Studying Women, Health, & Technologies at Taipei Medical University
Published on 2021-05-19
Malissa Kay Shaw
Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Humanities in Medicine
Within biomedicine and medical research women’s health and their bodies have often been neglected due to their deviation from the male standard.
As a medical sociologist with a background in anthropology and science and technologies studies my research aims to bring light to this gap in our knowledge through exploring women’s experiences of their health and bodily processes, their engagement with medical professionals and medical interventions, as well as their use of biomedical and other bodily technologies.
I initially became interested in women’s health and specifically reproduction during my masters when I conducted a literature review on assisted reproduction in Sub-Saharan Africa with Anthropologist Trudie Gerrits at the University of Amsterdam.[i] From there I went on to study a PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Given what I had learned about the complexities of incorporating high-tech infertility treatments into medical systems in the Global South and my interests in Latin America, I decided to conduct a hospital ethnography on assisted conception in Bogota, Colombia. The study focused on the agency of both women and medical staff as they navigate the unregulated, neoliberal market of ARTs in a pronatalist, Catholic country.[ii],[iii] I specifically focused on the dynamic ways women’s embodied experiences of invasive medical procedures are agentic, forming a type of embodied agency that refutes the commonly oversimplified objectifying character of medical interventions.
Since moving to TMU in 2018, my research has continued to focus on women’s health, embodiment, and medical interventions, but (at least partly) within the local Taiwanese context. I am currently analyzing data from a qualitative interview study on women’s experiences of pelvic examinations in Taiwan. This study was driven by my interest in the contrast between an apparent over-medicalization of pregnancy monitoring and birthing practices in Taiwan compared to an underuse, or the under-medicalization, of preventative gynecological screening. Though this phenomenon and potential causes of it were clearly expressed by my interview participants, what may be more interesting is the way women critically assessed not only what they expected from a medical encounter, but also their unwavering expectations of what constitutes a good medical professional. Studies of medical professionalism have rarely considered the perceptions of patients, despite their central role in the medical encounter.
In addition to this ongoing analysis, in 2020 I received a three-year Einstein Grant from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). My project, “Dirty Bodies, Dirty Secrets, Dirty Earth: Transforming Restrictive Perceptions of Menstruation and Women’s Lives through Alternative Menstrual Products” concerns the diverse images and meanings surrounding menstrual cups, a relatively new technologies designed to collect menstrual blood in a healthier, more environmentally friendly, and economical way.[iv]
In this two-part study, I am currently exploring the diverse perceptions and ideologies that the more than 90 (primarily women run) companies producing menstrual cups around the globe have of their products. Though many of these companies pride themselves on empowering women through their sustainable, healthier, and more convenient products that promote an active lifestyle, their advertising at times reinforces the negative portrayals of menstruation that have stigmatized women and this bodily process as dirty and needing to be concealed. The second phase of this project will involve a comparative study of the experiences of two menstrual cup companies, one in Taiwan and another in Colombia, and the women who use their products. Broadly speaking this study aims to explore the various messages menstrual cup companies portray and how these messages are positioned within broader concerns for women’ health in the local context; how women perceive these concerns, how they experience using a menstrual cup, and, ultimately, how this use alters their experience of menstruation. (By Dr. Malissa Kay Shaw, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Humanities Medical, College of Humanities and Social Sciences)
[i] Gerrits, T. & M. Shaw (2010) Biomedical infertility care in sub-Saharan Africa: a social science review of current practices, experiences and viewpoints. Facts, Views, & Visions in ObGyn 2(3): 194-207.
[iii] Shaw, M.K. (2018) The familial and the familiar: Locating relatedness in Colombian donor conception, Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 37(4): 280-293. doi:10.1080/01459740.2017.1371149.
[iv] Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan (109-2636-H-038-003) Dirty Bodies, Dirty Secrets, Dirty Earth: Transforming restrictive Perceptions of Menstruation and Women’s Lives through Alternative Menstrual Products (骯髒的身體，骯髒的秘密，骯髒的地球：藉由另類生理期用品（月亮杯）轉換月經和女性生活的限制性視角).