Tubman Speaker Series: Denielle Elliott on the ethics and politics of labour practices in clinical trial research in East Africa

The Tubman Speaker Series is pleased to present Professor Denielle Elliott and her talk on “Lean Production, Labour Politics and Clinical Trial Research in East Africa” on Thursday, February 27th from 3:30pm to 5:00pm in S701 Ross.

At a work retreat in Mombasa, Kenya for a large multi-sited clinical trial staff listen intently to a presentation on Toyota factory principles in China. The presentation includes the infamous propaganda poster and slogan, ‘The Great Leap Forward,’ yet the irony is lost. However, the message is clear, – the clinical trial needs to be more “lean” and Toyota’s practices in China offer a solution. Although the parallel between producing cars and testing patients is confusing for many in the audience, they aptly understand 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%, where many fully employed trial staff members do not have an acceptable standard of living, where there is no state welfare program, and where AIDS research has become a significant source of income for the nation state. Drawing on the work of Melinda Cooper (2008) and Aihwa Ong (1999), Elliott draws attention to the ethics and politics of unlawful and unregulated labour practices in transnational clinical trials and the challenges of writing about this in the context of collaborative, ethnographic projects.

Elliott photoDenielle Elliott is a cultural anthropologist who is interested in medicine and biosciences; her research explores the political economy of pharmaceuticals, state regulatory policies and practices, and the biopolitics of medical research with postcolonial 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 (RCTs), documenting the ways in which landscapes, public spaces, and socialities are reimagined and reconfigured through ‘global’ scientific practices. She teaches in the Health and Society Program at York University.

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