Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Your Siblings (and parents and children and...), Your Self; or a little "informed" consent goes a long, long way


I'm catching up on some older issues of Science, and I found this article:
Agency Nixes deCODE's New Data-Mining Plan

There's a lot in this interesting piece about how Iceland's Data Protection Authority is seeking to protect the privacy interests of citizens of Iceland and how deCode Corporation is arguing that the agency is over-reaching.

What struck me as worthy of note is that a little "informed" consent goes a long, long way. Put bluntly, if your close relative agrees to participate in a study involving genetics and it is known that you are a close relative, then your close relative has agreed to disclose information about your DNA.  The company would like to "impute genotypes for ... living and dead relatives."  The company documents refer to "in silico genotypes," that are determined not on the basis of tissue samples, but rather via computational means (using silicon chips).

Don't get me wrong: deCode seeks to improve the human condition (and, appropriately, their bottom line) by doing basic and applied science that leads to improved outcomes for human diseases that have a genetic component.  For example, deCode recently presented results of Alzheimer's research at a conference:
Jonsson and his team of researchers scoured the nursing home database in Iceland. "We identified several coding variants in the Amyloid Precursor Protein. We imputed these variants into the genomes of patients with Alzheimer's disease and control participants and then tested [them] for an association with Alzheimer's disease," he reported.
"To our knowledge, A673T represents the first example of a sequence variant conferring strong protection against Alzheimer's disease," Jonsson said. The researchers estimated that the mutation results in an approximately 40% reduction in the formation of amyloidogenic peptides in vitro (Medpage article).
I am glad that deCode is trying to find a cure for Alzheimers!

Further, I am not raising a critical point about control of information flows just because DNA and computers are involved. Some imputations about genetic factors can be made the old fashioned way, with simple observations of hereditable traits.

And here is a related point: It's not just research that involves DNA that has a potential effect on uninformed, unconsenting people closely connected to informed, consenting subjects.  Consider the informed consent of social science research.  To what extent do the responses of our subjects incidentally disclose information about others who were never asked if they wanted to be part of our investigations?

Our approach to protecting human subjects through the mechanism of the informed consent assumes that an autonomous individual is the subject.  Yet individuals are embodied and embodiment entails hereditable material (and other information) that is shared.  I cannot be fully individual because my body comprises, in part, information (that hereditable material) that I share with close relatives.  I cannot be fully autonomous when my close relatives are able to choose what to do with information about their bodies, because their disclosures necessarily disclose probable information about me. (And vice versa.)

In short, the autonomous individual is a myth, and social institutions and policies that depend on that myth are problematic.

(Insert citations to the feminist literature on this here.)


Monday, May 6, 2013

Aesthetic hegemony?

I am not completely certain that this site is legitimate, and certainly it is sensationalist, but it seems  odd to me that the aesthetic hegemony of the idealized Western woman still maintains its hold.  According to an article on a website, a Japanese woman has undergone multiple cosmetic procedures to look like a French doll.


Monday, February 25, 2013

The body thing that Global Political Economy texts don't include

O'Brien and Williams, in their truly excellent textbook, Global Political Economy (which I am teaching this semester), identify the key changes of the 20th century that have transformed the global political economy.  These are:

  • the World Wars and the inter-war "economic turbulence,"
  • the dominance of the US and the West,
  • decolonization and "the struggle for development," 
  • the liberalization of domestic and global markets (what I would call the Reagan-Thatcher revolution),
  • "the growth of international organizations in governing global affairs" (what I would refer to as the expansion of regimes)
  • "a revolution in information technologies and its impact upon social, political economic and military organization."
As I reviewed this material for today's class, it occurred to me that another major revolutionary change of the 20th century was not mentioned here and is not mentioned in any text that I know of:

  • antibiotics, vaccines, and other advances in medical science that change humans' relation to the natural world.
(And not necessarily always for the better.)  

And yet one more, as yesterday's the article by Michael Moss in yesterday's New York Times magazine section reminds me:
  • the creation of mass produced food, which acts on our bodies in ways that are becoming increasingly apparent.
I have not worked this out yet.  The inkling of an answer that I have has to do with the fact that there can be no global political economy without human bodies (workers, consumers, etc.), and the condition the human bodies are in will of necessity be deeply imbricated with the GPE.  I'll toss it out as a question to the undergrads and see what they think.  (It's a quiet class.)

Anyone have any ideas?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Visuality, Corporeality, Grievablity, and Violence

A student in my graduate seminar, Geoff Levin, wrote a great paper in which he turned Butler's notion of grievability upside down and showed how social processes making someone or some group grievable at a distance (across borders) can lead (and has led) to violence rather than peace that Butler expects.

Butler argues that since Iraqi and Afghani lives are not grievable for Americans, we Americans do not resist waging war on them.  Further, she suggests that if they did become grievable for us, we would question and (one hopes) stop the use of violence.  (Did I get that right?)

Geoff argues that in the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the fact that Palestinians are grievable to other Arabs and to other Moslems has led to violence and a continuation of violence.  Making Palestinians grievable is yoked historically to the creation of transnational Arab and Moslem identities.  The conflict is fueled by the fact that to Arabs and Moslems outside the narrow confines of Israel and Palestine one group of Semites (Palestinians) is grievable and another (Jews) is not.  He does not go there, but it seems to me that the normative implication of his research is not that the grievability of Palestinians is bad but rather that Palestinians and Jews must be grievable to each other and to their transnational allies for peace to be possible.

So what flips the switch?  Why are some people grievable and others not?

First the obvious: enemies are generally not grievable.  It is no surprise that Israelis & Jews are not grievable in the Arab world; it is no surprise that Palestinians and other Arabs are not grievable in Israel.  Once an Other takes on the identity of a Schmittian enemy, there is no grief.  (Note that people in Turkey -- not Arabs and therefore not, at least initially, enemies -- are grievable to Israelis, as evidenced by rescue teams sent by Israel when Turkey suffered an earthquake.)

But sometimes, estwhile enemies do become grievable.  How?  One of my mentors, the late Edward E. Azar, and other scholar-practitioners like social psychologist Herbert Kelman used "contact groups" to make influential representatives of groups that are enemies to each other come to have empathy for each other.  Empathy and grievability, I think, are closely related (if not the same).  Contact groups bring people together, their physical presence with each other makes them real in ways that words on page do not.  When confronted with each other's humanity (with each other's Face, in Levinas' terms), the possibility of empathy emerges.

Yet pictures also may make the ungrievable grievable and restore the enemy population's humanity.   I am reminded of Kim Phuc, "the girl in the picture," captured on film fleeing naked from a napalm strike on her Vietnamese village.  Her corporeality, made visual through the picture, restored her humanity and by extension the humanity of the North Vietnamese.

My interest in this is the connection between materiality (corporeality in this case) and information.  In both the face-to-face contact groups and the image, content ("I am human; you are human; if you were me right now you would feel pain.") flows from a source (Kim via the photographer's photo; the influential participants in the contact group) to recipients (those seeing the photo; the "enemy" members of the contact group).

I'm offering no conclusion.  Just an observation.  Back to grading.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New Life After Death?

Should one's death end one's ability to procreate?  Should others be allowed to make that decision for you?

New life after death?