The busy body

April 28, 1995

Gail Vines meets Emily Martin, one of America's most original anthropologists. Why, all of a sudden, is "the body" such a hot topic in academic circles? Emily Martin, professor of anthropology at Princeton University, suspects that it is far more than a matter of intellectual fashion. Academic attention becomes focused on phenomena precisely when they are on the way out, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once claimed, and Martin agrees. We are seeing "the end of one kind of body and the beginning of another kind of body", she argues. "We are undergoing fundamental changes in how our bodies are organised and experienced."

Martin's latest book, Flexible Bodies tracks "immunity in American culture from the days of polio to the age of Aids" and consolidates her reputation as one of the United States' most original social anthropologists. It is excellent, groundbreaking work, says Marilyn Strathern, professor of social anthropology at Cambridge University. It explores "the way ideas breed, the way they spread through a culture like forest fires."

To understand what "the immune system" means today, Martin interviewed immunologists and worked alongside them in their laboratories, accompanied clinicians on their ward rounds and worked as a "buddy" to people with Aids. She talked to "ordinary" people about their immune systems, and asked them what they thought of scientific images - electron micrograph pictures of killer T-cells and macrophages. She even put on mountaineering gear and jumped off 40-foot poles - as required by an Outward-Bound-type corporate training scheme - for in contemporary managerial philosophies she finds immune system metaphors. Everywhere, talk is of the need to be "flexible"; our minds, our bodies, our immune systems must be adaptive, open to change, primed for competition in an unpredictable world.

"When I described my methodology - just the different sites that I was working in - to one of my friends who works in the social studies of science, she said: 'What's the matter with you, don't you know how to stay put? - meaning that I should go into the lab and stay there. There I would find out all I needed to know about science." But Martin was not convinced. "By not staying in the lab I wanted to broaden the definition of what science is, and to broaden the range of factors that might be thought to bear on what is done in scientific work."

Even those sociologists of science who break down the walls between the laboratory and society focus exclusively on the movements of objects and concepts out of the laboratory and their impact on the rest of society, Martin argues. In such theorising, "the only things that enter the laboratory come from other laboratories or other sectors of the scientific world. There is nothing cycling back into the laboratory from the street or from popular magazines or movies, certainly not from non-experts in any way, shape or form. In contrast, I am trying to show ways in which the flow of things out is accompanied by a flow of things back in."

She began to try to chart this phenomenon ten years ago, setting aside her anthropological specialism in China to study her own culture. "There was a lot of puzzlement about why someone should change from a foreign area to working on the US," Martin says. "I always wanted to study the US, I don't know why, it just always seemed to me fascinating." Working in Taiwan and then China, Martin was persistently questioned about life in the States. One of the things Chinese people asked over and again was why we put our aged parents in institutions, "which was for them horrifying behaviour fit only for dogs. I realised I really couldn't give good answers. I didn't really know enough about what made my culture tick to explain."

It was when Martin became pregnant with her first child that she hit on a way of doing fieldwork "on something that I was actually experiencing in my own home culture". The result was an innovative exploration of cultural ideas about menstruation, pregnancy and menopause published in 1987 as The Woman in the Body. Meanwhile, other anthropologists in America, notably Paul Rabinow and Rayna Rapp, had also switched from foreign fieldwork to cultural research in the US. "All of a sudden there was company - people you could talk to about the particular problems of doing field work here, in one's own culture."

One of the worst problems, Martin says, is how to pick a topic. "All the traditional questions don't really apply; at least, it's not clear how they apply. And the units you might choose to study - communities or occupational groups - just aren't enough to get at the sort of things that are going on."

Another problem is how to behave as an anthropologist on your home ground. "Usually as an anthropological fieldworker you are supposed to be a co-participant/observer. In an agricultural society, it would have been considered perfectly acceptable to go and participate in the planting or harvesting of the crop while chatting with people or listening to their conversation. But there were no models for how to study illnesses that I don't have any direct experience of, or how to translate the experience of working as an Aids volunteer into something that would be acceptable as anthropology - most medical anthropology doesn't involve any actual hands-on grappling with ill people."

As she worked on Flexible Bodies, Martin puzzled over how to write about her experiences. "The book kept crossing over into other genres. I didn't want it to be a memoir, I didn't want it to be about me, but somehow I wanted to have the things I had learned through doing that kind of work come out. It was a struggle."

The result is a compelling read. Flexible Bodies documents, in a lively and personal way, the eerie links between the business philosophy of "flexible accumulation" - now said to be the hallmark of capitalism in the 1990s - and the way Americans in the late 20th century think about their bodies. Martin illustrates the ways in which contemporary American culture places a premium on agile responsiveness - on adroit, supple, nimble, flexible, innovative bodies poised to meet any conceivable challenge. Just as corporations seek to teach workers to be open to unexpected challenges and risk-taking, so responsible citizens train their bodies, tone their muscles, stretch their physiques; now they even seek to "educate" and "nourish" their immune systems through diet, exercise and avoidance of "stress". It is no wonder everyone from journalists and biomedical researchers to aerobics teachers and acupuncturists all talk about the "immune system" these days.

But what exactly are these connections between political, social and economic change and our ideas about ourselves? "My personal feeling is that we need to get more complex imagery around the question of causality, rather than looking for things that are essentially causal arrows. There are different kinds of images that might be more fruitful for working with what is happening today. For instance, there's the image of an archipelago. Deep down at the bottom of the sea you would have everything that is, and poking up through the sea you have islands - who knows how they come up or when they come up or why they come up. The analogy to my work would be that I hop around from island to island, from science lab to corporate training grounds to neighbourhoods, and I see things that are similar; yet the connection between one island and another is not obvious, it's discontinuous. Such an image allows you to think about things being part of the same whole setting but not mechanically linked. I think we need to explore other models of causality than ones which come straight out of Marxism or structuralism because the phenomena today are not mechanical in their nature."

Martin's recent work has a darker side: it charts the emergence of a new vocabulary with which to justify social inequalities. Martin sees disturbing parallels between the cultural representations of people who fall by the way in the world of work - through unemployment, "deskilling" or lack of training - and those who fall ill as a result of "inferior'' immune responses, leading to Aids, cancer or a host of other diseases. She fears the rise of a new form of social Darwinism in line with contemporary business practices that put a premium on "total quality management''.

"This is what I am hoping to work more on now. I have a sense that the comfortable terms of analysis of social hierarchy that we're used to, based on class, race and gender, have been picked up and redeployed by corporate image makers in ways that have changed the whole setting in which we are attempting to understand social hierarchy." For example, she says, the stress on "multiculturalism" or "diversity" may mean many different things in many different contexts. "But in the corporate realm in the US these concepts are being used in very particular ways to change the make-up of the workforce at the top, especially in managerial realms. The desirable management team is no longer all white and male, quite the reverse. For companies that are trying to maintain their place in intense global competition, the desirable management team is heterogeneous by ethnicity or race and gender and age. The implications of that are not clear, and some people would say, it's just windowdressing. But it could be that the nature of the desirable corporate organisation really is changing, connected to the fact that they are all multinational corporations now, operating in many different parts of the world. Their fate as a corporation depends on their ability to operate smoothly and effectively and knowledgeably in relation to culture and language - all these wonderful anthropological concepts are now part of the corporate dictionary, for very concrete material reasons. I want to understand more about how the whole landscape, in which social hierarchy based on race, class and gender exists and has been shifting."

Martin perceives two recent developments that bear on these issues. "One is the increasing reliance on the biological features of a person to determine their worth as epitomised by genetic descriptions of people. People get to be thought of as having 'good' genes and 'bad' genes, as if someone can be reduced to these fundamental biological particles that they are born with and can do anything about. It is very deterministic, which is bothersome for obvious reasons.

"But the other trend almost goes in the opposite direction, and that is this incredible emphasis in the US on training and education and the ability of a person to change and grow. There is continuous talk, in schools and universities and in government and corporations, about the importance of education and training. Similarly, the emphasis of New Age and other kinds of alternative health movements is also on how you can train yourself to become a 'higher order' being. This all seems to me to be highly problematic, partly because the resources are not at all freely available. It is an extension of the old story that if you just try hard enough you will succeed, but now you must try hard in all these other layers of existence from the physical make-up of the body, the mind and the immune system, and to whether or not you get sick. I want to know more about how people can be categorised by the kinds of training they're investing in. It might go along with or counteract this other more biological determinist trend."

Martin had an unusual childhood. Born in Alabama, she grew up on the east coast in Pennsylvania and spent most summers with her paternal grandparents who were Mennonite farmers living in a traditional community.

Her maternal grandparents were equally intriguing. Her grandfather was coach to Auburn, a famous US football team, while her grandmother worked as a photographer's assistant in Birmingham, Alabama, in the days when women did not do that kind of thing. She got her own TV cookery show in the 1950s called the Magic Kitchen.

Martin's immediate family was "less interesting'' and more problematic. Her brother died of polio at the age of two when she was seven; three years later, her sister was born. Unusually in the US, she was sent to boarding school, which proved something of a relief. "I think anthropology appealed to me because it allowed me to be half in, half out. You're there but you're not quite there, you always have an escape and you have a licence to observe - you're supposed to be observant and figure things out. In my family the dynamics were so complex and frightening and disturbing, I adopted the stance of being on the edge of a group and constantly trying to figure out what it was doing. I'm sure that was what made me leap at anthropology."

Martin has two daughters, aged 20 and 12, and is married to a biophysicist. Her recent move to Princeton, after 20 years at Johns Hopkins university, gives her a new opportunity. Princeton produced some of the pioneers of modern personnel management. "I had the idea it would be fun to look into the history of some of these management ideas," she says.

She is blessed with an openness and enthusiasm all too rare in academia. Where did she get her guts and drive? "If I had to say who influenced me most, it would be my grandmother and her TV show. I got this picture of this woman who was just fantastically competent doing these amazing things. I'm sure it was my grandmother who was the most important influence on me, and her name was Emily Martin."

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