Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in American Anthropologist 113:1 (March 2011), pp 146-147. doi 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01313.x


Published by the American Anthropological Association; copyright John Wiley. Used by permission.


Recent technological advances in biomedicine have introduced new therapeutic possibilities but have also contributed to the emergence of a global market for human bodies and body parts. For example, artificial modes of human reproduction created a market for eggs, semen, and surrogate wombs. In addition, organ transfer generated a demand for kidneys and half livers. The whole body has become a valuable commodity as professional research subjects venture into the economy of Phase I Clinical Trials, testing drug safety for pharmaceutical companies. In the process, the trade has become a deeply unequal one in which poor, vulnerable, and easily exploited women and men, in the United States and, increasingly, in the global south, exchange their bodies for cash. Yet, these economic transactions are often obscured by buyers—either individuals or corporations— frequently using the language of donation, voluntarism, and “gift” giving.

This unjust and exploitative trade is one that anthropologists have documented and denounced since its inception in the 1990s. Few were more forceful in understanding the forces behind body commodification and in opposing the most abusive aspects of this trade than anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes. As an author, Scheper-Hughes has documented the ideologies, institutions, and social networks behind organ trafficking, one of the most egregious examples of bodily commerce. More than a decade of dedicated ethnographic research has allowed Scheper-Hughes to follow these transactions, leading her to Israel, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, Western Europe, and the United States, among other sites. In Malinowskian fashion, she has uncovered the circulation of organs and other body parts: “In general, the flow of organs, tissues, and body parts follows the modern routes of capital: from South to North, from third to first world, from poor to rich, from black and brown to white, and from female to male bodies,” she writes (Scheper-Hughes 2001). According to Scheper-Hughes, organ trafficking both illuminates and exacerbates existing social and racial inequalities. For example, a kidney from a Brazilian slum dweller costs 2,000 dollars while a kidney from an Israeli seller can be priced ten times higher (Scheper-Hughes and Wacquant 2004).