In Vitro Anthropos

New Conception Models for a Recursive Anthropology?

in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology
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Drawing on fieldwork in U.K. stem cell labs, where early human development is modelled in vitro using cell culture systems, and cultured cell lines are used to make new diagnostic tools, this article explores a new meaning for the phrase 'conception model'. In the London labs where the author has conducted fieldwork since the 1990s are many examples of how human reproductive cells are being used to manufacture and 'road test' new diagnostic tools. This article explores the recursion involved in modelling early development 'in man' (as opposed to mouse, axolotl or sea urchin), and develops anthropological analyses of living human cell systems grown in Petri dishes that are aimed at illuminating the causes of human pathology. It is argued that several different levels of recursive modelling occur via 'in vitro anthropos', and that these cellular models introduce a useful perspective on the debate over 'reflexive' anthropology, and the more recent turn to a 'recursive' anthropology. However, different kinds of difference are at stake in these two projects. Using cell culture modelling practices, and the 'conception model' offered by dish life as an analytic vantage point, the article offers a 'looped' view to illustrate what the 'recursive turn' might look like, or reveal, as an ethnographic project. In contrast to the 'loopy' view of much reflexive anthropology, fieldwork through the looking glass, including the explicit turn to a recursive anthropology, is argued to be both an empirically robust and a conceptually creative practice.

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