Emily Martin traces Americans’ changing ideas about health and immunity since the 1940s. She explores the implications of our emphasis on ‘flexibility’ in contexts from medicine to the corporate world, warning that we may be approaching a new form of social Darwinism. Read more
From the Back Cover Anthropologist Emily Martin has become one of America’s most admired cultural critics, known for her creative, interdisciplinary work on the social context of science. Her award-winning book The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction revolutionized our thinking about women’s reproductive lives, and her research on gender stereotypes that shape medical language has been widely influential. In Flexible Bodies, Martin turns to the human immune system, tracing the notion of immunity in a wide range of contexts from World War II to the present day. Most of us take for granted the idea of strong and flexible immune systems, but Martin shows that American’s ideas about health and immunity have changed dramatically since the 1940s. These changes have profound implications for the ways we work and interact, for how we are valued in society and by our employers, and for the distribution and rationing of health care. Martin personally explores the notion of “flexibility” in a dazzling variety of contexts, from medical labs to magazine covers, TV commercials, movies, and cartoons. As an AIDS “buddy”, she volunteered in a hospice and witnessed doctors’ responses to people with AIDS at “grand rounds”. She joined ACT UP and became a demonstrator. While studying outdoor training sessions for corporate employees, now widely promulgated to teach them to meet and adapt to new challenges, she scaled a high wall blindfolded, climbed a forty-foot pole, and leapt into space in a harness attached to a bungee cord. And she and her research group interviewed hundreds of scientists, alternative health practitioners, people with AIDS, and many other Americans about their definitions of immunity andhealth. As a participant-observer in these and many other contexts, Martin experienced the ways in which ideas about immunity – and the need to be responsive and flexible to survive – have come to influence our daily lives. Martin shows that “flexibility” has become a valued commodity that may be leading to a new form of social Darwinism. Already, our health is rated according to the flexibility of our immune systems, while contemporary business practices like “total quality management” and experiential learning promote the notion that the most valuable workers are flexible and adaptable. Flexible Bodies is a provocative, revelatory report on a deep transformation in American culture.