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Book reviews of Biomedical Odysseys

Reviewed in American Anthropologist 120(4): 865-866 (December 2018)

Book cover for Biomedical Odysseys: Fetal Cell Experiments from Cyberspace to China by Priscilla Song

by Karen-Sue Taussig (University of Minnesota):

Written with remarkable clarity, Priscilla Song’s Biomedical Odysseys explores the development, practice, and uptake of experimental treatment involving fetal cell therapy in a particular clinic in China. In this exemplary text, Song offers a deeply ethnographic account of this complex social field. […] Her analysis is particularly effective and affecting through her sympathetic and nuanced engagement with the voices and experiences of those whom she is studying. Traveling with specific patients from their early postings on social media through their journeys to China for therapy and their posttreatment reflections on their experiences, the reader comes to understand the depth and complexity of their stories. In contrast to stereotypes of such individuals as desperate and deluded victims of pseudo-medical hucksters, Song shows how the subjects of her research are engaged in complex and subtle negotiations of their own expectations, the nature and value of diverse forms of scientific evidence, and the ethical stakes for their community. […] Biomedical Odysseys will be of interest to a broad array of scholars in and beyond anthropology who are interested in the global and transnational, medicine, science and technology, ethnography, online/digital communities, ethics, and contemporary China. The book’s combination of clarity, ethnographic richness, and theoretical sophistication make it suitable as a text for both undergraduate courses (especially introduction to cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of science and technology) and graduate seminars.

Reviewed in Anthropological Quarterly 91(4): 1439-1444 (Fall 2018)

by Janelle Lamoreaux (University of Arizona):

What motivates patients to undergo experimental medical procedures transnationally, and what motivates scientists to conduct such treatments on foreign patients? How do national socio-economic histories, values, and scientific regulations shape transnational experimental treatment seeking practices in today’s stratified medical landscapes? Priscilla Song’s book, Biomedical Odysseys: Fetal Cell Experiments from Cyberspace to China, addresses these questions and more through an ethnographic exploration of transnational science and medicine. […] Guided by an effort to take the hope of patients and the doctors who treat them seriously, Song’s overarching argument is that only by understanding the experiences of those engaged in experimental medicine can we assess the complicated ethical and technological landscapes in which transnational treatments are sought and performed. […] Song’s ethnographic research […] brings insight into questions about what counts as evidence in current biomedical research regimes, and how what passes as fact does or does not map onto ideas of truth. This chapter would work wonderfully in the undergraduate classroom, but is sophisticated enough to shape future conversations in social studies of science and medicine. […] Song’s text raises important questions about how to write transnational and multi-sited ethnography while maintaining in-depth historical and social analysis of place-based ethnographic research. The book leads one to ask: how are the boundaries of fieldwork sites changing, not only as the result of the virtual technologies and biomedical odysseys that increasingly define the contemporary, but also as the result of changing definitions and standards of “ethnography” in and outside of the discipline? […] Song’s book challenges conventional ethnographic form in a topically appropriate way. […] The book would function well as a point of discussion in courses asking how the anthropological project might (re)define fieldwork and ethnography in a “transnational” moment.

Reviewed in Asian Medicine 13: 378-380 (September 2018)

by Christine Luk (Tsinghua University):

Priscilla Song’s Biomedical Odysseys is a gripping account of the epic journeys of Euro-American neurodegenerative disease sufferers pursuing experimental fetal cell therapy in Beijing, in the hope of bodily functional repair. It is also about one remarkable Chinese entrepreneurial doctor operating on the fringes of regenerative medicine, administrative red tape, and market ideologies. Writing at the forefront of biomedical advances, Song’s narrative nevertheless flows with deep empathy and thrilling sensations and effectively draws the reader into this cross-cultural, boundary-defying, and digitally assisted world of twenty-first century medical care. […] Biomedical Odysseys is a herculean achievement. Bringing together hopeful patients seeking new forms of treatment abroad, a business-oriented Chinese neurosurgeon bypassing bureaucratic hoops to achieve personal, professional, and national fame, and many other voices, this marvelous monograph presents a remarkably engaging ethnography for readers to navigate this complicated world of transnational health care, medical bureaucracy, and ethical-epistemological controversy. It is a highly valuable contribution to China studies, medical anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, bioethics, and studies of alternative medicines and will likely win the admiration of many readers in the years to come.

Reviewed in China Quarterly 238: 543-544 (June 2019)

by Yeyang Su (University of Sussex):

Biomedical Odysseys is an anthropological reflection on the experiences of foreign patients who engage with experimental foetal cell therapy developed and operated by medical entrepreneurs in contemporary, urban China. […] Song uses a set of comparisons to analyse her rich data. She highlights the differences between China and the United States on the political economy of biomedical innovation, health care systems and institutional settings. She also provides nuanced analyses of how patients experience and assess experimental foetal cell therapy in a variety of ways according to their diseases and specific bodily, family and social-economic conditions, including care practice, moral values and religious beliefs. These differences, Song reveals, all contribute to the sustained transnational pursuit of experimental foetal cell therapy. […] Biomedical Odysseys demonstrates the strength of anthropological research that spans multiple terrains and traces the origin and development of experimental biomedical therapy that excites some and dismays some others. The ethnographic insight that Song presents on the experiences of patients and carers shakes the static image of “desperate patients duped by medical charlatans in third-world countries.”