Mobility For Whom?
Nancy Scheper-Hughes Comments

As a cultural and medical anthropologist, I approach the concept of mobility warily. Mobility and flexibility are key metaphors for late modernity: migrations, flows, flux, flexible citizenship, people in motion, ideas, new technologies, and political movements that travel. But one has to ask the question: mobility for whom? Is the mobility voluntary or forced? What are the barriers to mobilities of all kinds across borders? We Not so long ago anthropologists were talking and writing about a borderless world — world banks, world courts, (ICC), Doctors-without-Borders/ MSF, medical tourism, and free trade zones. In my peripatetic ethnographic travel and research I see, for example, a form of medical tourism that is based on exploitation and human trafficking for fresh kidneys; I see the body of enemies or of marginalized strangers as the universal kidney donor while alive and  tissue, skin and bone donor when dead or summarily executed (Scheper-Hughes 2011a, 2011b).


In my anthropological travels I confront borders that are fixed and mean: in airport security and passport/visa checks, as well as in fences, soldiers armed with weapons on public busses, the checkpoints from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or to Ramallah, the strange parallel roads on the occupied territories, one paved for the settlers, the other unpaved for the Palestinians. The obstacles for Israeli scholars trying to work with Palestinian scholars or  peace activists is another example (see Daphna Golan-Agnon, Next Year in Jerusalem, 2005, New Press).

Along the US Southern Border with Mexico there is a string of barrier fences that were signed into law by GW Bush almost 700 miles  along the Mexican border. The law also approved the expansion of checkpoints, vehicle barriers, and technological systems designed to monitor the expanse of boundary. These borders are as immobile as the sandbagged bunkers, the armed road blocks, barricades and ‘no-go zones’ that separate armed peoples, armed territories, and military states. The borders confront one with the indisputable materiality of electric fences, razor wire, nail-studded hand grenades , AK47’s and  where these are lacking stones and torches will do.


The idea, now the mere dream of a borderless world, has such a nice and optimistic ring but ignores the very real obstacles that  encroach on our subjects’ and own freedom of movement. Despite the changes in US diplomacy toward Cuba, US scholars wishing to conduct research in Cuba or establish ties with Cuban scholars is still extremely difficult. In helping to co-organize a Cuban symposium on Coma and Brain Death in Havana a few years ago I received a US State Department letter warning me that I was in danger of violating the ‘trading with the enemy’ act and would be subject to financial and criminal penalties were I to continue serving on the conference organizing committee. All this for bringing together a hundred or so  international neuroscientists and clinical specialists to discuss brain disease and death. Another sort of brain death was preventing a few dozen American doctors to participate in the meeting.


I am suggesting that mobility today is a metaphor ‘out of place or ‘out of synch’ in the face of a global economic, environmental, and political collapse that has left the world’s workers immobilized, migrants and new immigrants detained, and travelers delayed for hours, days or months at border crossings. New political and social movements are unpredictable and all too often are xenophobic or fundamentalist. Traditional political leaders (democratic or autocratic) are increasingly inflexible. (Thanks to US interventions in the Middle East).

As for Economic Mobility, it’s pretty much turtles all the way down for all except the mighty and proverbial 1%.


Mobility through technology is double edged. Technology facilitates instant global communication, social networking, flash crowds, virtual mass movements and demonstrations. But technology does not promise sustainability, wise leadership, political discernment, long range political debate and strategies. In response to global tensions and anxieties technology has also brought us increased surveillance of all our movements, an airport security system that exposes bodies to the human x-ray scanner known as the backskatter system that may or may not be carcinogenic. (no funding of scientific research to find the  answers). But, what the heck, as I was told on one of my last international flights, “You are a free citizen, so if you refuse the body scanner, you may chose a strip search instead”.


Invited to a “Goggle Ideas” Conference on “Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition ” in 2012 <https://www.google.com/ideas/events/info-2012> my panel on organized crime in organ trafficking listened to officials from Homeland Security, the US State Department, and transportation  security  experts from LAX airport, the Panama Canal, and the port of Dubai explain their new technologies for identifying suspicious “human and material cargo” through enhanced hidden cameras, human spies, x-rays, radiation, metal detectors, and political and ethnic profiling. Less freedom for all. Until judged to the contrary we are suspicious persons of interest. The Goggle technology geniuses were on hand with ideas about how to combat human trafficking, while cavorting with military and government and global intelligence. In their naïve view there was nothing that technology could not answer. Two ideas suggested by the Google geniuses for our organs trafficking lab: (a) The bar-coding of all transplanted kidneys going through airport security that would identify undocumented alien kidneys. (b) The recipients of transplanted kidneys could carry an official certificate validating the kidney’s provenance and its legal origins; (c) the long view: 3-D printer copy kidneys combining bio materials made from the tissue of the patient (smaller than a postage stamp)  and scanners to build a 3D kidney.

Thinking through our language, images, projections and metaphors of mobility is exciting but requires a critical eye. Is mobility the most appropriate concept at the current time – a time of enormous economic stagnation, the tragedy of political asylum seekers in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and economic asylum seekers everywhere, the passivity of citizens toward the increasing surveillance of human mobility and travel, and the political uncertainties of both theocratic and democratic polities and ambiguous role of social networks in fostering failed or, worse, dehumanizing revolutions give reason to pause.




Daphna Golan-Agnon, Next Year in Jerusalem, 2005, New Press)
Scheper-Hughes 2011a: “The Body of the Terrorist”, Social Research
Scheper-Hughes, 2011b: “Mr Tati’s Holiday and Joao’s Kidney Safari – Seeing the World Through Transplant Tourism” in  Medical Migrations: Special Issue of Body and Society



Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley where she directs the doctoral program in Critical Studies in Medicine, Science, and the Body. Scheper-Hughes’ lifework concerns the violence of everyday life examined from a radical existentialist and politically engaged perspective. Her examination of structural and political violence, of what she calls “small wars and invisible genocides” has allowed her to develop a so-called ‘militant’ anthropology, which has been broadly applied to medicine, psychiatry, and to the practice of anthropology. She is perhaps best known for her books on schizophrenia among bachelor farmers in County Kerry (Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland) and on the madness of hunger, maternal thinking, and infant mortality in Brazil (Death without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil). She has written a series of essays to be published under the title Undoing: the Politics of the Impossible in the New South Africa. Her most recent books are: Commodifying Bodies (co-edited with Loic Waquant), 2002, London: Sage (Theory, Culture and Society series). (Commodifying Bodies will appear later this year in an Italian edition with Ombre Courte, Verona, Italia); and Violence in War and Peace: an Anthology (co-edited with Philippe Bourgois), 2003, London and Malden, Mass: Basil Blackwell.
She is co-founder and Director of Organs Watch, a medical human rights project and she is currently an advisor to the World Health Organization (Geneva) on issues related to global transplantation. Scheper-Hughes has lectured internationally and has been a research professor in residence at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences in Paris in 1993 (and will take up that post again in the fall of 2004). Read the Berkeley News article, UC Berkeley anthropology professor working on organs trafficking, dated April 30, 2004.


You can refer to a long form and rather critical profile on my ‘heretical’ approach to the study of human trafficking for organs: “The Organ Detective: A Career Spent Uncovering a Hidden Global Market in Human Flesh”



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