Transforming Refugees

Bio-politics and medical construction of Southeast Asian Immigrant Subjects

Seminar Paper, 2005

10 Pages, Grade: A



I. Introduction

II. Normalizing Subjects

III. Screening Processes

IV. Cultural Invisibility

V. Transformed Realities

VI. Notes

VII. Bibliographies

Transforming Refugees: Biopolitics and medical construction of Southeast Asian Immigrant Subjects

"Bio-power brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge/power an agent of transformation of human life" (HS 143)

-Michel Foucault


The point of this essay is not to argue that biomedicine has become a mechanism for establishing political or cultural identity for refugees entering the U.S. Neither does it claim that modern biomedicine influences define the character and needs of immigrants. Rather, it seeks to establish that each verifies the other and it seeks to present biomedicine as a mediator of physical realities that gives nation-states justification for domination and control of immigrants and refugees. We will first trace the emergence of the "gaze" in a historical context to its formation as a classificatory concept and mechanism of power relations. Then, we will discuss the central role of cultural citizenship and its impact on the processes of immigration and assimilation.


When considering modalities of citizenship making, we must examine the criteria by which nations and states regulate processes of selection and the relations of power politics used to normalize and adjust subjects rendering them loyal, governable citizens. In our times, the State's capacity to define cultural identity within very explicit and oftentimes implicit socio-economic contexts and to construct and manipulate social processes enables it to increasingly determine the lives and activities of humans as subjects. A careful study of Western European history reveals that the use of "normalizing judgment," often ambiguously disguised, successfully solicited compliance and acted to influence the affairs of human populations by altering the terms of their self-understanding. Foucault describes this practice as an attempt to "manipulate the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected." (Foucault, 1977). Within this context, biopolitics contributes to a conceptual scheme of power relations by focusing on a methodological approach that seeks to define, exclude, marginalize and minimize cultural difference. Yet, this is not a new sociopolitical process. Nor does it present for the first time a conceptual framework that uses disciplinary systems aimed at reconstructing productive, governable subjects.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the biomedical "gaze," as a political rationale, assisted European nations in the expansion and control of non-European territories and formulated an explicit discourse that articulated a certain imagery carrying with it a pervasive interpretation of the relationship of the human body (Foucault, 1973, Comaroff, 1992, Ong, 1996). Indeed, the dialogues of colonialism promoted concepts and images about the dangers of the "unclean" body and its threat to the decency, cleanliness and health of the colonial order (Comaroff, 1992). A more dramatic example of this process is demonstrated by disease distribution. We know for instance that during the seventh and eighth centuries, the term "leper" became a socio-cultural construct that was used to identify the "purity" of insiders versus the "dangers" of outsiders. Armed with Old Testament beliefs and ideas as a framework, any skin related problems, deadened nerve endings or collapsing bones became associated with the disease. As a form of hegemonic control, this construct brought about new social processes. One such example was the practice of social mediation by rigorously policing human movement. Another form appears in the capacity to summon medical experts from outside a community to judge truth by way of expert pronouncements. Today, biopolitics takes on a similar role providing conceptualizations that are inextricably bound up with the politics of power in a scheme for the regulation of human populations.

Normalizing Subjects

The fusion of scientific investigation, the rise of colonialism, and the spread of western cultural ideals constitute the essential elements founding the rationale for relations that shaped what's often referred to as the "normative gaze." In fact, colonialistic expansion armed with the biological theories of influential European scholars such as Petrus Camper, George Cuvier, and Johann Friedrick Blumenbach thrust upon the world concepts that dictated fixed and unchanging attributes of humanity for the nineteenth century (Comaroff, 1992, Molnar, 1998). In this social space, structures were laid that determined the discourse on what we now term "race."

Moreover, this structured space configured the fundamental system of relations responsible for concepts and beliefs in racial types that condensed into the language of scientific racism that would mature during the early twentieth century. However, let us first examine the concept of "normal" and how it drew its influential form from Europe's early encounters with the non- European world.

European science articulated a conception that was formulated mostly by expeditions of missionary crusaders into India, Asia, and Africa. Coupled with the effects of disease on early missionaries and subsequent reports sent back to Europe, reactions to non-European countries and cultures was often fear and surprise on one hand and loathsomeness on the other. For example, Robert Moffat (1842), the father-in-law of David Livingston an early pioneer of the London Missionary Society received a report that stated:

"Africa still lies in her blood. She wants.. .all the machinery we possess, for ameliorating her wretched condition. Shall we, with a remedy that may safely be applied, neglect to heal her wounds? Shall we, on whom the lamp of life shines, refuse to disperse her darkness?" (Comaroff, 1992)

Here we see and example of the cultural logic of the "civilizing" mission. Moffat went on to publish his Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa in 1842, which made him an imminent figure in British society while Livingston's writings went on to receive tremendous circulation in the scientific and popular media of the times. The implications of these writings, confirmed and reinforced by what was believed to be scientific evidence transmitted a well-constructed fabrication about the nature of the bodily form of non-Europeans.

During the late nineteenth century, the two-dimensional space of classificatory medicine took on a very paradoxical quality. On the one hand, the well-founded corpus of medical knowledge proceeded down a path that made visible the definition of the relationship between the body and disease. On the other, it proceeded toward that which conceals it. In his important work on the medical gaze "Birth of the Clinic," Foucault states that " of the tasks of medicine, therefore, is to rejoin its own condition, but by a path in which it must efface each of its steps, because it attains its aim in gradual neutralization of itself. The condition of its truth is the necessity that blurs its outlines (Foucault, 1973). The obscurity that Foucault posits is the historical conditions of the medical discourse that transformed from transparency and clarity to obscurity, from a system of words that uncovers the rational order of disease and illness to a system that is complex and intermingled with politics. It is at this point, we approach the notion of biopolitics. Not only did this new concept of medicine change the social importance and prestige of medical doctors, it facilitated a politics of health and disease - a politics that is regulated by the relations of power. The basis of this perception lies where the gaze meets the individual and the individual meets the State.

Screening Processes

I arrived at the airport in Qui Nhon, Vietnam early because I wanted to make sure that I would be able to get a seat on the first available plane heading to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. My two years in a war-torn country almost completed, I was happy to be going back "across the pond." 2 After checking in and finding a comfortable place to put my bags and sit down (there is no baggage check when "hopping" 3 a free ride on an Air Force military plane), I could not help noticing a young Vietnamese woman with a baby sitting with a young white GI. Apparently, she was married to the GI and he was going back to the states with his Vietnamese wife and Amerasian4 child. Again, I could not help noticing how every two hours or so, the GI would go back to the counter and check to see if a plane had come in with available seating for him and his family. Repeatedly, the white GI behind the counter would claim that nothing had become available and assured the traveling GI to just wait. I had come out of the field two weeks early and had been in the "rear" 5 waiting for orders to go home and had become somewhat accustomed to waiting long hours. However, I noticed that the GI with his family seemed to be somewhat impatient. It never occurred to me at the time that he had been there for days trying to get a flight out and was only getting the run-around. Finally, after about six or seven hours my name was called. I went to the counter, showed my ETS6 orders and was given a pass and instructions on which flight to catch and where. I mentioned the white GI and his family and that I could wait a little longer because they had been there before me. It was then that they told me that he had been there for a few days trying to get a flight (in a snickering kind of way) and that it would be a long time before they gave "them" one. So, I gathered my bags and as I left the airport's transportation waiting room, I could not help thinking that the only reason the GI was getting the run-around was because he was white and married to a Vietnamese woman. This was my first encounter with racism of a different sort and my first introduction to the difficulties inherent in gaining entrance into the U.S., custom requirements and "screening processes."

Southeast Asian refugees were viewed, in terms of the gaze, as the "contagious others" and efforts to treat and transform them were undertaken. During the communist regime of Pol Pot in 1979, millions of Cambodian peasants and intellectuals were exterminated precipitating a massive escape to refugee camps near the Thai-Cambodian border. Agencies were set up to "screen and socialize" refugees through programs for resettlement into host countries.


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Transforming Refugees
Bio-politics and medical construction of Southeast Asian Immigrant Subjects
California State University, East Bay  (California State University, Los Angeles and Denver Institute of Urban Studies)
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This paper was authored by Neil Turner, Ph.D., Medical and Urban Anthropology, Denver Institute of Urban Studies. It was presented at the 7th Annual International Social Theory Consortium Conference, 2006 Sponsor: The Alliance of Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought Virginia Tech University, Roanoke, VA And the 2nd Annual Graduate Student Conference in Cultural and Social Anthropology, 2006 Sponsor: The Anthropology of Global Productions, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Transforming, Refugees, Bio-politics, Southeast, Asian, Immigrant, Subjects
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Dr. Neil Turner (Author), 2005, Transforming Refugees, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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