Accepted paper:

'Valued' matter: antigen-matching, translation and the politics of difference in organ transplantation


Ciara Kierans (University of Liverpool)

Paper short abstract:

The body-in-transplantation is an important site for the production of cultural difference, a site where bodily ‘matter’ is classified and assigned value. Focusing on blood and antigen matching, this paper shows that this practice is not simply technical but has moral and political ramifications.

Paper long abstract:

Strategies employed in the procurement and allocation of cadaveric organs show the body-in-transplantation to be an important site for the production of cultural difference - a point where bodily 'matter' is classified and then differentially valued. The technical practice of blood and HLA (human leukocyte antigen) matching between organ donors and recipients, a practice dependent on the organisation and classification of such bodily matter by population (race and ethnic) difference, is one important locus of differential valuation within a context that links developments in the new genetics to the increasing problems of organ procurement, organ allocation and healthcare rationing. However, with attention focused outwards on the wider social and institutional processes that connect suppliers and receivers of organs, the scientific and technical practices upon which this complex relationship depends can slip from view. This paper opens up this territory to show that matching blood and HLAs is not simply technical, but also moral and political, a distinct way of mapping of biology onto culture. It asks, in what ways do the processes of matching simultaneously function as forms of biopolitical practice and 'engines' for the production of difference?; how do blood groups and HLAs function as cultural objects?; and, in what ways are they taken up and serve to link the various scientific, clinical and social arenas that constitute the domain of transplant medicine? The classificatory problems underpinning these questions not only generate issues of ontological and epistemological significance but have real-life effects on those subject to its interventions.

panel P20
New immortalities: anthropological reflections on the procurement, transformation and use of human cadaveric tissue