Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Infertile Futures: Sperm and Science in a Chinese Environment


Based primarily on fieldwork conducted over one year in Beijing and Nanjing, two centers of scientific research and environmental activism in the People's Republic of China, my study explores the ways both scientists and social scientists envision and establish the relationship between exterior environmental problems and interior reproductive health concerns. I argue that during investigations into the quality and quantity of sperm in contemporary China, scientists both examine and produce toxic `environments' of exposure. Toxicologists find that their research subjects embody China's history of industrialism and rapid social change, which become investigable through genetic and epigenetic studies of sperm. Through interviews with faculty and graduate students at multiple universities, participant observation at reproductive toxicology laboratories, and interviews at environmental activist organizations, I explore the way experts and activists bring Chinese environments into being, and the way these environments are found to correlate with changes to reproductive health in China.

Reflections from fieldwork have been brought to questions of interest within anthropology more generally, including the definitions and relationships between nature and culture, the universal and particular, the individual and the collective, as well as the body and what stands outside it. Each chapter is concerned with how anthropologists today make sense of interiors and exteriors, content and context. I bring these concerns first and foremost to scientific practice, using the methodology of those I study as a guide for what an anthropology of sperm (and perhaps the body and illness) might look like. In particular, I argue that epigenetic studies of male infertility and birth defects use sperm-environment interaction as a means to understand the biological impact of social processes on the body. The infertility of a toxic Chinese environment, whether brought into being in the laboratory or conceptualized as a devastated national landscape, is understood as correlated with the infertility of male Chinese bodies. Scientists are, then, embracing an understanding of biosocial problems that transcend both biological causation and individual responsibility to enable a form of social critique that takes seriously the epistemological and ontological stakes of thinking environmentally across bodies, generations and domains.

Second, I bring these concerns of interiors/exteriors, content and context to questions of scientific translation, asking: how do scientific findings move between transnational, expert and disciplinary domains, even as these contexts (or environments) are brought into being through scientific practice? I argue that scientific practice in China today is effective at translating between domains because of, not in spite of, the toxicity and ambiguity of the environment. Toxicity allows science to proceed, even as reproductive toxicologists work to expose the damage that accompanies toxic exposure. Understood as multiplicity, the ambiguity of the environment benefits scientists, who meet multiple ethical and material research demands. The environment's ambiguity also facilitates an indirect environmental activism, which strives to evoke public attention toward environmental destruction through correlation, not causation. Here, the political stakes of correlative findings prove as if not more powerful than causative evidentiary claims.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View