A review of The Sociocultural Aspects of Assisted Reproduction in Mexico by Sandra P. González-Santos.
Reproduction is just as political a matter as Marx made production. This much we learned from the feminist anthropology of the 1970s and 1980s, which used reproduction as an avenue into thinking about the problems of biological function and cultural practice (see particularly Olivia Harris and Kate Young, “Engendered Structures: Some Problems in the Analysis of Reproduction” in Joel Kahn and Joseph Llobera, eds., Anthropology of Pre-Capitalist Societies. London: Macmillan, 1981; Marilyn Strathern, “No Nature, No Culture: The Hagen Case” in Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, eds., Nature, Culture and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). These problems at the center of González-Santos’s excellent study on Assisted Reproduction (or AR). González-Santos uses the tools of Science and Technology Studies to follow a network of actors entangled in Mexican medical institutions, patient’s groups, conferences, media, and their own bodies as they seek medical help to conceive children. Throughout, González-Santos provides strong historical work on Mexican birth control policies and a thoughtful tour of the significance of fertility. There are also supplementary lists in the appendix on assisted reproductive technologies and Mexican policies that will be of interest to readers.
Scientific research and innovation have been a consistent national priority and public fascination for much of Mexico’s history as an independent state. In González-Santos’s capable hands, this research renders the complex and indisputably Mexican phenomena of AR. It addresses both public and private AR services, applying multi-sited ethnographic methodology to study social practices around AR broadly conceived, attending to the practices of clinical service providers as well as their male and female AR users and considering how AR is represented in popular media and legal fora.
This study represents four years of careful work on the interactions that take place in clinics, conferences, public spaces, and web forums, following with González-Santos calls the users’ “pilgrimage.” This multi-sited approach is intense but necessary to the topic at hand, as she points out: “only looking at what happens in the public spaces (i.e., clinics, conferences and support group activities), or at what happens in the laboratories, is actually only looking at part of the journey” (p. 129). González-Santos’s work shows the whole journey, and sheds light on what she calls the “conditions of possibility for AR” (p. 17) in Mexico. That is, she focuses on the knowledge work that AR experts do, but also the ways in which the technology is taken up by Mexican users and in Mexican popular culture.
González-Santos introduces the dissertation by demonstrating how the topic of AR seized her interest and situating her work within biomedical innovation and attendant issues of both globalization and risk and other work on AR in the social sciences. She provides an excellent argument for her focus on the experience of users, service providers, to attention to law and media, and to research in “physical” ethnographic settings as well as online forums, and in subsequent chapters the efficacy of her methodology is more than proven. The introduction to the dissertation provides a strong review of the disciplinary concerns of Science and Technology Studies. It also covers relatively unknown dissertations written on AR that readers might not yet be aware of.
The second chapter, her methodological section, outlines her long term and multi-sited ethnographic approach. In the third chapter, González-Santos tackles AR and its relationship to contraception, another mode of technical intervention into reproduction. She argues that family planning in the twentieth century has been essential for producing the subjects and social worlds in which AR technology has flourished. This has the benefit of taking AR on as a Mexican phenomenon without disregarding its international aspects.
In the fourth chapter, she goes on to describe expert service providers, considering the disciplines and practices which they represent and their biomedical conceptions of infertility and AR in Mexico. Doing so, she expands potential sites for research and empowers researchers of expertise and Science and Technology Studies scholars and illustrates the possibilities of multi-sited research for capturing the different kinds of work that informants may do. The fifth chapter addresses the users, whom González-Santos describes in context of their journey into, through, and eventually out of the world of AR. The dissertation addresses how both men and women make sense of infertility and reproduction, and the ways in which AR use actually maps onto user biographies. The sixth chapter pertains to a crucial finding: the ways that users relate to each other and rely on each other for support and information outside of the clinic.
In her conclusion, González-Santos describes the contribution of this research: “its strength lies on that it offers a map of AR in Mexico, indicating a set of landmarks and main actors” (p. 169). Four years of fieldwork has allowed her to render a space that few others have before her. The length and detail of her research is impressive, and will be useful to clinicians and social scientists alike. The methodology of this study is innovative in both the broad array of the actors in AR that she attends to and the locations at which she has determined it necessary to best observe their practices. This study is robust to say the very least. It deals carefully with the webs of social meaning that inform AR, and deal with them in those places that they really exist. We — that is, social scientists of all sorts — are still learning to do research in the spaces that contemporary social interactions take place in, be at events or online (see Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce and T.L. Taylor, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). Sandra González-Santos’s work is a deft execution.
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine
Media, policy documents
Interviews and participant observation with clinicians and staff
Interviews and participant observation with users of Assisted Reproduction in private and public clinics in Mexico
University of Sussex. 2011. 197 pp. Primary Advisors: Adam Hedgecoe and Gillian Bendelow.
Image: Infertility clinic billboard advertisement (trans. “Infertility? We have the solution.”). Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico City, circa 2007. Photograph by author (from the passenger seat).