Event Review: Hematopolitics International Symposium: The Politics of Blood, Body and Health (Day 2 – 24th May 2022)

After a lovely evening meal out in Leeds City Centre enjoyed by all in person attendees, day two began with the session, ‘Bleeding Through the Skin: Anxieties, Stigma and Resistance’. The session opened by Thomas Wadsworth‘s presentation considering the implications of self-harm representation on social media, looking at how these digital forums provide opportunities for care and community (Tom’s own captivating report on the symposium can be found here). The next presentation by Bo Kyeong Seo explored the medical discrimination faced by HIV positive patients due to the perceived risk of contagion, looking at how blood has come to be understood as an uncontrollable substance, making risk mitigation impossible. The final presentation by Vendula Rezacova of session 3 ‘The Evidentiality of Blood: Mattering the Self, Body and Knowledge at the Interface of (Western) Biomedicine and ‘Traditional’ Medicine in South Africa’, was unfortunately cut short due to technical issues. Thankfully it was possible to share the written version with attendees following the symposium.

The penultimate session, ‘Political and Moral Economy of Blood and Blood Technology’, started with an engaging presentation by Emily Avera drawing on two years of ethnographic research on the blood supply systems in post-apartheid South Africa. The study considered how discourses around blood safety and supply were intimately entwined with prevailing notions around race and nationality in the South African context. The next presentation by Rachel Thorpe, Vera Raivola and Barbara Masser considered how blood collection processes are being altered by the introduction of genomic testing on donated blood, disrupting the presumed dynamics and direction of care in blood donation. The next presentation by Rachel Hale built on some of these themes, exploring the ‘gift relationship’, in the context of technological developments allowing for cultured red blood cells. The session closed with a presentation by Rachel Douglas-Jones and Qiuyu Jiang looking at the social ramifications and public opinion regarding blood donation being included in China’s social credit system.

Our closing session began with a presentation from Hematopolitics PI Dr Jieun Kim, considering how blood donation rates and patterns have been interpreted as an indicator for national development and progress in South Korea, playing a significant role in national identity building. We then heard a presentation by Stephanie Hermant, Pierre Monforte and Lesley Hustinx exploring the role of ‘othering’ and ‘belonging’ in blood donation practices, tracing this alongside the identification of ‘missing minorities’ in the blood supply as a major health policy concern. The following presentation by Ros Williams drew from ethnographic, social media, and interview data to consider how mixed-race patients requiring bone marrow transplants are further pathologised as a ‘problem’ category by health care systems due to the difficulties which can be encountered in securing an appropriate stem cell match. The closing presentation of the session and the symposium by Tanisha Spratt delved into how the autoimmune condition vitiligo impacted individuals’ understandings of their own racial identity, in the context of the ‘one drop rule’ for racial categorisation which persists in the US. Research findings suggest that whilst Black people with vitiligo are frequently racialized as non-Black, this does not impact their understandings of themselves and their racial identity.

The symposium brought together an exciting selection of international research contributing to wider understandings of the political nature of blood. A key theme running through presentations across the two days, was the significant role that blood takes on as a marker of difference. Race, ethnicity, caste, nationality, sexuality, religion, disability, gender, social status, were all invoked through the visceral imagery and political discourse surrounding blood. The symposium ended as all good conferences do, with lots of new questions to answer, and a strong network of future collaborators to tackle those questions with (authored by Elizabeth Lavery).