My two new books on unborn humans



Last month both my new books on the topic of the unborn (human embryos and foetuses) were published. One is an authored book, part of the Palgrave Pivot series, entitled The Social Worlds of the Unborn. The other, The Unborn Human, is an open access book that I edited as part of the Living Books about Life series published by the Open Humanities Press.

Both books deal with very similar issues and theoretical perspectives, and therefore complement each other nicely. The Social Worlds of the Unborn has five substantive chapters. The first chapter examines what I call ‘contingencies of the unborn’, drawing on sociological, anthropological, bioethical, philosophical and historical perspectives to highlight the dynamic nature of the ways we think about foetuses and embryos and the debates over the extent of their humanness and personhood. I then go on in the next chapter to discuss technologies for visualising the unborn, such as foetal photography and computer imaging and obstetric ultrasound. These have been particularly important technologies in opening up the uterus to the gaze so that we can see the previously mysterious entities that inhabit this space. I argue that visualising technologies have worked to represent unborn entities as already persons in their own right, autonomous from the maternal body, and indeed as already infants. These images also represent the unborn as beautiful, fragile and vulnerable entities requiring our utmost love and protection, and thus are powerful agents in anti-abortion politics.

In the third chapter of this book I focus on pregnant women’s perspectives on the unborn entities growing within their own bodies. I highlight the ambivalence that pregnant women often feel about this Other body inhabiting their own, as well as their difficulty in coming to terms with their ‘two-in-one’ bodies that depart so radically from the contained, unitary bodily norm. The concept of the ‘good mother’ often precludes acknowledgement that pregnant women may sometimes feel as if their unborn is antagonistic and even parasitic. Yet these feelings are not uncommon in pregnant women, in addition to the more culturally accepted notions of the unborn as precious proto-infants.

The next chapter goes on to examine the dead unborn, including discussion of abortion practices, policies and politics, decisions about the disposal of surplus IVF embryos and the mourning and memorialisation of unborn entities lost in miscarriage or stillbirth. It also looks at bioscientific definitions of the unborn and how working practices in the medical clinic or stem cell laboratory operate to deal with using matter from dead unborn entities. Here again issues concerning judgements about the humanness and status of personhood of various unborn entities are to the fore. I demonstrated that the context in which these entities are created and grow (or fail to develop) is vital to concepts of their value and vitality.

The final substantive chapter examines the concept of the endangered unborn, particularly in relation to how pregnant women are represented as posing a threat to their unborn through ignorance or deliberate negligence. I argue that the increasing humanisation and personalising of the unborn and their representation as precious, vulnerable and as already infants with full human privileges work to position them as more important than the women who bear them, who increasingly as positioned as vessels rather than as individuals with their own rights and needs that may differ from those of their unborn.

The edited book, The Unborn Human, takes up many of these issues. I review the contents of the book in my Introduction (‘Conceptualising and configuring the unborn human‘), showing how each item in the collection contributes to various ways of thinking about, treating, representing, creating or destroying unborn entities. Like the other books in the Living Books about Life series, The Unborn Human is a curated collection of material that is available as open access publications. Some of this material can be viewed via links to the website embedded in the book, while others can be directly accessed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence. This means that all of the articles and other materials included in the book, which range from historical documents to scientific, medical, bioethical, policy, sociological, anthropological and cultural studies articles as well as social and other digital media material such as websites, blog posts and YouTube videos, can be accessed for free (including my introduction using the link supplied above).

My new book: Risk, 2nd edition

My latest book was published recently. It is the second, fully revised edition of  Risk, a volume I contributed to Routledge’s Key Ideas in Sociology series. The first edition appeared in 1999, so it was interesting to see how much had changed in the theoretical and empirical landscape of the sociology of risk in the ensuing years.

In the first edition of Risk, I identified three major theoretical perspectives on risk in social and cultural theory. The first approach draws upon the work of Mary Douglas to articulate the ‘cultural/symbolic’ perspective on risk. The second approach is that of the ‘risk society’ perspective, based on the writings of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens. The third approach covered is that of the ‘governmentality’ perspective, which builds on Michel Foucault’s work.

No major theoretical perspectives have emerged since the first edition, but there have been some extensions of these established perspectives. The second edition adds discussion of new work by Beck and Giddens and governmentality writers in relation to the newly emerging threats of the twenty-first century, such as climate change, extreme weather events, terrorism and global financial crises. Beck’s recent writings on cosmopolitanism and world risk society are incorporated, as are those by Giddens on fundamentalism in relation to terrorism, and climate change politics.

New thoughts by governmentality scholars such as Mitchell Dean on precautionary risk are also covered. Precautionary risk is an approach that has recently emerged in neoliberal societies to deal with apparently incalculable and unpredictable risks. This strategy attempts to deal with great uncertainty about how to calculate and manage catastrophic risks, to govern the ungovernable threats of this new century that challenge neoliberalist ideals of progress, rational management and control.

As well as these theoretical directions, the book also includes discussion of many empirical research studies on risk published since the first edition, undertaken by researchers in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia. One change in the second edition is that I place more of a focus on the notion of risk and suffering, an aspect that did not receive much attention in the first edition. Scholarly and policy representations of risk often tend not to acknowledge the emotional dimensions  of feeling threatened by risk: the anxiety, fear and despair that  may accompany such experiences.

The new edition also includes discussion of the writings of my colleague and co-author John Tulloch (see Tulloch and Lupton, 2003), who was a victim of the 7 July 2005 London bombings. John has written about his unique position as a well-known scholar of risk and as someone who became the ‘face of the London bombings’ in the news media. He found himself in the difficult position of being used by Tony Blair’s government to support its anti-terrorist legislation even though he trenchantly opposed it. As such, John was able to critique political attempts to contain and control risk and media conventions of portraying risk.


Risk, concepts of space and place and the Other

"Notice! Closed Circuit Television" ...

“Notice! Closed Circuit Television” Sign (Rockville, MD) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Fears about risk tend to be projected onto certain social groups: those that are defined as the dangerous ‘risky’ Other, requiring control and intervention. As Mary Douglas’ (1969) writings have shown, the Other — that which is conceptualized as radically different from Self — is the subject of anxiety and concern, particularly if it threatens to blur boundaries, to overtake the Self. These anxieties and fears tend to emerge from and cohere around the body, which itself is a highly potent symbolic object.

Knowledge and meaning, as cultural geographers emphasise, are inevitably spatially as well as socially, politically and historically situated. Spatial metaphors and binary oppositions are central to notions of Self and Other. When we refer to the boundaries of the body/society, to the distinction between inside and outside, to the marginalised or excluded, we are relying on spatial metaphors and binary oppositions. Notions of space themselves are cultural objects, constructed through social, political and historical processes. But the importance of space and place in relation to concepts of riskiness lies not simply in their value as metaphor, but in their materiality. The members of ‘risky’ marginalised groups are viewed by the dominant group as polluting public spaces, and they shrink from contact, physical or otherwise, with them. Strategies of exclusion directed at ‘risky’ individuals or subgroups are often explicitly concerned with maintaining bodies within certain geographical limits.

In western societies there are many strategies directed at policing public spaces and attempting to remove members of threatening marginalised groups from areas designated as appropriate only for the privileged. The figure of the criminal is frequently positioned as risky and requiring exclusion from others. As part of the strategy of dealing with the risk and uncertainty of crime, people develop a ‘mental map’ of places, defining some as likely to be ‘safe’ and others as ‘risky’. This ‘mental map’ does not simply rely on geographical aspects of a space or place, but also draws on ideas and assumptions about social relations and the kinds of people who inhabit or pass through these spaces and places at specific times of day and night. Fear of crime tends to be located within public rather than private space, as the criminal is considered to be an ‘unpredictable stranger’ rather than someone known to oneself, and thus as inhabiting public space rather than being encountered in one’s home (Lupton 1999).

Members of such social groups as young working-class men, the unemployed and injecting drug users are typically nominated as potential criminals because of their assumed simmering resentments against society and lack of capacity for self-control. Those spaces in which they move about — the inner city, the shopping mall, the housing estate — are considered ‘dangerous’ in terms of the risk of crime and therefore as requiring increased surveillance, police presence and caution on the part of those who transverse them.

Since the early 1990s surveillance technologies such as closed circuit television (CCTV) and biometric identity documents for use in traversing national borders have increasingly been deployed in the attempt to monitor and protect public spaces, particularly those deemed ‘risky spaces’ because of those individuals who move through them. Such technologies involve not only social monitoring but also social exclusion of individuals considered to be undesirable, posing a threat in some way. These people tend to belong to defined social groups: young people (particularly young men), homeless people, street traders and black men. In the wake of September 11, men of a Middle-Eastern appearance have also been singled out for special surveillance, particularly in airports and in border surveillance. It has been argued that such measures are a way of dealing with the fear, anxiety, panic and trauma that events such as September 11 and July 7 have incited. National border security controls are a means of providing a figurative as well as literal barrier between the threatening Others and Us at a time at which terrorist attacks have rent open notions of containment between inside and outside. These measures are never able to fully control the unexpected or guarantee improved security, but they function at an unconscious level to help reassert feelings of safety and security (Salter and Mutlu 2011).

Strategies of exclusion exerted on the part of the most powerful in a society in their attempts to avoid risk often serve to incite fear and anxiety in those they seek to exclude or intimidate. The bodies of white, heterosexual, bourgeois men tend to claim public space as a right, and frequently seek to dominate and exclude others through exerting an aggressive gaze or through violence. Other bodies must fight to establish their place in this space. Feminists have written about the ways in which women, as one of the Other categories of bodies within public spaces, are positioned as vulnerable to confrontation or attack and therefore tend to lack the self-possession of privileged men in the same space. Moving in public space, for women, is constantly problematic, making them feel uneasy or anxious, exposed to the gaze, evaluation and imminent threat of (masculine) others (Whitzman 2007).

Strategies of spatial exclusion, therefore, are typically employed by members of dominant social groups to exert control over marginalised groups for which they hold hostility, contempt or fear of contamination. Such groups may be constructed as posing a risk to the dominant group through behaviour that is deemed to be too ‘different’ or potentially polluting and therefore confronting. The spaces these groups occupy are commonly singled out as dangerous and contaminating to the dominant groups. Alternatively, marginalised groups may be constructed as being vulnerable and ‘at risk’ from the greater power of the dominant group. For marginalised groups, constructed by dominant groups as the Other, requiring regulation or exclusion or both, this domination of space leads in turn to feelings of enhanced fear and anxiety, of being ‘at risk’ of intimidation, violence or coercion.

This is an edited excerpt from the second revised edition of my book ‘Risk’ (Routledge, in press).


Douglas, M. (1969) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lupton, D. (1999) Dangerous places and the unpredictable stranger: constructions of fear of crime. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(1), 1–15.

Salter, M. and Mutlu, C. (2011) Psychoanalytic theory and border control. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(2), 179—95.

Whitzman, C. (2007) Stuck at the front door: gender, fear of crime and the challenge of creating safer space. Environment and Planning A, 39(11), 2715—32.

New book: (Re)thinking Violence in Health Care Settings

This comprehensive volume explores various forms of violence in health care settings. Using a broad range of critical approaches in the field of anthropology, cultural studies, gender studies, political philosophy and sociology, it examines violence following three definite yet interrelated streams: institutional and managerial violence against health care workers or patients; horizontal violence amongst health care providers and finally, patients’ violence towards health care providers. Drawing together the latest research from Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US, (Re)Thinking Violence in Health Care Settings engages with the work of critical theorists such as Bourdieu, Butler, Foucault, Latour, and Žižek, amongst others, to address the issue of violence and theorise its workings in creative and controversial ways.  As such, it will be of interest to sociologists and anthropologists with research expertise in health, medicine, violence and organisations, as well as to health care professionals.

  • Contents:   Foreword, Dave Holmes; Introduction: (re)thinking violence in health care settings, Dave Holmes, Trudy Rudge, Amélie Perron and Isabelle St-Pierre; Part I Institutional and Managerial Violence: A critical reflection on the use of behaviour modification programs in forensic psychiatry settings, Dave Holmes and Stuart J. Murray; The violence of tolerance in a multicultural workplace: examples from nursing, Trudy Rudge, Virginia Mapedzahama, Sandra West and Amélie Perron; Changing discourses of blame in nursing and healthcare, Hannah Cooke; Hospital policies regarding violence in the workplace: a discourse analysis, Penny Powers; Exploring violence in a forensic hospital: a theoretical experimentation, Amélie Perron and Trudy Rudge; Nurses’ failure to report elder abuse in long-term care: an exploratory study, Gloria Hamel-Lauzon and Sylvie Lauzon. Part II Horizontal Violence: Foucault and the nexus between violence and power: the context of intra/inter professional aggression, Isabelle St-Pierre; Examining nurse-to-nurse horizontal violence and nurse-to-student vertical violence through the lens of phenomenology, Sandra P. Thomas; The rise of violence in HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns: a critical discourse analysis, Marilou Gagnon and Jean Daniel Jacob; Bullying in the workplace: a qualitative study of newly licensed registered nurses, Shellie Simons and Barbara Mawn; Sexual health nursing assessments: examining the violence of intimate exposures, Patrick O’Byrne and Cory Woodyatt; Bullying on the back-channels: everyday interpersonal communicative relations in telephone talk as a space for covert forms of professional manipulation, Jackie Cook and Colette Snowden. Part III Patients’ Violence: Assessment of risk and special observations in mental health practice: a comparison of forensic and non-forensic settings, Elizabeth Mason-Whitehead and Tom Mason; Policing pornography in high-secure care: the discursive construction of gendered inequality, David Mercer; Warning – this job contains strong language and adult themes: do nurses require thick skins and broad shoulders to deal with encounters involving swearing?, Teresa Stone and Margaret McMillan; Prison nursing: managing the threats to caring, Elizabeth Walsh; The mentally ill and civil commitment: assessing dangerousness in law and psychiatry, Cary Federman; Working in a violent environment: the pitfall of integrating security imperatives into forensic psychiatry nursing, Jean Daniel Jacob; Index.

About the Editor:  Dave Holmes is Professor and University Research Chair in Forensic Nursing, School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, Canada and co-editor of both Critical Interventions in the Ethics of Healthcare and Abjectly Boundless: Boundaries, Bodies and Health Work. Trudy Rudge is Professor at Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney, Australia, and co-editor of Abjectly Boundless: Boundaries, Bodies and Health Work. Amélie Perron is Assistant Professor, School of Nursing, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, Canada.

Edgework: taking risks for the fun of it

Español: persona que salto

Español: persona que salto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a very large literature on the sociology of risk-taking these days. Much of this writing focuses on risk as a negative concept, something dangerous or hazardous which must be avoided. One important aspect of risk-taking however, is the pleasures and emotional intensities some people may experience when voluntarily taking risks.

The work of Stephen Lyng using the concept of ‘edgework’ explores the reasons why people take risks as part of leisure activities. The concept of edgework incorporates the notion that voluntary risk-taking activities are about exploring the edges that exist along cultural boundaries. These boundaries may include those between sanity and insanity, consciousness and unconsciousness and life and death.

Edgework involves skilful practices combined with emotional intensity. But the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking is more complex than simply involving the desire to incite intense emotions. Emotions such as fear, excitement and anxiety are central to edgework, but so are their control. Mental toughness, the ability to master and control the fear that one is experiencing and keep calm so as to avoid physical harm or death, is an integral aspect of edgework. When risk-takers are able to exert mastery over emotions that are viewed as negative, they experience heightened feelings of control.

Smith (2005) gives the example of white-water kayaking, in which it is important to maintain control over fear so that the kayak will stay afloat and will be able navigate the hazards of the water it is traversing. Smith claims that it is the individual’s awareness of maintaining this control despite the almost overwhelming embodied sensations of fear and excitement, which produces the sense of elation that risk-takers seek.

Lyng and Matthews (2007) similarly note that what is deemed important for voluntary risk-takers is not to override fear but to acknowledge its presence and convert it into something that is sensually appealing. This involves an acceptance of fear combined with confidence that one can act skilfully to avoid accident or death. This combination of intense emotional arousal and focused attention leads to edgeworkers experience alterations in perception of time and space, feelings of hyerreality which leads to a sense of the experience as deeply authentic, as feeling truly alive. Edgeworkers commonly describe a sense of blurring of the boundaries between themselves and the technologies under their control (kayaks, climbing ropes, parachutes, racing cars, motor cycles and so on), so that they have a sense of ‘being one with their machines’.

Edgework can represent both a challenge to limits, everyday routines and social expectations, but paradoxically, may also be an expression of dominant institutional demands and imperatives. To be entrepreneurial in the business world, for example, people are expected to voluntarily take risks to increase productivity and profits. Thus there may be said to be a degree of synergy between the skills, competencies and symbolic resources engendered via participation in edgework practices and the demands of late modernity. Edgework is simultaneously part of efforts to transcend institutional imperatives in some contexts (dangerous leisure activities, for example) and in others a vital dimension of conforming to these imperatives. As Lyng (2005) notes, while these two sides of edgework may seem to be contradictory, they may also be viewed as complementary. The skills and expertise derived from leisure-based risk-taking practices may be employed to win success in the workplace.


Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 17—49.

Lyng, S. and Matthews, R. (2007) Risk, edgework, and masculinities. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 75—98.

Smith, C. (2005) Financial edgework: trading in market currents. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 187—200.