Fragmenting the Body- Part 1-The Organ Trade

The body commodified makes many feel uncomfortable. However, in some cases fragmentation can be perceived as a  positive process where part of the body is given up in a selfless and altruistic act of generosity. In organ donation, individuals arguably demonstrate responsible citizenship through ‘giving back’ to society. We can analyse organ donation using Mauss’ gift theory where we observe a reciprocal relationship with an expectation of return (Mauss 1925). In this act of giving, a social relationship is formed in reciprocity. However, this relationship is ambiguous in the global regulated sale of organs. Here, we can argue that the social relationship is removed where the gift is transformed into a commodity.

Organ trade is illegal in almost every country yet every year millions of products derived from human tissue are sold. The scarcity of healthy organs causes many to resort to illicit means. This culturally normalises the replaceable body. Furthermore, linking to blog post two on reproductive technologies, this trade is benefited by the affluent. They are perhaps more likely to abuse their health with the increased chance of paying for any organs. Altruism and gift giving diminishes whilst health is monetized and the body commodified.

The illegal trade of organs exacerbates social, economic and racial inequalities where the body becomes a political site. Using inspiration from Mintz’ Sweetness and Power, Scheper- Hughes explores the 20th century global organ trade (Scheper-Hughes 2000). Like the slave trade, organ transplants occur in a transnational space and follow ‘new paths of capital and technology in the global economy’ (Scheper-Hughes 2000:191). The flow of organs follows modern routes of capital:  ‘from South to North, from Third to First World, from poor to rich, from black and brown to white, and from female to male’ (Scheper Hughes 2000:193). Here, the fragmented body is identified by the age, gender, race and nationality. Body parts surpass borders their original ‘owners’ cannot.

Map of the Organ Trade

Cohen’s ethnography on organ transplantation in India describes the impoverished buying and selling their kidneys to pay off existing debts (Cohen 2003). Many donors do not know what kidneys are and are persuaded to have operations by doctors wishing to make a profit. Sadly, these individuals are back in debt soon after selling their kidneys. The scars of operations represent a debt rather than a gift. Contrary to the Tiv who have scars as signs of beautification, these scars represent sacrifice and even shame (Bohannan 1956). Due to men carrying out more laborious work, women donate more. Some women are called ‘kidney sellers’ and likened to prostitutes. We can link this to Day’s study where the internal body transitions to the external, transcending socially normalised boundaries. It is immersed in the market and disconnected from the private self. Through the commodification of the fragmented body, we can observe the transformation of the ‘natural’ body to the‘cultural’ where the body becomes a site of alienation.

In part two, I shall develop the fragmentation of the body further in relation to the lucrative hair trade industry.


Bohannan, P. (1956). Beauty and Scarification Amongst the Tiv, p.117-121, Vol. 56, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, UK.

Cohen, L. (2003). Where it Hurts: Indian Material for an Ethics of Organ Transplantation, p. 663-688, Vol. 38(3), Zygon, Wiley- Blackwell, USA.

Mauss, M. (1925). The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies (1966 version), Routledge, London.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2000). The Global Traffic in Human Organs, p.191-224, Vol.41(2), Current Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, USA.


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