Collective Biologies: Healing Social Ills Through Sexual Health Research in Mexico
This is a book about how people in a Mexican city destabilized by pre-pandemic economic and narcoviolence crises used a seemingly individual act—participating in medical research—to help others. They hoped to help by supporting science in the abstract, disinterested way imagined by Western medical ethics boards. Yet, they also hoped men would directly benefit from the medical testing they received, and that those benefits would in turn concretely enhance the embodied wellbeing of specific groups of others. The medical research participants I worked with understood themselves to be members of groups at different scales, from their families to the Mexican populace, whose collective, embodied futures were determined by all members’ actions.
Here I call these bodies “collective biologies.” My goal in doing that is to offer a way to theorize the non-individual and embodied consequences of understanding oneself as part of a physically and socially interrelated group. It is obvious, though important, to note that everyone and everything is interrelated in a general sense. In this book, I offer a way to theorize a particular kind of interrelationship. I analyze the ways that people’s experiences of belonging in culturally recognizable groups, like couples and congregations, shape members’ daily life actions and in turn influence collective wellbeing. I investigate how people’s beliefs about the boundaries and contours of their own relationships with specific sets of others have embodied consequences for those others.
For the research participants I worked with, their membership in these bio-social collectives were unremarkable, often implicit truths fundamental to daily life action. Theorizing them explicitly is my way of mapping the collective consequences of one ethnographic example of medical research. Further, it is an effort to provide a model for identifying how cultural ideologies of interrelatedness become embodied on greater-than-individual levels in other cases.
It’s no accident that I felt called to try and understand this phenomenon while experiencing new forms of collective biology in my own life. In what could be considered intensive participant observation in embodied relatedness, I birthed two children between doing the fieldwork for this book and completing the final manuscript. These new beings depend on me and my husband to meet their needs, and to engage in the joyful and exhausting social interactions that make us all persons in cultures. I knew that kids need care. I naïvely did not realize how extensive the embodied consequences of providing it would be, from the surgical scar on my wrist reflecting the repetitive strain of child-care, to the vastly different calculation of the consequences of my own risk-taking that now shapes every new move I make. As members of a nuclear family in a society where that unit is framed as the main locus of care, what happens in one of our bodies influences quite concretely what happens in the other three’s bodies.
This became painfully clear when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Our nuclear family became a bubble, and our interdependence, shared vulnerabilities, and the varying porosities of our collective bodily and social boundaries became the main driver of every action we took. I had written about Mexican medical research participants trying to care for collectives amid crisis. Now, I was not only consciously experiencing the state of “living for others” that people had told me about in our interviews through new parenthood, but also through my hopes that my own actions would protect the collectives to which I belonged from the harms of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the research participants I interviewed in Mexico, I hoped to be able to use my individual actions to effect change in several collectives, at multiple scales: to protect my family, but also to contribute to the wellbeing of larger collectives like my university community (by making changes such as teaching online).
Yet being American during the pandemic, I have also experienced a cultural form that is opposite to my own hopes and those voiced by Mexican research participants: the refusal of collectivity. I live in Iowa, a midwestern US state whose government still will not mandate masks despite recently topping the global charts for COVID-19 positivity rates. Rejecting collectivities doesn’t actually make the individualist fantasies fundamental to Anglo American culture true or seal our bodies off from one another. We’re all still interrelated, and your refusal to wear a mask can still sicken me, and my children, and their daycare teachers… But that refusal does preclude the kinds of care we can achieve when we understand ourselves to be members of specific groups affected by other group members’ actions and bodies, and live accordingly.