Hormones

Omnipresent and versatile, hormones shape what it means to be human in fundamental ways. Hormones are often described as signaling molecules or chemical messengers within the body, which “regulate everything from hunger to reproduction.” In their industrially produced and medically prescribed form, hormones have also long been used to regulate and normalize bodies. This has received critical attention in current public debates around side effects of the contraceptive pill, growth hormones used for livestock breeding, or plastic bottles containing estrogenic chemicals.

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Advertisement for hormone-free burgers in a restaurant window in Brooklyn, 2018. Photo by Sandra Bärnreuther.

Hormones or hormonelike substances are fascinating “material-semiotic” actors (Haraway 1997, 11). Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, for example, appear not only in human and nonhuman bodies but also in water, air, and consumer products. Blending bodies and their surroundings, they transgress organic boundaries with ease and literally reshape biologies (Landecker 2016; Murphy 2008). In the process, they also distort conceptual boundaries such as inside/outside, nature/culture, or sex/gender.

Bodies are not only consumers of manufactured chemicals but also chemical manufacturers themselves. Hormones materialize as organic compounds that may be harnessed and processed. This was the case in India between the 1960s and 1990s, when a European pharmaceutical company sourced urine of pregnant women as raw material for the production of hormonal pharmaceuticals that were later employed for infertility management all over the world (Bärnreuther n.d.). Through their industrial production and global circulation, hormones link distinct realms (such as medicine and political economy) and geographic spaces in sometimes surprising and often unequal ways.

Finally, doing justice to their etymological significance, hormones set in motion. Since the coinage of the term in 1905 (see Laveaga 2005), they have reconfigured biomedical thought styles (Gaudillière 2004), reformulated epistemic problems, and realigned scientific disciplines (Clarke 1998). Providing epistemic models and powerful metaphors, hormones may distort and transcend boundaries. As such, thinking through and with hormones has much to add to a discipline that sets out to trouble categories and impel thought.

The contributors to this Correspondences session discuss how hormones are articulated in specific relations and contexts. What are the unintended logics of hormone consumption? In what ways do access and exposure to hormones rely on and produce manifold layers of inequality? What relations of power enable hormones to leave their traces? And how do tracking devices give rise to new forms of intervention in everyday lives?

Contributors

Nayantara Sheoran Appleton (“Unintended Logics”) is Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. She is currently working on her book Emergency Contraception in India: Media, Liberalization, and Reimagined Family Planning (under contract, Rutgers), which critically unpacks the politics of health and reproduction in liberalized India by focusing on hormonal contraceptive pills and their marketing to women (and men) within neoliberal and neo-Malthusian frameworks.

Max Liboiron (“Hormone Disruption in Newfoundland”) is Assistant Professor in Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where she directs the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a marine science laboratory that specializes in community-based environmental monitoring of marine plastic pollution. Liboiron’s research bridges the natural and social sciences by creating open scientific tools and protocols out of feminist and anticolonial thought.  

Emilia Sanabria (“Endurance and Alterability”) specializes in medical anthropology, the anthropology of the body, drugs and pharmaceuticals, and cultures of expertise in global health with a focus on the global South. Her book Plastic Bodies: Sex Hormones and Menstrual Suppression in Brazil was published by Duke University Press in 2016.

Celia Roberts (“Titrating, Tinkering, and Tracking”) is Professor of Gender and Science Studies in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University. She is the author of Messengers of Sex: Hormones, Biomedicine, and Feminism (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Puberty in Crisis: The Sociology of Early Onset Puberty (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She is currently cowriting a book on biosensing with Adrian Mackenzie and Maggie Mort, and is also working on a project on stress hormones.

Acknowledgments 

My sincere thanks to Christy Spackman, Purbasha Mazumdar, Tiana Hayden, Vijayanka Nair, the editorial team at Correspondences, and my colleagues at the University of Zurich for enriching discussions and helpful comments on earlier drafts.

References

Bärnreuther, Sandra. n.d. “Substantial Relations: Making Global Reproductive Medicine in Postcolonial India.” Manuscript in preparation.  

Clarke, Adele E. 1998. Disciplining Reproduction: Modernity, American Life Sciences, and the Problems of Sex. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gaudillière, Jean-Paul. 2004. “Genesis and Development of a Biomedical Object: Styles of Thought, Styles of Work and the History of the Sex Steroids.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 35, no. 3: 525–43.

Haraway, Donna J. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_Onco Mouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Landecker, Hannah. 2016. “Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History.” Body and Society 22,  no. 4: 19–52.

Laveaga, Gabriela Soto. 2005. “Uncommon Trajectories: Steroid Hormones, Mexican Peasants, and the Search for a Wild Yam.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36, no. 4: 743–60.

Murphy, Michelle. 2008. “Chemical Regimes of Living.” Environmental History 13, no. 4: 695–703.

Posts in This Series

Unintended Logics

Hormone Disruption in Newfoundland

Endurance and Alterability

Titrating, Tinkering, and Tracking