How vaccines come to matter: A feminist STS encounter with the politics of vaccines

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Copyright: Pala, Roberta
This thesis examines the relationship between bodies, politics, and vaccines. I am writing in the context of a pandemic during which vaccines are at the centre of public, political, scientific and media attention. The pandemic has quite clearly exposed the uncertainties and complexities of vaccine research in practice, and the inadequacy of understanding scientific practices as smooth, universalised and disentangled from social dynamics. This thesis tells the story of vaccines as political material encounters. This framing problematises the technological hubris that reduces medical accomplishments to purely biological terms, and questions reinvigorated calls to separate science from politics. Informed by a science and technology studies (STS) perspective and more specifically feminist sensitivities of STS work, I point to the entangled nature of social and scientific events, and to the non-universality of the subject of medical research. The central claim that I make, and work with, across this thesis is that the indeterminacy of vaccines – their social, political and material contingency – is in fact key to the way in which vaccines work. At a time of heightened concern around the public uptake of vaccines, where heroic narratives of the ways in which vaccines work have come to dominate public discourse, in this thesis I explore the grounds for a humbler disposition toward vaccination. I argue that, understanding the situated material configuration of vaccines and their broader social and political co-production provides a vantage point for reassessing the conditions that enable vaccines to work. This insight allows me to claim that vaccines only exist through the material relations they emerge from. I call these relations ‘encounters’ and my exploration of the indeterminacies of vaccines as a practice of ‘encountering’. Rather than ask what vaccines ‘are’, my thesis askes how vaccines come to matter, how they relate to, and at the same time make and enact, specific ideas of bodies, immunity, health and collectivity. I analyse how vaccines encounter nature through the pathogens they are developed to build protection from; how they encounter multispecies bodies in the laboratory practices that produce them; how vaccines encounter the immune system through the phenomenon of immunological memory; and finally, how vaccines encounter communities of bodies through the phenomenon of herd immunity. For each of these encounters, first I consider how these relations are often understood as neutral, fixed, and predetermined outcomes. Then, a further consideration of their material intricacies and the meanings they enact allows me to expose the political and ethical stakes of these arrangements. Understanding vaccines as encounters, focusing on the situated, material, relational condition of their enactments, will open up the possibility to propose different configurations of these encounters and alternative political and ethical sensibilities related to vaccines as relational technologies of bodies, health and community.
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PhD Doctorate
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