Solidarity and distinction in blood: contamination, morality and variability

Body and Society 15 (2):29-49 (2009)
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This is an ethnographic exploration into the meanings of contaminated blood. Intense commercial harvesting of human plasma, a blood component, in rural central China during the 1990s resulted in extensive HIV infection among donors. The lack of viral diversity among these infected donors, as revealed by research in molecular epidemiology, confirms that this epidemic took hold and spread rapidly with deadly efficiency through unsanitary plasmapheresis. The distinction in viral strains between this epidemic and the spread of HIV via other routes of transmission in other parts of China serves also to promote claims to victimhood by infected rural commercial donors in the ambiguous geography of moral ambivalence towards carriers of the virus. Through a series of vignettes from field research among rural plasma donors in China, this article examines the tensions between solidarity and distinction, victimhood and responsibility, alliance and strife as they play out in meanings derived from contaminated blood, within their everyday experience and also within their participation in the broader HIV/aids activism, in which their distinction is inevitably challenged.



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