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What the Flesh Carries. A Sociological Approach to the Emergence of Face Transplant





How has the face become an organ, object of donation and transplantation? Starting from thisquestioning, this thesis invests the environment of those who have carried facial transplantprojects, and those who have debated about them, during the years 2000 and 2010 in Franceand the United Kingdom. It illuminates the social conditions according to which facialtransplantation has been made acceptable, for transplanted patients and surgical teams, organdonation coordinators and relatives of deceased donors who allow the retrieval. The enquiryinvolved an in-depth investment of the whole chain of transplantation, based on the collectionof archives (scientific, institutional, media), on conducting interviews (with surgeons, patients,organ donation and medical regulation’s actors, members of associations of disfigured people),as well as doing an ethnography of hospital services that carry out these operations (from theoperating rooms to the service meetings). By closely following these actors, the surveyilluminates the tensions that experimentation reveals in its passage.This research addresses face transplant as an object that articulates questions at the crossroadsof institutions, social movements and experiences of donation. Face transplant upsets, first ofall, the claims of the surgeons to self-regulate. The confrontation of surgical teams with healthand ethical institutions, which evaluate the appropriateness of this experiment, reveals distinctrelationships to medical objectivity and to the supervision of hospital practices. The emergenceof face transplant, then, poses a challenge to the collectives of disfigured people who oscillatebetween support for medical progress and denunciation of surgery as oppression. The reactionsof the French and English associations are indicative of distinct conceptions of disfigurement,and help to shape the trajectory of face transplant. Lastly, face transplant questions the socialconditions of the dead bodies' availability and the tensions at work in the reception of ananonymous donation of organs. Transplanted patients are subject to a double constraint that canbe experienced as contradictory: on the one hand, that of thanking the donor, on the other, thatof forgetting the donor in order to accept the transplant. The thesis thus reveals theheterogeneous – and at the same time coherent – assembly of these levels of analysis, which isat stake every time a body part is transferred from one person to another. It illuminates, in otherwords, what the flesh carries.

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