Imagining the Construct


Bloodletting as Metaphor

As a sophomore in college I was introduced to George Herbert Mead and felt inspired by the notion that we create a social self that we present to the social world, and that the social self is created through the intersection of internal, biological and psychological forces that meet with nature, others, and externalities beyond our control.

We also read Thomas Kuhn’s treatise on scientific revolutions that speaks in a more macro-sense of the social constructions of scientific paradigms.

As a professor, I found that the Wachowski’s 1999 film The Matrix provided an excellent vehicle for teaching that merges Mead and Kuhn. The matrix offers physicality to the construct, where Neo and crew struggle against the matrix, a constructed reality few can discern.

Kuhn speaks to a similar notion when examining the social construction of scientific paradigms. Scholars harness their research programs to prevalent worldviews that dictate the boundaries that surround ways-of-knowing. For example, bloodletting—a common medical practice in western medicine up through the 1800s—is built on the premise that releasing bad blood can aid in healing. Barbers, who engaged in bloodletting, advertised their craft with the barber pole displayed outside their shops. Barbers would hang to dry the bloodstained bandages, which would wrap around the brass poles patients clung to as they bled. The brass poles of old gave way to the modern red, white and blue poles we associate with barbers, according to the BBC.

Bloodletting was associated with cleansing, and a woman’s menstrual cycle is still viewed within the ancient paradigm. In literature, religion and science women are portrayed as unclean during their menses. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Natalie Angier noted in the New York Times that women have been vilified, feared and pitied as they menstruate. Angier’s 1993 story on scientist Margie Profet offers a shift in the paradigm—a hole in the matrix. Profet viewed menstruation “as a mechanism for protecting a female’s uterus and Fallopian tubes against harmful microbes delivered by incoming sperm. According to this scheme, the uterus is extremely vulnerable to bacteria and viruses that may be hitching a ride on the sperm, and menstruation is an aggressive means of preventing infections that could lead to infertility, illness and even death.”

Angier noted that the body protects itself by sloughing off “the outer lining of the uterus, where the pathogens are likely to be lingering, and it bathes the area in blood, which carries immune cells to destroy the microbes.” Profet won a MacArthur “genius” award for her work 17 years ago, and New York Times said her work “has been consistently piquant and unorthodox. She has never bothered to get a doctorate, viewing it as a waste of time and a potential damper on creativity. Instead, she has published theories on the evolution of commonplace phenomena that scientists and physicians had generally ignored.”

As advocates of the scientific and rational view, we often lose sight of our own prejudices, and sometime it takes a radical thinker like Margie Profet to challenge our ways of thinking. I like to think Native Science does this, too, and in a positive direction. Native Science forces us to think in non-traditional (Western) terms by looking at the intersections among the connections that build ways-of-knowing, much in the way that George Herbert Mead challenged us to explore the nexus of self and society.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in cinema, film, Indian, journalism, Native Science, science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s