Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research

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Why do people donate blood to fundamental scientific research? Can such gifts ever be free - freely given, and free from ethical controversy - even if the science is non-commercial or "basic"? Through a study of how Indians in Houston have contributed to the International Haplotype Map Project, Deepa Reddy, in an essay published in the August issue of Cultural Anthropology, shows that donor motivations differ, are deeply shaped by history and culture, and can't be reduced to simple bioethical principles or positions. An associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clearlake, Reddy analyzes the real-world subtleties and multiplicities of bioethics in genetic research in her essay "Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research.

"The International Haplotype Map Project is an international scientific collaboration that aims to map genetic variation among populations, to understand human evolutionary history as well as how genetic differences affect human health. The information produced by the project will be a public resource, available to researchers around the world without charge. Reddy shows how the ethical thinking of Indians in Houston who have contributed to the project has been shaped by Hinduism, by prior blood collection controversies in India, and by commitments to abstract but hardly disingenuous notions of "good science" and "the good of humanity." Reddy compares the thinking of the blood donors that she worked with to the thinking of scientists involved in the project, and to how some indigenous groups have cast the ethics of blood donation to genetics research - largely in terms of "biopiracy" and "biocolonialism." Her ethnography shows that bioethics are culturally specific rather than universal, and that blood sampling needn't always be a controversial act of domination.

Reddy's essay is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted as part of an ethics study and sample collection initiative sponsored by the National Institute of Health and the National Human Genome Research Insitute, entitled "Indian and Hindu Perspectives on Genetic Variation Research." Her essay exemplifies how new kinds of collaboration, in this case with scientists, are shaping anthropological research. It also extends rich bodies of anthropological work on gift exchange, bioethics, and on diasporic cultures and practices.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a range of articles on the cultural dimensions of genetics. See, for example, Michael J. Montoya's "Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research" (2007); Karen-Sue Taussig's "Bovine Abominations: Genetic Culture and Politics in the Netherlands" (2004); and Corinne P. Hayden's "Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating Biology in Lesbian Kinship" (1995). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published several articles on diaspora and diasporic identity, much of which builds on James Clifford's "Diasporas" (1994). Other examples include Brian Keith Axel's "The Context of Diaspora" (2004) and Jacqueline Nassy Brown's "Black Liverpool, Black America, and the Gendering of Diasporic Space" (1998).

About the Author

Deepa Reddy is Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Studies at University of Houston-Clear Lake. She has written on the contestations of identitarian politics in India, the globalization of caste via the discourses of race and human rights, and on how sample collection and donor registration initiatives such the International HapMap Project and the U.S. National Marrow Donor Program facilitate reconceptualizations of bioethics, civic identities, and even the role of the market in medicine and genetics. Her book, Religious Identity and Political Destiny, was published in 2006. Her current research interests range from (bio)ethics in human and animal research to medical tourism and drug development in India. Her research has been funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the American Association for University Women (AAUW), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Beyond research, teaching, and writing, Deepa hopes that, slowly, slowly, slowly, she will work to build her ever-growing collection of children's books into a library collection in India that brings together good books and good music for benefit of local communities.


The International HapMap Project:

Francis Collins announcing the publication of the HapMap in 2005:


Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What are the different meanings that come to be attributed to blood-donation in this essay? How does blood-donation acquire these different meanings?

2. How do Indian understandings of blood-donation differ from your own conceptions of what blood-donation signifies? How are these different from how scientists in this essay understand the significance of blood-donation?

3. At the heart of this essay is a tension between blood as a gift and blood as a commodity. What is the significance of this tension? Can you think of other domains in which such a tension is visible in our everyday lives? To what effects?

4. What is Marcel Mauss' notion of the gift? What is Jonathan Parry's reading of Mauss? How does this essay extend these conceptions of gifting?

5. What are the different technological, historical, cultural, and political-economic conditions that the author highlights in drawing out the significance of blood-donation among Indian Gujaratis in Houston?

6. What are the different frames that the author draws out in her analysis? How do these frames interact with each other?

7. What is the understanding of "bioethics" that you gain from the perspective of this essay?

Related Readings

Hamilton, Jennifer

2008 "Revitalizing Difference in the HapMap: Race and Contemporary Human Genetic Variation Research." Journal of Law and Medical Ethics 36(3): 471-477.

Parry, Jonathan

1986 The Gift, the Indian gift, and the "Indian Gift." Man (n.s.) 21(3): 453-473.

Reardon, Jenny

2007 "Democratic Mis-haps: The Problem of Democratization in a Time of Biopolitics." Biosocieties 2(2): 239-256.

Reddy, Deepa

2008 "Caught in Collaboration." Collaborative Anthropology 1: 51-80. Author Manuscript available at:

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