with tainted goods, kidney sales, and zoonoses that threaten human populations.

Several conclusions emerged from the SAR seminar. First, whereas the concept of biosecurity originates historically in animal husbandry and food safety measures, it has been reconfigured in the post-9/11 era as a newly crafted American framework of risk, and, as it radiates out from the United States, it instills a widespread sense of urgency on a global scale. Second, biosecurity is often framed in terms of personal responsibility—as evidenced in such anti-bioterrorist slogans as “See Something, Say Something,” featured in subways and buses in New York City.

Third, biosecurity measures emphasize resilience—against attacks, pandemics, and shortages—and the accompanying sense of urgency is imposed far beyond the borders of the United States. As a result, biosecurity is also about daily survival, often in the face of large-scale biosecurity measures orchestrated elsewhere. For instance, women in South Africa, with its soaring rates of HIV/AIDS infection, must acquire necessary treatment even when clinic supplies are sporadic, hospitals grossly understaffed, and when basic infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Chinese consumers need to discern safe from counterfeit, tainted, and potentially lethal goods in their search for infant formula or medicines. The urgent demand for organ transplants in one sector of the world affects the economic and medical survival of those living elsewhere who are willing to sell parts of themselves to those with the means to pay.

“We asked as well how pressures from local politicians, international authorities, development experts, and global corporations reconfigure the value of and access to water in Yemen, oil in Nigeria, land in Ghana, and military bases in Honduras. These on-the-ground concerns reflect disparities between daily securing basic needs and the overarching framework of biosecurity that overlooks such needs,” said co-chair Nancy Chen.

A fourth conclusion of the seminar is that biosecurity measures all too frequently generate new infrastructures of power. For instance, transplant patients in Pakistan rarely know or meet the “donors” from Bangladesh who have crossed international boundaries to sell their kidneys. And whereas US military bases proliferate worldwide, their presence is often unknown even to those who live or work nearby. In response, the seminar participants became especially interested in probing the significance of the invisibility of biosecurity decision making, policies, and practices.

Finally, given the historical, yet often forgotten, antecedents of contemporary biosecurity measures, an important conclusion of this seminar is that temporality matters. The team asked repeatedly, what of biosecurity past, present, and future? The specific ways that biosecurity has been refashioned in the twenty-first century shaped a joint effort to analyze key moments when earlier forms of security were practiced. Among the seminarians’ most striking findings was that particular sectors of the globe, especially Africa, emerge as favored “laboratories” for biosecurity measures. The history of public health, resource extraction, agricultural development, and the often blatant expendability of human lives in Africa prove especially instructive. What, then, are the consequences of securing life and certain futures when death is inevitable for many? This final issue proved to be an important anchor throughout the week-long discussions.

Nancy Chen, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz Emergency Food and Medicine: Insecurity, Biotechnology, and Survival
Lesley A. Sharp, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College Bio(in)security and Embodied Vulnerability in Experimental Transplant Science
Steven Caton Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University The Demon of Qat: Who is to Blame for Yemen's Water Insecurity and Why
Joseph Masco Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago Pre-empting Biosecurity
Monir Moniruzzaman Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University Bioviolence Against Kidney Sellers: The Scar of Biosecurity
Carolyn Rouse Professor, Department of Anthropology, Princeton University Narrative and Sacrifice: Ghana's Emergent Market-security Initiatives and Local Bioinsecurities
Glenn Davis Stone Professor, Department of Anthropology, Washington University Biosecurity in the Age of Genetic Engineering
Ida Susser Professor, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York Bio-insecurity and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa
David Vine Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, American University Living in the Most Violent Place in the World: Insecurity and the War on Drugs in Honduras
Michael Watts Professor, Department of Geography & Development Studies, University of California, Berkeley A Tale of Two Gulfs: Oil, Security, and the Regimes of Bare Life

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