Accepted Paper:

Ontologies within international AIDS vaccine studies: community engagement and 'democratic' medical research in Kenya  


Salla Sariola (University of Helsinki)

Paper short abstract:

Using a New Materialist framework to analyse ethnographic fieldwork in an AIDS vaccine trial in Kenya, this paper explores the multiple ontologies manifested in the study and its community engagement.

Paper long abstract:

Community Engagement is an increasingly common requirement in 'ethical and socially relevant' international medical research. By pushing for accountability, and redefining expertise and ownership, this normative mandate, iterated by various medical charities and international funding bodies, to involve of publics in design, knowledge production, and science policy, is deemed to democratise these processes.

Based on three months of ethnographic fieldwork in an AIDS vaccine trial conducted on high risk populations (sex working men and women) in Kenya in 2014, this paper explores the different ontologies manifested in the trial and its community engagement. While both homosexuality and sex work are criminal and illegal, expectations and understandings of medical researchers, trial participants, LGTBIQ activists, and Christian social workers who were in charge of community engagement varied. These expectations were based on material realities concerning the potential for HIV infection during trial, but also included political agendas of addressing the human right to sexual expression. Departing from the notion of epistemology, this paper employs a New Materialist reading (Braidotti 2013; Barad 2007) that enables an analysis where 'biological' and 'social' worlds are inter-related and affect one another. From this perspective, how did the various ontologies differ and overlap? What did the various groups expect from the study? What do the relationships between the groups tell us about the possibility of democratising research with community engagement in health research on the on hand, and equalising different ontologies within anthropological enquiry, on the other?

Panel P007
'Grounding': when multiple ontologies meet material facts