Talk looks at lean production and labour politics at medical trials in Africa

Denielle Elliot

Cultural anthropologist Professor Denielle Elliott will discuss “Lean Production, Labour Politics and Clinical Trial Research in East Africa” Thursday as part of the Tubman Speaker Series.

Elliott’s talk will take place Feb. 27, from 3:30 to 5pm, at S701 Ross Building, Keele campus. Drawing on the work of Melinda Cooper (2008) and Aihwa Ong (1999), Elliott will draw attention to the ethics and politics of unlawful and unregulated labour practices in transnational medical clinical trials and the challenges of writing about this in the context of collaborative, ethnographic projects.

Denielle Elliot
Denielle Elliot

At a work retreat in Mombasa, Kenya, for a large multi-sited medical clinical trial, staff listened intently to a presentation on Toyota factory principles in China. The presentation included the infamous propaganda poster and slogan, “The Great Leap Forward,” yet the irony was lost. The message, however, was clear, says Elliott. The clinical trial needed to be more “lean”, more cost-effective. The presenters were holding up the way Toyota ran its factories in China as a solution to cutting operating costs at the clinical trial site, but Elliott’s not convinced it’s the right model for a clinical trial site.

The parallel between producing cars and testing patients was confusing for many in the audience, but they aptly understood the principles of labour that regulate their working lives. These trials demand workers that are productive and self-sacrificing, disciplined by powerful new techniques that are invisible and intangible.

Such labour practices need to be understood within the national context – where unofficial rates of unemployment are 70 per cent, where many fully employed trial staff members do not have an acceptable standard of living. There is also no state welfare program and AIDS research has become a significant source of income for the nation state.

Elliott is interested in medicine and bio-sciences. Her research explores the political economy of pharmaceuticals, state regulatory policies and practices, and the bio-politics of medical research with post-colonial communities.

For the past six years, she has been exploring the cultural politics and poetics of HIV/AIDS clinical trials in Kenya. This work explores the spatial politics of randomized controlled trials, documenting the ways in which landscapes, public spaces, and socialities are re-imagined and reconfigured through “global” scientific practices. She teaches in the Health & Society Program at York University.