Ian Whitmarsh, PhD

Associate Professor
Humanities & Social Sciences
+1 415 476-6164

My work uses psychoanalytic theory, religious studies, and postcolonial theory to interpret trajectories in science and medicine across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. I have conducted anthropological fieldwork on how these trajectories relate to racialization, secularity and religious exclusion, and rehabilitating desire. My anthropological interests are in resonances between anthropology and psychoanalysis and the religious dimensions of “the secular.” To see my areas of research and books, click Show more

Racialization and Biomedical Ambiguity
My early work analyzed the racialization of disease through biomedicine. My first book, Biomedical Ambiguity: Race, Asthma, and the Contested Meaning of Genetics in the Caribbean (2008 Cornell University Press), was based on anthropological fieldwork in Barbados, and explored how American genomics research on the African diaspora is exporting the American racial system to Caribbean countries. As a result, racial designations in science and medicine in the postcolonial country are hardening along the lines of American race. I have also contributed to analysis of American racialization through a book co-edited with David S. Jones, What's the Use of Race: Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference (2010 MIT Press). This volume brings together leading social science scholars examining the use of race and genetics in the courtroom and law enforcement, genomic science of human diversity, and inequalities of health and disease.

Secular Care of the Self and Divination
My more recent work engages in what I call a desecularized hermeneutics. This is a new trajectory that seeks out the way the claimed secular relies on peculiar traditions that it deems “religious.” I edited a special journal issue with Elizabeth Roberts on the significance of this emergent area for thinking science and medicine, called Nonsecular Medical Anthropology. I analyze this desecularization in my second ethnography, Secular Care of the Self and Other Forms of Spiritual Warfare Across the Atlantic.

The Secular Care of the Self offers a novel rethinking of the presumed secularity of the modern healthy subject by examining the Protestant characteristics of multinational techniques of caring for the self. The book explores how our modern “secular” communitas of health is founded historically in a Protestant congregationalism structured by its refusal of ritual, mysticism, and the priest. These latent Protestant commitments are revealed by the conflict that this “secularity” has as it has traveled across the north Atlantic from northern Europe to North America to the Caribbean country of Trinidad, where it confronts ecstatic manifestation, divination, and other troubling religious others. The book is based on fieldwork in southwestern Trinidad, in health clinics, Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches, and among practitioners of the African-Catholic ecstatic religious traditions in Trinidad of Spiritual Baptism and Orisha Worship. The healers and diviners of Orisha worship and Spiritual Baptism engage a world of afflictions that are carried by spirits and entities across long historical arcs of racial betrayal and across spirit regions—revealing a type of spiritual warfare enacted not by the battle between modern secularism and traditional religion but rather between a Protestantist secularity and other religious ways of inhabiting the world.

Rehabilitating Desire: Technologies of Care for Pedophilia
My current work follows the technologies used in the US to prevent sex crimes against children. This research explores the juridical use in child molestation convictions of the pharmaceutical medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) (so-called “chemical castration”). Relying on ethnographic research among convicted sex offenders and California state employees, the project examines new concepts of pedophilia as a neurochemical condition, creating novel forms of state intervention on sexuality and masculinity. What was originally a side-effect of the pharmaceutical on the male libido has become the basis for a rethinking of how sex offenders can become rehabilitated members of society. By examining the use of registries and pharmaceuticals to prevent sex crimes, the project analyzes how interventions on sexual desire are creating new forms of the “neighbor.”