Cultural Studies of Health

This lecture course investigates the complex embroidery of biosocial processes that shape the unequal experiences and cultural meanings of health by documenting the role of medicine as a great instrument of power that paradoxically both generates and alleviates suffering. Nothing is more fundamental to the human condition than our most basic right—the right to healthy life. Tragically, this right is inequitably distributed across social groups, especially along axes of race, gender, class, sexuality, age, and nationality. Moreover, persons residing in the United States do not have a state-sponsored right to a healthy life. In neoliberal nation states like the United States, the guardian of the right to live a healthy is a highly bureaucratic and technoscientific form of corporate medicine. Issues of health and illness are, quite literally, matters of life and death that are shaped by the broader political economy and scientific culture in any given society. Thus, who thrives where, who gets sick when, who dies for what, and how we heal and why constitute core questions for social justice. Medicine comprises a network of social institutions and technoscientific practices that people have created and use to diagnose and heal our bodily and psychic ills. While medicine has produced dramatic improvements in life expectancy and quality of life for billions of people, most people on the planet do not have access to basic medical care and such care is not always safe and healing. Drawing on provocative readings in sociology and cultural studies of science, technology, and medicine this course investigates the political economy of health care and cultural meanings of health in society.

Metabolism and Technoscience

This course investigates the scientific idea of metabolism through the lens of technoscience. Metabolism is a flexible and mobile scientific idea, one that has been applied at the micro-level of analysis within biological organisms, at the meso-level of social collectivities, and at the macro-level of global ecologies. Metabolism encompasses all of the biological and technosocial processes through which bodies (both human and not human) and societies (again, human and not) create and use nutrients, medicines, toxins, and fuels. The lens of technoscience enables us to investigate the technological and scientific practices that define and drive metabolic processes within sciences, cultures, and political economies. These processes implicate forces of production, consumption, labor, absorption, medicalization, appropriation, expansion, growth, surveillance, regulation, and enumeration. Accordingly, as we will learn, metabolism is also a profoundly political process that is inextricably linked to systems that create structural and symbolic violence as well as modes of resistance and struggle. In these contexts, we will interpret some of the most pressing metabolic crises facing human societies, including ecological disaster, industrial food regimes, metabolic health problems, and industrial-scale pollution.


This course offers a sociocultural analysis of antipsychiatry, the intellectual movement that has analyzed and opposed psychiatry as a field of medical knowledge and social power. Perhaps no field of medicine has been more deeply implicated in creating and legitimating human suffering than psychiatry, from the role that psychiatry has played in managing people’s daily lives to forms of mass institutionalization. Following key antipsychiatrists, we will ask how psychiatry transforms people’s lived experiences into psychiatric disorders by interrogating the production of diagnostic criteria as a political process. We will focus on the social institutions that host psychiatry, the creation and dissemination of psychotropic drugs, and the ways in which racism, patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and colonialism shape psychiatry and the resistance to it.

Sociology of Knowledge

This course provides a selective in-depth survey of the sociology of knowledge, a subfield of sociology that investigates how social structures shape the production of knowledge and how knowledge, in turn, shapes society. The term knowledge must be understood broadly, encompassing multiple forms of human knowledge production including, but not limited to scientific knowledge, cultural products, and social ideologies. The term social structure refers to a broad set of patterned practices that define and give meaning to social life including social institutions, laws, and technologies. Traditionally, the sociology of knowledge covers a broad and diverse range of topics including but not limited to the analysis of science as a major social institution and the formation of knowledge-based societies, processes of scientific peer review, the formation of academic disciplines, mathematics and computer science, the dissemination and public understanding of science and medicine, social stratification within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, and the institutional relationships between science, governments, and economies. The course begins with a basic introduction to the sociological imagination and a set of contemporary social problems that the sociology of knowledge can help us understand. Then, we map starting positions for this field of sociology by exploring some of its foundational texts and approaches. We consider a range of interventions that challenge the foundational assumptions of the field, drawing on criticisms from poststructuralist, feminist, indigenous thought. We travel along several paths of inquiry in the sociology of scientific knowledge, reading cases focused on the sciences of nature, human difference, mathematics, and computing.

Life and Death: Relations of Biopower and Necropower
The blunt truth of human suffering permeates life and yet life pushes back against the certainty of death. There are so many ways to kill a person and profit from their killing. At the same time, there are so many ways for people to thrive under and resist extraordinary and enduring forms of suffering. These ways will take center stage as we attempt to theorize the social structures and cultural ideas that position ways of being and understanding humans as they traverse the space between life and death. Framed as a Janus-faced binary, what ontological space does life inhabit that does not also fall within the shadow of death? We will trace out the conceptual foundations and select empirical analyses of two contrasting yet complementary theories of power that aim to explain this shared ontological space: biopower and necropower. As theories of power, biopower and necropower are not things that exist in the world, but rather ways of defining, thinking about, and resisting discursive and material relationships that do, in fact, exist in societies. Biopower is an analytic of power that examines how and why social institutions target, intervene, and invest in the life processes of living beings in the name of improving population health. Necropower is an analytic of power that examines how and why social institutions function to produce mass suffering in the name of death. In this seminar, we will consider how science and technology matter for the social, theoretical, and ethical frameworks we use to understand the embodied, relational, and ontological space between living and dying humans

TechnoPrisons: Corrections, Technology, and Society

The United States currently incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country, most of them are members of disadvantaged social groups. Prisons are also an old human institution and are present in nearly every country on the earth. In the United States, their permanence and ubiquity complicate efforts at meaningful prison reform or prison abolition. How does our government practically accomplish mass incarceration? This seminar examines prisons as technologies and the role that specific technologies play in the U.S. prison system. To say that prisons are technologies means that prisons operate as an architectural structure that is designed to hold people captive within enclosed physical spaces. At the same time, prisons are the location for multiple kinds of social closure made possible through technological systems including surveillance systems, media representations, biomedical technologies, classification and administrative technologies, and military technologies. This seminar introduces basic concepts within science and technology studies, sociology, and criminology to investigate how prison happens.

Black Phoenix Rising: Death and Resurrection of Black Lives

In the face of violent anti-black forms of institutionalized racism, black people are forced to find new ways to refuse being killed. Yet, in the wake of successful racist killings, the deaths of black people take on new meanings that give life and hope to those who survive. The deaths of black people become sources of collective and symbolic power for the living. Positioning the Black Lives Matter Movement in the context of necropolitics helps renew our collective need to theorize the value and meaning of black lives within a deluge of death and disappearance in black communities. This movement is part of a broader intellectual tradition in black radical praxis that aims to transform scholarly, activist, and public discourse and public policies concerning anti-black racisms and the prospects for antiracist futures. By drawing on these broader traditions, this course envisions a black radical praxis that simultaneously recognizes how black people resist death and transform symbolic meanings of death in ways that push back against anti-black racisms. This is an experimental seminar that serves as a base of operations for faculty-student research and a larger, culminating, and collaborative creative arts project.