Article ID: CBB016457718

Hair, Hormones, and Haunting: Race as a Ghost Variable in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (2020)


In this paper, we examine how polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is racialized in biomedical research. Drawing from Star’s seminal concept of triangulation, we analyze how the diagnostic criteria for PCOS combine two different biomarkers: body hair and testosterone. Hair and hormones are both haunted by their use in eugenic research, and as clinical measures, they can carry forward powerful narratives of biological difference. PCOS researchers circulate strong claims about racial difference in hirsutism (“male-pattern” hair growth in women) as if they were established knowledge, sometimes calling for race-specific diagnostic thresholds. Tracing the links between (1) race and hirsutism, (2) hirsutism and testosterone, and (3) testosterone and race, we find that these connections are all conceptualized in ambiguous and inconsistent ways. Through triangulation, the uncertainty clouding each link is mitigated by the apparent strength of the chain as a whole. The logic linking race to disease is attenuated, allowing race to persist as a ghost variable. As PCOS is increasingly reframed as a risk factor for other conditions, racial stratification is submerged, implicit but actionable, at every stage of the life course cascade of risk.

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Article Katrina Karkazis; Rebecca Jordan-Young (2020) Sensing Race as a Ghost Variable in Science, Technology, and Medicine. Science, Technology, and Human Values (pp. 763-778). unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Baetu, Tudor M.
Cambrosio, Alberto
Elliott, Kevin Christopher
Herzig, Rebecca M.
Karpenko, Vladimír
Keating, Peter
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
History of Psychiatry
Social Studies of Science
American Historical Review
Biology and Philosophy
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Harvard University Press
New York University Press
Oxford University Press
Rutgers University Press
Northwestern University
Philosophy of medicine
Atherton, Gertrude Franklin Horn
Berman, Louis
Brahe, Tycho
Brinkley, John Richard
Correa da Serra, José Francisco
Kammerer, Paul
Time Periods
21st century
20th century, early
19th century
20th century
20th century, late
16th century
Vienna (Austria)
Great Britain
Berlin (Germany)
National Institute of Health (U.S.)

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