Current Sociology

Sociologist of the Month, September 2021

Please welcome our Sociologist of the Month for September 2021, Yoshie Yanagihara (School of Science and Engineering, Tokyo Denki University, Japan). Her article for Current Sociology, The practice of surrogacy as a phenomenon of ‘bare life’: An analysis of the Japanese case applying Agamben’s theory is Free Access this month.

Yoshie Yanagihara

Could you please tell us about yourself? How did you come to your field of study?

Y. Yanagihara: I originally majored in biology, wanting to be a scientist. Through my studies in college, I realized that my real interest was in grasping the social meanings of scientific phenomena, rather than working in a lab. Those days, the most interesting topic for me was the discussion between those embracing biological essentialism and those promoting social constructionist views of gender. Although I largely agreed with the opinions of social constructionists, as a student of biology, I sympathized with some of the ideas voiced by their critics from the natural sciences.

In graduate school, I studied bioethics and sociology. Focusing on these two disciplines allowed me to analyze social issues from multiple perspectives, whether concrete, evidence-based views or social constructionist conceptions of “life” and “body.” Originally, my interest did not concern reproductive technologies. I had been researching the social meanings of scientific discourse created for the benefit of men to make use of women’s (sexual) bodies. At a certain point, in the early 2000s, an epic case of commercial surrogacy went public in Japan. Through the influence of media coverage about the TV celebrities in the case, doctors from fertility clinics, and surrogacy agencies, surrogacy gradually became a desirable method for many Japanese women. Surprisingly, at the time, feminists, bioethicists, and sociologists were largely silent about the practice. They seemed to hesitate to offer an opinion. I was irritated by those who never raised their voices. Then, I began to research and explore surrogacy myself.

What prompted you to research the area of your article, “The practice of surrogacy as a phenomenon of ‘bare life’: An analysis of the Japanese case applying Agamben’s theory”?

Y. Yanagihara: Japan has a prior, long history of conducting surrogacy via sexual intercourse, up until the mid-twentieth century. Although surrogacy is usually considered a novel invention developed in the United States, hiring women to obtain children was far from new in East Asian culture. From a cultural perspective, the recent outcomes of empirical research examining discourses and narratives about surrogacy should be considered findings about how people have adopted a “new type of surrogacy” instead of illustrating the social aspects of conducting “surrogacy” as such. To unpack the social position of surrogacy, I began to see the necessity to analyze empirical data by applying more meta-level social theories.

From the perspective of bioethics, the social issues surrounding brain death and organ transplantation seemed to resemble those concerning surrogacy. To analyze such issues, Foucault’s ideas about biopolitics have often been employed as theoretical frameworks. Lately, Giorgio Agamben’s work in developing Foucault’s biopolitics further has articulated how specific people and their bodies are excluded from legal protection. I began to see that Foucault and Agamben’s frameworks could also be applied to surrogacy. Before writing the paper on “bare life,” I had published an article that applies the “anatomo-politics” and “bio-power” described by Foucault to surrogacy. This article explained how people draw a line between clients and surrogate mothers, employing “racism,” in Foucault’s explanation. As a result, a new question presented itself: how does modern society allow people to make use of those discriminated through bio-power? Then, I hit upon the idea to apply Agamben’s theory.

What do you see as the key findings of your article?

Y. Yanagihara: Much social research about surrogacy has examined discourses, calling upon the sacred and profane dichotomy. People assign sacredness to surrogate mothers and their relinquished children, even while society treats them as commodities. My empirical research on Japanese discourse also yielded similar findings. But one question kept coming to mind: what makes people share the same contradictory sentiments, even if they are justified by different religious underpinnings?

Employing Agamben’s idea of “bare life” helped to solve this puzzle. Applying his theory to Japanese discourse on surrogacy, I was able to explain the paradox. The simultaneous sacralization and commoditization of surrogate mothers and children was not a contradiction; it was a “reasonable” phenomenon. Construing them as a juridico-political phenomenon changed the horizon for analyzing surrogacy and allowed me to organize the discourses into a simple set of biopolitical meanings.

In fact, I did not necessarily expect this result. I simply had an intuition that Agamben’s theory might help explain surrogacy. Once I applied his concepts to my empirical dataset on surrogate mothers, it fit rather well, better than I had anticipated. Then, I applied it to the children, and it also made sense. It was an amazing moment. I realized that I had finally found a “key” for explaining the contradiction that seemed inherent in surrogacy discourses.

What are the wider social implications of your research in the current social climate? How do you think things will change in the future?

Y. Yanagihara: My research tries to bring together past diffuse perspectives of surrogacy into the order of modern society, in which women’s reproductive functions (and the resulting children) are controlled by biomedical knowledge inside of a “double exclusion.” The article on bare life therefore implies that women’s reproductive functions and the associated bodies (not just limited to surrogacy cases) are easily manipulated by others through particular knowledge in modern society. People are so disturbed by surrogacy’s “modernness” that they believe bodily manipulation via modern knowledge is also a part of modernity, one that enlightens humanity. The idea of biopolitics focuses on this deception.

In the arena of sociology, past discussions of social issues related to women’s bodies have tried to avoid talking about scientific knowledge or have engaged in deconstructing it. Lacking a language that actually protects women’s bodies, such efforts have resulted instead in jeopardizing women’s physical bodies. Now that we know that it is possible to examine and interrogate the “body” by employing theories of biopolitics, other sociologists must also begin to delve into issues concerning women’s bodies. Only then will they be able to expose the “invisible” discrimination against these bodies.

Do you have any links to images, documents or other pieces of research which build on or add to the article? Or a suggested reading list?

Y. Yanagihara: One of my past articles illustrates how using women’s bodies for surrogacy gained acceptance in Japanese culture. In the 1990s, Japanese culture even seemed to condone the idea perpetrated by some sociologists and feminists that school-age girls might sell their bodies in order to raise their self-esteem. Although they did not use “scientific” knowledge to support such a recommendation, the modern knowledge of democracy and the idea of “autonomy” was employed to spread the idea. The structure is the same as that of contemporary reproductive technologies, in which discourse associated with modernity authorizes the manipulation of women’s bodies.

Yanagihara, Y (2019) What constitutes ‘autonomy’ in the Japanese civil sphere? In: Alexander, JC, Palmer, DA, Park, S, Ku, AS-M (eds) The Civil Sphere in East Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

When I studied biopolitics, I had trouble locating work that explained Foucault’s “anatomo-politics” and Agamben’s research on brain death and organ transplantation. Some concepts within biopolitics, which emphasized the actual body, seemed to have disappeared. An Italian philosopher whom I visited to learn about Agamben’s theory recently wrote an English-language textbook for readers like me. I recommend this textbook to people who cannot access French and Italian works but still have an interest in biopolitics and its influence on the body. Because current biopolitics is so diverse, people often confuse some of its concepts. This book clearly maps out and navigates various theories on biopolitics, including those developed by Anglophone scholars.

Marzocca, O. (2020) Biopolitics for beginners. Knowledge of life and government of people. Milan: Mimesis International