Blood Work

Life and Laboratories in Penang

Blood Work

The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures

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Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 23 illustrations Published: August 2019

Author: Janet Carsten

Contributor: Thomas Gibson

Anthropology, Asian Studies > Southeast Asia, Medicine and Health > Global Health

What is blood? How can we account for its enormous range of meanings and its extraordinary symbolic power? In Blood Work Janet Carsten traces the multiple meanings of blood as it moves from donors to labs, hospitals, and patients in Penang, Malaysia. She tells the stories of blood donors, their varied motivations, and the paperwork, payment, and other bureaucratic processes involved in blood donation, tracking the interpersonal relations between lab staff and revealing how their work with blood reflects the social, cultural, and political dynamics of modern Malaysia. Carsten follows hospital workers into factories and community halls on blood drives and brings readers into the operating theater as a machine circulates a bypass patient's blood. Throughout, she foregrounds blood's symbolic power, uncovering the processes that make the hospital, the blood bank, the lab, and science itself work. In this way, blood becomes a privileged lens for understanding the entanglements of modern life.


“As Janet Carsten shows, blood is a thick moral substance: it can be bagged and tagged, but its powerful associations with vitality, connection, personhood, and life are not easily shed. Strikingly original, beautifully and often poetically written, Blood Work not only makes an important set of contributions to science and technology studies, anthropology, and Southeast Asian studies; it takes the long-standing themes in Carsten's career to a new level of conceptual innovation.” — Sarah Franklin, author of Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship

Blood Work, based on fieldwork in hospital labs and surgeries, blood banks, and blood drives in Penang over ten years (2005–2015), draws on a deep well of insights springing from Janet Carsten’s innovative research on kinship, marriage, and migration in rural Malaysia in the 1980s. One of the most valuable contributions of Carsten’s distinctive sensitivity to the particulars of living and dying in this longtime global crossroads, combined with her keen comparative perspective, is her elucidation of the paradoxical capacity of blood everywhere to unite and divide simultaneously.” — Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of Michigan

“Through a rich ethnographic portrait of medical labs and blood banks at hospitals in Penang, Malaysia, Janet Carsten successfully meets Blood Work’s twofold aim: to offer a fresh perspective on social and cultural lives in a modern Malay city and to explore the general nature of blood and its capacity for figurative elaboration. She reveals that, on the one hand, ethnic, religious, and kinship ties permeate the seemingly isolated techno-scientific environment of the labs in Penang, while on the other, it is the quality of animation that lies at the heart of blood’s aptness for symbolization and capacity for naturalization.” — Jaehwan Hyun, Journal of Asian Studies

“With Blood Work, Carsten joins an important and expanding group of scholars extending work in the anthropology of science beyond the Western settings typically associated with what Donna Haraway identified as technoscience. Blood Work is distinctive even within this group in that Carsten’s focus on technoscience builds on deep familiarity with Malaysia rooted in her prior long-term ethnographic engagement in the country. She thus brings substantial nuance to her analysis, repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to the tensions between assumptions about the universality of medical technologies and the distinctively Malaysian dimensions of the ways such technologies are taken up in the laboratories in which she works.” — Karen-Sue Taussig, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

Blood Work is a superbly written, thickly ethnographic exploration of those spaces in the multi-ethnic Malaysian state where human blood is collected, tested, processed and used…. One of Carsten’s major contributions, in my view, to the recent surge in anthropological literature on blood and blood economies lies in her insistence on collapsing the imagined dichotomy between the symbolic potential of blood and its material properties and uses, addressing both of these qualities in equal measure, while heeding to their ongoing effect on one another.” — Ben Belek, Cambridge Journal of Anthropology

“Carsten faithfully focuses on what people think, talk and do about blood and how such engagement indeed makes it so alive. Blood Work is indeed a call to attentiveness to human agency that transmutes the inert into the living and the technical into the social. It beautifully illustrates the animating force emerging from our everyday routine practices of working, eating and living together…. This will be an inspirational read for those interested in richer ethnographic accounts of science and technology and of Malaysia. It is also a work of theoretical mastery that will be an outstanding teaching resource on modernity, medical anthropology, material culture and the anthropology of work.” — Bo Kyeong Seo, SOJOURN


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Janet Carsten is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, author of After Kinship, and editor of Blood Will Out: Essays on Liquid Transfers and Flows.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Thomas Gibson  ix
Acknowledgments  xiii
Introduction  1
The Public Life of Blood I: Donation in the News  35
1. Blood Donation  43
The Public Life of Blood II: Newspapers and Laboratory Life  75
2. Lab Spaces and People: Categories and Distinctions at Work  79
The Public Life of Blood III: Elections and Their Aftermath  116
3. The Work of the Labs  125
The Public Life of Blood IV: Medical, Supernatural, and Moral Matters  158
4. "Work is Just Part of the Job": Ghosts, Food, and Relatedness in the Labs  165
Conclusion  200
Notes  209
References  217
Index  233
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0481-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0420-2