World's Fair

Part 1 (below) | 2 | 3 | 4

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Note: This author-meets-blogger set was produced by guest blogger Jody Roberts, whose prior contributions can be found here, here, and here.

On behalf of The World’s Fair, Roberts recently cornered historian and STS scholar Michelle Murphy to talk about her award-winning book Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Duke University Press, 2006).

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Odds are you’re reading this edition of author-meets-blogger while sitting at your desk in your office. Odds are that office is a virtual synthetic chemical wonderland – plastic computer components, plastic desk; synthetic fibers doused in flame retardants so that your seat doesn’t go up in flames while you’re sitting on it; and of course the lovely woven carpet designed to absorb the thundering of feet down the hallway and to cleverly hide-away the coffee you spilled when you fell asleep in your chair. And odds are where you sit, and how your office is designed says a lot about the type of work you’re expected to do.

While the organization and disciplining of labor through strict control of space is not new to us today, the ubiquity of the synthetic materials used to construct that space is a recent artifact. In her book, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty, (which was just named the 2008 recipient of the Fleck Prize for the best book in science and technology studies by the Society for the Social Studies of Science) Michelle Murphy teases out the co-construction of the modern office space with the concomitant crises that resulted. (Humans, as it turns out, are not simply machines and can’t be programmed to work in machine-like spaces – go figure.)

Michelle Murphy is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Back in 2004, she co-edited Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments (with Gregg Mitman and Chris Sellers), a foundational volume in bringing historical and social science perspectives to bear on the intersection of place and disease. She’s also working on two new projects, a book tentatively titled Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Technology, Feminist Health, and Biopolitics in the Age of American Empire and “The Economization of Life” that will explore the history of cold-war American imperial projects linking fertility, capitalist development, and environment, with a particular focus on Bangladesh.

This is the twelfth in a series of “Author Meets Bloggers” posts, where the Worlds Fair talks to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows below is part one of a four-part conversation. Please be encouraged to post questions or comments for Michelle Murphy and other readers.

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THE WORLD’S FAIR: So, we have to start with the obvious question: What is “sick building syndrome”?

MICHELLE MURPHY: Sure, though first of all, thanks Jody for suggesting this conversation at The World’s Fair. Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a strange diagnosis that came into being in the early 1980s in the U.S. (also in the U.K., and Scandinavia) to name unexplained episodes of mass health complaints by workers in office buildings.

WF: Like what kinds of mass health complaints?

MM: People pointed to all sorts of things, like sinus infections, respiratory infections, skin rashes, dizziness, and so on. It fascinated me that the diagnosis was given to the building, and not the people in it. Moreover, typically labor unrest, and even protest, were required to transform mass complaints into SBS, and thus it became a diagnosis linked to the rise of unionization and labor activism among office workers in the Reagan era. The oddness of SBS goes even further. An episode can only be called SBS if no explanation or cause is identified. In other words, SBS became a way to gather under a common rubric all sorts of environmental and low-level chemical exposures. Therefore, SBS became a diagnosis through which the politics of low level and indoor chemical exposures was grappled with and politicized.

WF: It seems as though it’s the first time that what we might now refer to as low-dose exposures really got taken seriously. But the context is so different from now. Low doses of chemicals from indoor air still remain a potent source of exposure and research, particularly with classes of compounds like flame retardants and PVC. But the real emphasis now in the low-dose world is on things like plasticizers (BPA and phthalates, e.g.) and pesticides and herbicides. How has this shaped the ongoing politics of SBS, if at all?

MM: SBS was formulated as a labor issue, which I don’t think is how these other kinds of low dose exposures today are politicized and researched. If we take the example of BPA, it is politicized via consumption (though I am sure you would offer a more complex account). So, this would cause me to reflect on the ways that production, labor, and consumption get joined and severed in a longer history of politicizing chemicals.

WF: Gender plays a prominent role in your story – but in two different ways. In the first, SBS is more clearly identified with women (that is, it becomes a “woman’s disease”) and in the second the sciences utilized by the women are also gender-identified. That is, the women relied on sciences like epidemiology and informal surveys to try and make their case, to make visible their disease.

MM: I would put it slightly differently. On the one hand, SBS became associated with women because the grunt workers in office buildings tended to be women. This gendering then opened possibilities for workers’ claims of SBS to be delegitimated by mobilizing old notions of female mass hysteria and other gender stereotypes. Moreover, SBS is a manifestation of the shift to the female service worker, and not the male industrial worker, as the prototypical laborer of the late twentieth century America. In fact, SBS emerged as the labor activism of office and service workers exceeded that of industrial workers.

WF: I hadn’t thought about the changing make-up of the “labor” force taking place at that moment. What about the science used by these women?

MM: In terms of how gender shapes epistemology, I try to show how the knowledge-making practices of both experts and workers made use of gender. So, for example, since most office workers were women, both their labor activism and their activism around chemical exposures mobilized techniques from the feminist movement, such as consciousness raising, which emphasized drawing together small details to form analyses of structural oppressions usually trivialized. The use of surveys – in both popular epidemiology practices around chemical exposures in the 1970s, but also the longer social survey movement – was also profoundly gendered and raced. That is, “social surveys” came into being as a grassroots technique in the early 20th century crafted by politicized intellectuals – ranging from Jane Adams to W.E. B. DuBois – to mark the work of oppressions in shaping people’s health, living conditions, and attitudes. In other words, the epistemological tactics of workers around SBS were not only drawing on the work of gender, but also traditions of politicized, community-connected social science affiliated with anti-racism. The environmental justice movement of today shares in this genealogy.

WF: How so?

MM: Surveys have been an important part of anti-racist knowledge production for over a century. Politically engaged intellectuals starting with DuBois mapped and tallied conditions in specific places, like Philadelphia, to argue that characteristics like poverty, illiteracy, or ill health was not an effect of biological racial difference, but an effect of local geographic conditions – poor housing, lack of sanitation, no schools, and so on. Likewise, in the early twentieth century, Chicago school sociologists continued this work, showing both in the South, in Eastern cities, and in California that social conditions produced by racism shaped the attributes then associated with “race.” Both DuBois, working with Quakers, and Chicago sociologists, working with Methodist preachers, drew on histories of Christian dissent. When the United Church of Christ used government demographic data to correlate zip codes with the location of incinerators in the early 1980s, they were drawing on this tradition of anti-racist research.

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Pt 1 (above) | 2 | 3 | 4

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I: Michael Egan on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism
II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy
III: Saul Halfon on population , demography, and women’s empowerment
IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics
V: David Hess on Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
VI: Lizzie Grossman on e-trash and global environmental policy
VII: Shobita Parthasarathy on genetics and the politics of Science and Technology
VIII: Aaron Sachs on Humboldt and the explorer-origins of environmentalism
IX: Jan Golinski on British Enlightenment culture and the Weather
X: Kelly Joyce on MRI and Visual Knowledge
XI: D. Graham Burnett on whether whales are fish and who says so


  1. #1 Zauberer Hochzeit
    February 26, 2013

    hey buddy, this is a extremely exciting write-up