2020 Forsythe Prize Winners

About the Prize

The Diana Forsythe Prize was created in 1998 to celebrate the best book or series of published articles in the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s feminist anthropological research on work, science, or technology, including biomedicine. The prize is awarded annually at the AAA meeting by a committee consisting of one representative from the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW) and two from CASTAC. It is supported by the General Anthropology Division (GAD) and Bern Shen.

 

Mythri Jegathesan, Tea and Solidarity

Mythri Jegathesan, Tea and Solidarity

Tea and Solidarity will change how you think about structural violence, reproductive futurity, decolonial methodologies, and desire. 

This book is set in the Tamil Hill Country of Sri Lanka, where the tea industry seeks to accumulate profit at the expense of cheap labor. While nostalgic tea-industry advertisements continue to romanticize colonial-era Ceylon, Jegathesan introduces us to workers who aspire to become something other than “coolies.” Insights about potentials for transformation, with futures unknown, will travel far beyond the particularities of these workers in transition. Optimism, happiness, and possibilities are carefully described against a backdrop of structural violence, racism, and patriarchy. This is a story of human innovation by structurally marginalized laborers who actualize their desires within imperial, industrial, and national terrains of life and work. Hegemonic forces are shaping the contours of desire in Sri Lanka, as powerful political projects aim to control the social relations, experiences, and futures of workers. Jegathesan deftly shows how the data regimes which count and categorize plantation life often miss the forms of accounting most salient for plantation workers themselves, which track births and deaths, accumulate debt for wedding ceremonies, and mobilize political agitation around rights to residence. Hill Country Tamils find alternative futures of national and transnational solidarity through what Jegathesan calls a poiēsis of desire. 

Writing within the long legacy of feminist science and technology studies exemplified by past winners of the Forsythe Prize, Jegathesan shows how tea plantation owners seek to control their workers “from the womb to the tomb.” Here the forced sterilization of women takes place in situations “not necessarily without consent.” Women are “choosing” to be sterilized in Tamil Hill Country as tea plantation midwives and officials convince workers that they have no other choice given their situation of poverty and immobility. Within this space of discursive and actual violence, Tea and Solidarity is a moving account of the value of women’s work, not as mere accumulation by dispossession but as testament to the durability of life itself. 

For those who love Ceylon tea, this book is a must read. It is an important resource for anyone concerned with the politics of work, science, and technology. Jegathesan shows that it is possible to expose past records of violence, and ongoing injustices, while pushing for more equitable ways of living and being.

Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA (Honorable Mention)

The Social Life of DNA is a thoughtful expose of anti-racist projects linked to cutting-edge genetic technologies. A subtle tale of science and justice. Timely, urgent, and profoundly important.

Nelson is an astute reader of genetic evidence, who concludes that “DNA is Janus-faced.” Genetic evidence can produce convictions, but also exonerations. While genetic science has a racist legacy, now DNA technologies are being deployed in new anti-racist social and political projects.

DNA tests have been artfully deployed by black geneticists, activists, genealogists, and lawyers in reparations struggles. Large insurance companies and banks that directly profited from slavery were targetted by plaintiffs who used genetic genealogy testing to establish links to ancestors who had been “kidnapped, tortured and shipped in chains to the United States.” This is a story of tactical ingenuity by savvy intellectuals who made innovative appropriations of technology and novel legal arguments. While the legal arguments were largely unsuccessful in court, Nelson illustrates how these cases can inform a “radical politics after the genome.”

 Social justice involves work of transformation and imagination, according to Nelson. Lived experiences of racist discrimination are being transformed by new approaches to human biology. Science alone will not drive social change, Nelson insists. She chronicles past successes and failures, to illustrate future possibilities. The Social Life of DNA is a playbook for coming generations who might engage in their own imaginative appropriations of biotechnology.