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Anthropology of Hormones

Lisa Raeder, Andrea Ford, Roslyn Malcolm and Sonja Erikainen reflect on a recent workshop

Graphic of the endocrine system - @GettyImages/VectorMine
Graphic of the endocrine system - @GettyImages/VectorMine

Hormones are commonly understood to be responsible for both catalysing and regulating bodily processes. Named after the Greek word for “that which sets in motion” these compounds activate processes across emotions and physiology, social and material worlds, mental and physical health, organic and synthetic biology, the gendered and the non-gendered, and the normal and the pathological. Hormones thus sit at the meeting point between many different biomedical and social spheres of life, making them subject to multiple kinds of knowledges from individuals’ experiences of their own bodies to cultural representations of hormones in the news and popular media to scientific hormone research and medical practice.

Considering this as a starting point for understanding how social scientists and medical humanities researchers can make sense of hormones in their various cultural, social and biomedical framings, we organised a workshop titled the Anthropology of Hormones on the 3rd and 4th of June 2020. The workshop brought together an international group of researchers working on hormones using a variety of approaches from anthropology and allied disciplines to synergise existing ideas and catalyse new ideas about how we might study and understand what hormones are and what they can do.

The workshop was shaped by the overarching question “What is a hormone?”, and raised further questions such as;

  • How are hormones being used today to understand the relationship between the biological and the social spheres of life?
  • What material, social and conceptual flows do hormones set in motion or redirect?
  • What is at stake in the molecularisation of social relations and processes?
  • Whose hormonal "balances" are seen to count as problems requiring “rebalancing”?  
  • What are the (cultural) differences between endogenous or so-called “natural” hormones, synthetic or “artificial” hormones used as pharmaceuticals or for body design, and endocrine disrupting chemicals encountered in our environments?

The two day workshop featured keynote presentations by Celia Roberts and Anne Pollock, and lightning talks from other participants that fell under three key themes: hormone research relating to reproduction, hormone research relating to sex and gender, and emotion and affect in relation to hormones. These presentations, and the questions that they raised, served to initiate conversations exploring how hormones can be viewed and conceptualised within our various research fields and academic disciplines, as well as methodological approaches to hormone research.

The key conclusions that emerged from our conversations clustered around the heterogeneity and multiplicity of hormones: they carry multiple, sometimes conflicting meanings, and participate in diverse practices and relations across different spheres of social and biological life in ways that can be both emancipatory as well as disciplinary. Because of the multiple meanings and functions that hormones have, we need to find new ways to think about hormones beyond the frames of particular disciplines, and create an interdisciplinary research agenda where social scientists and medical humanities researchers work together with biomedical researchers and practitioners to develop more nuanced understandings of the social as well as biological life of hormones. Further, considering the fluidity of hormones raised questions regarding how research on hormones might be conducted in ways that does not solidify normative ideas of gender, but that might enable us to in our work make visible the fluidity of gender, bodies and subjectivities.

The Anthropology of Hormones Workshop also provided an opportunity to construct a network aiming towards larger collaborations in the future. As organisers, we feel enthusiastic about the collaborative possibilities that this area of research fosters and we look forward to keeping you up to date on future events and publications sparked by these conversations.