PhD Oral Exam - Mark Doerksen, Sociology and Anthropology
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
This doctoral research examines the Canadian and American grinder scenes to gain insight into the role of senses in understanding and responding to social problems. Grinders, a subset of biohackers, aim to enhance themselves by assimilating emerging material technologies (including, but not limited to, electronics) with their bodies through experiments and surgeries. They opt for a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach in order to maintain a sense of agency that might be lost if pursued through traditional means, such as ‘normalized’ medical research, ethically constrained university research, or market-driven private industry. How do grinders make sense (literally and figuratively) of their bodies as a site for enhancement?
The research design included three years of virtual ethnography of online grinder hubs, which were connected and contrasted with a concurrent two years of ‘real world’ participant observation ethnography at grinder laboratories and events. Data analysis applied actor-network theory to trace grinders’ sensory assemblages through a variety of on- and off-line sources. These included internet forum posts, IRC chat logs, and blogs, as well as 40 in-depth interviews, dozens of informal interviews, and direct observations of grinders planning, surgically implanting, and using their ‘enhancements.’ Results demonstrated how grinders position their bodies both broadly in relation to their current social circumstances, as well as specifically through three case studies involving magnetic implants, RFID tags, and body-computer interfaces.
This study is situated in Cyborg Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies to understand the relationship between bodies, technology, and culture. Findings suggest grinders conceive of the human body as an ironic hybrid of positivism and constructionism, determined by its techno-biological material yet simultaneously amenable to endless modification. In practice, however, the results of the tension between stability and variability tend to reinforce hegemonic social and economic relationships. What grinders ultimately enhance is the ability to adapt their physical bodies to social uncertainty brought about by the accelerating digital economy of information.