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4S preview: Pharmaceuticals Out of Bounds

Christy Spackman and Danya Glabau

18 August, 2016

We are publishing a series of posts highlighting some of the tracks on the program of the 2016 4S conference, which will convene jointly with the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) in Barcelona, August 31-September 3. The theme of this year’s 4S/EASST conference is “science and technology by other means” For more information on "Pharmaceuticals Out of Bounds" and to view the accepted abstracts, please see the track page

“When you were a baby,” my mother told me recently, “Grandma had a thyroid problem. They treated her with radioactive iodine. She couldn’t hold you. She wasn’t supposed to be near babies for at least six weeks after her treatment. I kept you away from her, in the other room, when we went to visit. I remember the medical staff wore special clothes when they brought her medicine. She had to flush the toilet multiple times after she used it."

I hear a slight fear in my mother’s voice. A fear that despite her efforts to protect my then newly-born body, she may have failed. I hear in her voice a worry that the unseen dangers escaping from my grandmother’s body--even as those same dangers extended her life (now nearing 91!)--have left a yet undetected impression on her own daughter's body, that perhaps that moment of proximity has somehow shaped my reproductive life.

At the heart of my mother’s fear is a new reiteration of an old problem: materials, no matter the limits we put on them, have a tendency to obdurately do otherwise. They change, degrade, or even move out of the physical and regulatory bounds humans impose on them. Although neither my mother nor grandmother could physically sense how her medicine exceeded the limits of its bounded form, the boundaries placed on her behavior made explicit the unbounded nature of the medicine she was taking.

My grandmother’s experience, and my mother’s fear, invite one to further investigate the promises, perils, and consequences of living in an increasingly pharmacetuicalized world. As Joe Dumit (2012 points out, humans, (and I would note, pets, livestock, even many of the plants raised as food) take in pharmaceutical compounds at unprecedented levels and for lengths of time previously unseen. Despite the concrete nature of individual pills, their apparent bounded-ness dissolves not only on ingestion, but also on closer inspection.

Attending to the rogue movements of pharmaceuticals offers STS scholars new entrances for exploring how human activity intervenes upon the material world, including nonhuman forms of life. Pharmaceuticals do not just disappear when consumed or discarded. They go out in the world and do. They catalyze significant changes in environments and organisms: Prozac slips through waste treatment to appear in rivers, trace amounts of estrogens change the reproductive lives of amphibians, and radioactive iodine puts both humans and nonhumans at risk along unpredictable paths. Similarly, the pharmaceuticals we ingest come with their own histories rooted in the material world (c.f. Soto Laveaga 2005, Dietrich 2013, produced in specific somewheres and crafted from specific somethings.  

What if we take my mother's fear and apply it in a scholarly sense, considering pharmaceuticals as unbounded ecosystems instead of bounded entities? Such a practice could offer new entries to investigating how the move--inherent in contemporary risk discourses--towards pharmaceutical “tuning” of the individual obfuscates the ecological and epigenetic risks of pharmaceutical systems, while opening the door to new ways of attending to the unknowables inherent in pharmaceutical intervention. 

We invite you to join us in thinking through an ecological model of pharmaceutical use. As a group, we will present case studies on opiod treatment, estrogen therapy,  and infrastructure design as provocations for additional conversation. Pharmaceuticals out of Bounds (T140) will have place at M213 on 1 September, 2016 at 16:00. 

Track Contributors
Jia-shin Chen (National Yang-Ming University) 
Nina Janasik-Honkela (University of Helsinki)
Christy Spackman (Harvey Mudd College)


Alexa Dietrich (NYU)
Marianne DeLaet (Harvey Mudd College)


Christy Spackman is the Hixon-Riggs Early Career Fellow in Science, Technology and Society at Harvey Mudd

Danya Glabau is Associate Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research in Brooklyn, NY, where she teaches courses on STS, feminist science studies, and social theory. 

Backchannels / Projects

Descriptions of current work—the makings and doings—of STS scholars across the globe. This includes individual work, as well as collaborations between / with academics, practitioners, and policy makers.