Week 11 post: Anthropology and Bioethics

Sunny Wang

Professor Don Seeman

Religion 358

9 April 2023

Week 11 Blog Post

In “Moral Experience and Ethical Reflection: Can Ethnography reconcile them? A quandary for the new Bioethics,” Kleinman first discusses the problems of three -isms with bioethics research: ethnocentrism, medicocentrism, and psychocentrism. He then proposes the new bioethics that is “more inclusive of alternative approaches, seemingly more willing to employ a broader variety of perspectives, more empirical, and even experimental–in the sense of trying out, albeit gingerly, new methods of inquiry” (70). However, there is a dilemma in the efforts to achieve such a bioethics approach: how to reconcile the difference between the universal and the personal to eventually foster action. We can think in terms of a local network of relationships, work, and politics of a place to understand the particular/personal. And empirical research can provide essential knowledge of these local worlds for bioethics. He argues that “moral experience is about the local processes (collective, interpersonal, subjective) that realize (enact) values in ordinary living” and personal and moral experiences are intertwined to be a value with emotion (71). Ethical formulations that ignore the local moral conditions of marginalized groups render them irrelevant and utopian. However, since some local conditions are utterly unethical (such as genocide), how should we criticize such local conditions based on ethics– “unless ethics provides trans-local values that can criticize local practices from the outside” (73)? He calls this the quandary of bioethics. 

A classical approach to this quandary is arguing that the idea of human nature suggests that humans will universally bear the same moral sensibilities regardless of the context. In addition, “by naturalizing human experience, ethics can be predicated on a universal psychobiology, which can be objectively known” (74). The problem, however, is that there is no universal agreement on what human nature is. First, we lack the psychobiological data that help us understand human moral conditions. Second, claims made on evolutionary human values do not provide anything specific to solve what we face nowadays. A third approach to the quandary argues that no local world, despite how troubling the local practices may be, should be judged beyond standards of its own. Kleinman warns that this is a dangerous attempt to give up on the burden of responsibility for “providing translocal judgment on what is locally at stake” (76). 

Kleinman then analyzes how far the model of ethnography can address the dilemma mentioned before. He argues that ethnographers are placed in an uncomfortable position that pushes them to be self-reflexive and destabilizes stereotypes and cliches. Because ethnography requires practical action, although it may not directly provide a practical solution, it is a heuristic to think through the dilemma. Ethnographers recognize a tension between the moral process they come to understand in their fieldwork and the moral process they are used to in their world. Their awareness of this tension highlights a gap between the moral (local) and the ethical (universal). 

Kleinman also observes problems with ethnography. He notes that rather than self-reflexive comparative ethics, ethnographers often focus on epistemology. However, this should not discourage researchers from using ethnography as a method because ethnographic description begins with a respectful understanding of local cultures and morals. Ethnography offers a profound moral-emotional-professional autobiography. He then uses a number of examples to illustrate how ethnography can contribute to the work of bioethics. 

At last, Kleinman discusses the limitations of using ethnography to study bioethics: it requires much time, requires intensive professional training, can hardly claim objectivity, and so on. He suggests an ethnographic method to study bioethics at the end of the article. 

In “Blessing Unplanned Pregnancy: Religion and the Discourse of Women’s Agency in Public Health,” the researchers conduct an ethnographic study of African American at a homeless shelter. Although these women mostly became pregnant unintentionally or despite contraceptive measures and pregnancy was among their reasons for becoming homeless, they considered pregnancy a catalyst for positive change and a blessing. This is against the backdrop that planning and intentionality are the focal points in contemporary public health practice. This study reframes the conversation about the reproductive agency by paying attention to how vernacular religion (everyday religious discourses, practices, experiences) may disrupt or complicate the binary notion of intended/unintended pregnancy.

The article then goes on to explain the methodology and basic situation of the shelter they studied. Although the shelter claimed that they were neutral in religious inclination, they did offer optional religious sessions. The emphasis on personal responsibility and self-management was so prevalent that it outweighed any particular doctrinal influence.

Women studied in this research expressed ambivalence with respect to human control over reproduction. They worried that using reproductive technologies would not be forgiven by God. Residents of Naomi’s House often depicted pregnancy or motherhood as something that was largely outside their control. Nevertheless, they also highlighted the fact that motherhood presented an opportunity for them to begin anew, receive blessings, or overcome hardship. The women attributed their ability to transform their lives from one of constant struggle and disappointment to one of achievement and success to motherhood. The belief in blessings and being chosen reflects a form of religious expression that may not fit neatly into the categorization of “religious” or “secular” discourse. This belief is not typically linked to debates on contraception in American political and religious discourse but rather expresses the view that pregnancy is a gift or blessing that should not be too strictly controlled by human agency.

14 thoughts on “Week 11 post: Anthropology and Bioethics

  1. Hi Sunny, thank you for your blog post. It lays out each reading very carefully and in full, which helps to note similarities and differences. The way you’ve described Kleinman’s article is very interesting to me: I viewed it more as a discussion of the problems you’ve listed, but your descriptions make me feel more like the article almost acts as a critique of the current way ethnographers do research. Additionally, for Dr. Seeman’s article, I like that you brought up the aspect of control. Psychologically (from my understanding), there are external and internal locuses of control. Oftentimes, having an internal locus of control can be helpful in feeling in control of the situation: this means crediting yourself for things that happen (for example, I credit myself if I pass an exam). When we maintain an external locus of control, sometimes that can increase stress because everything is the world’s fault, not yours. This is not to say that an external locus is always bad. In fact, it appears like this article states the opposite–that having less human control over reproduction helped these women come to terms with their situation. It’s interesting to think about because it adds another layer of complexity to the situation and could potentially help us get a better idea of how these women are thinking.

  2. Great job here Sunny. You do a great job summarizing the two articles. You especially do a great job analyzing Kleinman’s main points. Subjectivity within morals and ethics is very important. The truth is, we need to make decisions for the benefit of all, but how can we do that as individuals, and how do we keep tat decision-making process human? Ethnography s a great start. But as you point out, ethnography falls short in many ways. And we need to be aware of those ways that it falls short.
    You do a great job highlighting this topic of the meaning of blessing as well. Blessing has a lot of different contexts that need to have attention paid to them. These women view their unintended pregnancies as blessings in ways that people who did not go through their circumstances would not understand. These women as you highlight refrain from putting any agency within their pregnancies, as they view it as divine.

  3. Hi Sunny, thanks so much for your analysis! I really appreciate your summarization of these two articles and how you laid them out. I really keyed in on Kleinman’s discussion of the limitations of ethnography in this particular context at the end of the article, since ethnography and its uses have been a topic we have touched on on several occasions in class. Its hard to see a way to be unbiased on issues like bioethics. Pretty much every bioethical issue we’ve touched on as a class (a class just focused on reproduction, which in fairness, is a seriously charged issue) has been a controversial one. The idea that ethnographic researchers are able to remain unbiased in researching issues like this is tough to take at face value, and represents a key reason why I think this research should be evaluated with a critical eye. I’m also interested in the contrast between a shelter claiming to be secular but also offering religious sessions. I honestly can’t tell if I consider that contradictory. I think a finer distinction might be possible if it was clear who was offering the sessions. Is it a shelter employee? If so, that would definitely lend itself more to the narrative that such counseling sessions make the clinic nonsecular. Thanks again for your thoughtful analysis!

  4. Hey Sunny! Wonderful summaries of the week’s readings–you succinctly underscored the main points in your own words with additional textual evidence, allowing me to digest them more clearly than from my own reading!

    I agree with Kleinman in the importance of intertwining our values and emotion, especially on a smaller scale so that change can be made. I think a fair comparison of this would be the individual choice of many environmentalists to “go zero waste” or to eat a vegan diet in order to be a small (yet inspirational) part of a large solution. However, this intertwining can become tricky when local ethics become unmanageable on their own, mirroring a dangerous laissez faire approach that snowballs out of control (i.e. as you mentioned, genocide).

    I enjoyed your summary of Dr. Seeman’s work on unplanned pregnancy. The perspectives of the women offered here came to me as a breath of fresh air after reading rather dense (and honestly often depressing) readings about the state of reproductive technology and a lack of agency around women. I felt inspired to see women moved to use their agency to acknowledge the complexity of their pregnancy but ultimately ease into an acceptance that allowed them to feel nearer to their own body and self.

  5. Sunny,
    Your summary of the readings was very beneficial to my understanding of them. You provide very good insight into the determination between personal and universal. You also chose which parts of the readings to explore well. I could see an argument that no ethnography is objective; our experiences and beliefs impact our perceptions. I like how you brought up that vernacular regions can influence how unplanned pregnancy is viewed. Growing up in the South, I have seen how unplanned pregnancy can be viewed as a blessing or a miracle, whereas non-religious communities might not view it that way. I think it was interesting that they didn’t want to think of reproduction as something that can be manipulated by humans. The term “unplanned pregnancy” would suggest that it can be planned. Overall, you provided a wonderful summary of our readings.

  6. Hi Sunny! Wonderful job on your reflection. I really enjoyed reading it and found it quite insightful. I thought what you said about ethnography was particularly interesting in the context of this class. I think, oftentimes, ethnography is seen as a gold standard research process, but it is important to point out its flaws in terms of subjectivity and how long and intensive the process of getting quality ethnographic research is. I do not necessarily think the lack of objectivity that exists within ethnographic studies necessarily diminishes its value, but I do think that it is a very contextually important aspect of ethnographic studies that must be strongly considered when analyzing this research. You did a really great job fleshing out the main ideas of the readings and putting them in conversation with each other. You have really given me a lot to reflect on before our next class. Thanks for your great blog post!

  7. Hi Sunny! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts this week. I appreciate how organized your response is and I think it definitely contributed to my overall understanding of the material. I especially like your discussion of individuality vs universality, because I think those topics are deeply related to our other discussions in class so far. When determining the legality surrounding reproductive technologies, policy makers must examine the issues at both of these levels – as we have discussed, creating laws based on outlier cases or special circumstances does not serve the overall population well. However, ignoring these unique situations entirely is also harmful, as it leaves room for continued harm. I love how these readings feed into each other; Kleinman presents a methodological framework which we can use when evaluating the other article. It remains a dilemma to determine the best way to include representation from all persons, both the standard and marginalized cases within reproductive technological issues. Thanks again, Sunny!

  8. I am interested in the subject of ethnographic limitations. You are receiving their version of the events by talking to a subject. It is a story told about them by them. This means that no matter how many interviews one conducts, they are getting a slightly biased version of the story. An anthropologist may get more information just by observing people. Ethnography also assumes that one person’s or one group’s experience applies to everyone in the same situation. It easy to make these kinds of assumptions, especially when interviewing something intimately, but the reality is that reproductive issues are incredibly personal and specific to the individual. Ethnography should be viewed as an intimate explication of one person’s experience but not necessarily the sum total of what this field has to offer. I don’t know what type of ethnographic representation would solve this, but I think it begins with understanding that anthropological accounts do not necessarily reflect everyone’s opinions.

  9. Hi Sunny. I really appreciated this discussion of the readings—as others have noted, it was very clear and well-organized. Also like others, your summary of Kleinman’s article illuminated for me how it lays out some of the limitations of ethnography—namely, that it is difficult to remain unbiased as an ethnographer, and also that there is always tension between specifics and generalizations (or as you put it, the moral/local or ethical/universal.) Our own experiences will inevitably make us less knowable to each other and make objectivity difficult. While I see limitations of ethnography, I think Seeman’s article illustrates one of its main strengths—the revelation of the particularities of situations and the sense of “surprise” that emerges from them. Even just the abstract emphasizes this—we think women want control and agency, but viewing pregnancy as a “blessing” may be empowering, too. The quotes in this ethnography (as well as ones we read earlier this semester) were the most enlightening of anything we’ve read overall. Ethnography is different from journalism, because it is mostly for its own sake. It’s different from fiction, too, because it pertains to real life. Its main strength seems to be in revealing the unexpected that can only emerge from very real and very specific human experiences.

  10. Hi Sunny, thank you for your post. The “quandary of bioethics” that you discuss in the first two paragraphs of your post reminded me of the state builders dilemma. The state builders dilemma is a concept that I learned in my War and Politics class this semester. Statebuilding is a process by which one state (i.e., the state builder) infringes upon the sovereignty of another state in order to remake its government. State builders sometimes claim that they engage in these types of operations to better the country or the region they are affecting, but the costs of state-building operations are high and a rational state is only willing to accept these costs if they are able to create circumstances that are favorable to them. This is the dilemma: the state builder needs to build a legitimate government (e.g. strong, popular, independent) in order to end its state-building operation, but it wants to build a state that shares its interest and values (e.g. weak, dependent country that is loyal to a foreign power). If the populace does not believe that the state is legitimate then the state is not legitimate. The dilemma is avoided in situations in which the populace views the foreign-imposed values and government as acceptable, but the dilemma is present when the populace of the occupied state rejects the values of the state builder. State building has led to major foreign policy successes (think of the rebuilding of Japan and Germany after World War II). Statebuilding has also created significant foreign policy failures (think of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan).

    Returning to bioethics, I think that the US government frequently faces this ethical quandary. Identifying which values and ethics are transnational and “natural,” and which ones are culturally determined is not just a problem for bioethics but also for politics!!

  11. Thank you for your response, Sunny. I liked how you summarized the ideas in Kleinman’s article about the potential limitations in ethnographic work. In many cases where fieldwork has been conducted, many of the moral and ethical principles used have been completely not in accordance with what was happening culturally in the area. In other words, individuals sometimes neglect the importance of understanding the relevant context of experiences lived by certain people, which makes up their morals and influences their decisions. Therefore it is important that, when ethnographic research is conducted, it must be context-specific, and must strive to understand the individual’s moral experiences. Ultimately, I believe that Kleinman argues that, when conducting ethnographic research individuals should look with more detail into moral and bioethical views in order to conduct more meaningful and congruent results that will help understand the ethical decisions the individual (or group) takes further. These concepts must be applied when looking at women’s agency and contingency in terms of reproductive technologies. The women’s views and rights should be advocated for, taking into consideration the context in which they come from, and their intended use or influence on decision-making.

  12. Hello Sunny, and thank you for your contribution this week! I found that it was very well written and did an excellent job of engaging the text at hand. I specifically wanted to point out the arguments that you made in your second paragraph, citing the necessity of a common anthropological device that is to ‘look over the shoulders’ of people in their local states of being before passing individual judgment based on one’s own understanding of the world. I think that this is where the issue of ‘no universal agreement on what human nature is’ comes in. This is also where the problematic history of the field of anthropology comes in – one that was built on the ethnocentrism, medicocentrism, and psychocentrism that we are still attempting to navigate away from. I feel that your acknowledgement of the issues surrounding ethnography did a great job of encapsulating Kleinman’s approach, and I feel that it would be interesting to expand upon this by exploring for any potential alternatives that might be able to accomplish the same goal. Though none have been successful or made it to main stream academia, it would be fascinating to explore what could happen in a ‘utopian’ situation. With regard to your discussion on motherhood towards the end of your response, I think that you did a good job summarizing the main issues that women in this research face and the complexity of kinship, culture, and religion that drives personal attitudes.

  13. Hi Sunny, thank you for sharing your blog with us. You did a an excellent job summarizing both Kleinman and Seeman et. al.’s articles. I would have loved to see you go beyond recapping the article, expand on some of their points, and infuse them with your own thoughts and ideas. In your post, you say, “ethnographic description begins with a respectful understanding of local cultures and morals.” I think your use of “respect” is so key to unlocking something fundamental about ethnogrraphy. I don’t believe ethnographers can reach their full potential unless they come from a place of respect, rather than judgement. They do not have to agree with the cultures they may be learning about, but it is important to treat them with respect. I wonder how ethnographies look different when ethnographers are unable to operate with such respect? Are they biased? Incomplete? Do they tell a different story? Likely, all of the above.

  14. Hi Sunny, sorry for the late response, but you did a great job summarizing what I thought was a very difficult article from Kleinman as well a great article from Dr. Seeman. I remember having issues with ethnographies surrounding the topic of ethnocentrism from the first time I read one in one of my earlier anthropology classes. “Studying” another culture always seemed like it came from a place of othering them, and it was interesting to hear a scholar of anthropology openly critique the practice for the first time. However, I think that, like Kleinman states, the practice can be approached with a sense of respect for the outlined culture. Unfortunately, though, I think this respect is few and far between, especially in earlier ethnographic texts. Dr. Seeman’s article, in my opinion, is a great job of an ethnographic study that respects the population being outlined. In particular, it gives light to the voices of the women in the shelter instead of simply documenting them and explaining their situation for them. Particularly, I am glad they are not viewed disapprovingly by Seeman or the other anthropologists, and their positive outlook on their pregnancies shines through, even when their situations do not seem the most favorable.

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