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Blood and the public body: a study of UK blood donation and research participation

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This paper draws on interview and ethnographic data to describe donor accounts of blood donation in England, and how this contrasts to their responses when invited to also participate in two associated public health research studies. Donor views about usual blood donation combine the general, if flexible, theme of altruism with powerful notions of the social collective, giving rise to the sense that they are making tangible, physical ties and constructing a social body through the act of donation. However, their accounts of research participation are more open and ambiguous. At the core of this is the sense that they do not know what exactly they are ‘giving’, since the research is ultimately about collecting information, rather than substance. Equally, the donor-participants are not sure who they are giving it to, since they have no sense of the social collective that potentially might benefit from the research. The paper argues that the concept of ‘the population’ in public health is not only a term that is alien and abstract for the blood donors, but increasingly is a post hoc category for large-scale epidemiological studies. As a result, rather than supporting the obvious assumption that individual bodies make up populations, in practice, particular population renderings determine the nature of individual bodies. In so doing, the need to address ideas of ‘the social’, as distinct from ‘the population’, is increasingly unnecessary in much of public health research.
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Keywords: blood donation; ethnographic research; interviews; population; public health; society

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Faculty of Public Health and Policy, Department of Health Services Research and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK

Publication date: January 1, 2016

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