Dr Gulzaar Barn explores the ethics of the buying and selling of ‘bodily labour’ such as commercial surrogacy, live organ donation and paid participation in clinical trials, and how concern about these services might make the body out of bounds.  

Tell us about yourself

I’m a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Before this, I was finishing up my DPhil in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. I wasn’t always sure that I wanted to be an academic, having also worked in politics and human rights related roles, interests of mine that are reflected in my philosophical research, which is typically more on the applied and political side of things.

I became interested in philosophy after devouring Marx as a teenager and discovering its potential for subversive critique. Since then, I have been interested in the kind of philosophy that interrogates real world issues, disrupting common sense thinking and forcing us to re-evaluate entrenched beliefs. I have been interested in politics and social affairs for as long as I can remember, having grown up in a household where such topics were dinnertime conversation. Both my parents migrated to this country as children, and so I grew up learning about British colonialism, the partition of India and its displacing effects on my family, and the racism that they encountered when they arrived (and beyond). These experiences were highly formative and influenced me to pursue a career where I could harness this critical outlook.

What is the area of your research?

My research spans social, moral, and political philosophy, and is particularly engaged with the ethical dimensions of contemporary practical issues, such as punishment, health, and work. I am also particularly interested in perspectives on the body, as well as theories of justice more generally.

At the moment, my research focuses on transactions that involve the human body, such as kidney selling, commercial surrogacy, and clinical research trials – what I call embodied labour. A common criticism of such transactions is that they are exploitative, often attracting those worst off, for the benefit of those who can afford to pay. However, I believe there is more to this issue than exploitation, as economically desperate people enter into all sorts of low paid jobs that do not seem to provoke the same level of concern. Rather, I think our ability to identify what it feels like to live in a body, and the social significance of our bodies, helps explain this visceral reaction, and is something that should be taken into account when legislating on this issue.

I’ve recently designed and convened a course on feminist perspectives on the body and beauty practices – an area that has been relatively underexplored since the second wave radical feminist critiques of beauty and traditional femininity. Designing this course allowed me to explore what the ‘choice’ to participate truly means in the context of great social pressure, and in light of the costs of non-compliance. Relatedly, I’m also interested in issues to do with sex, consent, and objectification, and believe this area of research is particularly valuable in light of the #metoo movement and current shift towards deconstructing masculinity, femininity, and the social relations produced by gender-based norms.

What is the importance of this research?

Issues about the body and bodily vulnerability are somewhat neglected from mainstream philosophy, which has tended to focus on perfectly able, disembodied agents, devoid of particular characteristics. A focus on the body, however, relates to the real, context-dependent, material conditions affecting individuals – features that might compromise the presumed objectivity of much philosophical discussion.

In particular, philosophical explorations of surrogacy, clinical trials, and kidney selling, tend to abstract away from the nature of the labour, in favour of focusing on whether payment is fair, or whether consent is forthcoming. In treating embodied labour as ordinary employment, therefore, the visceral and tangible role that the body and lived bodily experience play, are obscured. Yet it seems the natureof what is being sold is of utmost importance.

What follows if these are simply jobs like any other? Can jobseekers therefore be conscripted to undertake such jobs and have their benefits revoked if they refuse? If not, then why is this the generally accepted protocol for other ‘ordinary’ jobs? What role is the body playing in our divergent assessment of these two situations? Alternatively, if such transactions have been consented to, is this the end of the matter? These questions matter more than ever as technology advances. We are witnessing a changing relationship with our bodies as they are transformed into alienable units for sale, and it would seem that theory needs to catch up with practice.

Dr Gulzaar Barn, one of ten academics selected by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a New Generation Thinker, is a philosophy lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the Indian commercial surrogacy industry, and its parallels with other instances of ‘embodied labour,’ such as kidney selling and paid participation in clinical trials.

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