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Silja Samerski (*1970)

Kontakt/Vorträge und Lehrveranstaltungen

My research focuses on the social and cultural consequences of professional counseling. Today every conceivable life situation presents a potential need for counseling, from jobs and marriage to death and grief. Professional guidance has advanced in the past fifty years to become one of the most important social technologies.

In the twentieth century, knowledge and competencies, to be valuable, had to be acquired under the technical supervision of experts and evaluated by their scientific standards. In the twenty-first century, not only knowledge and skills, but also deliberation is being refashioned as a scientific object. Freedom, choice and autonomy are so re-defined that to be appropriately exercised they require scientific inputs and guidance services. My research on the transformation of citizens into expert- and information-dependent clients ties into the results of social science studies that analyze the emergence of a new subjectivity in an epoch of risk-calculation and bio-political self-governance.

During the last seven years my studies have been guided by the collaboration of an interdisciplinary circle of scholars (economists, medieval historians, musicologists, etc.) who dedicate themselves to the analysis of modern myths: that the consumption of medicine leads to health; that the internalization of information is knowledge; or that instructed decision-making enhances autonomy. With Ivan Illich as our mentor we met several times a year in different cities and countries (e.g. State College-PA, Cuernavaca-Mexico, Florence-Italy, Oakland-CA) in order to pursue our joint effort of unraveling the socio-genesis of modern certainties. Currently, my main collaborators are Prof. Sajay Samuel (Accounting, PSU) with whom I study the perversion of autonomy by managerial decision-making, and Prof. Barbara Duden (Sociology, University of Hannover) with whom I investigate how scientific concepts undermine somatic autoception.

Academic career: My training as a "hedge sitter"

In order to study the social and cultural consequences of professional counseling, I have to be aware of the heterogeneity between scientific concepts and their everyday meaning. Trained as both a geneticist and a social scientist I am well placed to analyze the effects of scientific terms in ordinary parlance. As a natural scientist, I know about the limited denotations of a technical term; and as a social scientist I study the innumerable connotations of the same term when it enters everyday conversations such as medical consultations or political debates. Moving between genetics and social science, I see myself as a "hedge-sitter" (Zaunreiterin). Sitting on the fence, with my left ear I try to stay attuned to the index of "The Journal of Molecular Biology" and "Genetics"; and with my right ear I try to figure out what people mean, feel and fear when they use genetic critters.

Between 1989 and 1996, I studied biology and philosophy at the University of Tübingen and earned my diploma in the department of human genetics with a thesis in population biology. While working on the genetic makeup of Madagascar monkeys, I became aware of the ambiguity of technical terminology when it migrates from the laboratory. The works of the natural scientist Ludwik Fleck and the philologist Uwe Pörksen made me understand that terms such as "mutation" or "genotype" have a precise denotation for biologists, but as part of ordinary conversations are loaded with everyday meaning and become powerless to denote anything. This insight led me to examine the havoc such escapees from laboratory slang wreak in the everyday world. In addition to my philosophical studies on the theory and history of science I studied the heterogeneity of scientific terminology and every day language.

Together with Ivan Illich, Barbara Duden and other colleagues I spent two months at the STS-program at Penn State University in summer 1996 and began to collaborate with Prof. Sajay Samuel (Accounting) on the problem of managerial decision-making in everyday life. Prof. Carl Mitcham invited me to spend two more months at the STS-program in summer 1997 in order to present my research project on genetic counseling and to review the U.S. literature on the social aspects of human genetics.

From 1997 to 2000 I wrote my PhD in Sociology at the University of Bremen with the historian Barbara Duden as my advisor. I took genetic counseling as a paradigm for the popularization of genetic concepts and, on the basis of thirty observed and recorded prenatal counseling sessions, I analyzed the new kind of decision that the counselee is urged to make. In these encounters a physician embeds textbook information and statistical tables in an exhortation that challenges his pregnant client to choose between different prenatal test options, basing her decision on the information he has delivered. Inevitably, the demand to project such misplaced concreteness into the happening in her belly pushes the women into troubling misapprehensions: The geneticist suggests that client conceive of the being who will become her kin as a risk profile, a faceless member of various risk classes. Because the pregnant woman assumes that the counselor talks about her person, a statistical risk estimating no more than a frequency in a population turns into a personal menace for her.

My thesis was published under the title, Die verrechnete Hoffnung. Von der selbstbestimmten Entscheidung durch genetische Beratung ("The mathematization of hope. On autonomous decision-making through genetic counseling"). It challenges the basic assumptions of studies on prenatal counseling which analyze the new decisions pregnant women are urged to make as admittedly ambiguous, but inevitable, and therefore stress the importance of information and free choice. Since counseling is usually understood and promoted as a means to empower pregnant women, my analysis of the symbolic effects of instructed decision-making provoked lively debates among feminist academics as well as midwives, women's health activists and prenatal counselors in Germany.

Current research project

Since summer 2002 I have been collaborating with Barbara Duden and Ruth Stützle, a social anthropologist, on a research project Das Alltags-Gen (The "pop-gene") funded by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (the German Ministry for Education and Research). On the basis of interviews, transcripts of genetic counseling sessions and the observation of a national conference on "good genes - bad genes," we study the meanings and connotations given to the word "gene" when it is used in everyday conversations. It is our hypothesis that "gene-talk" inevitably implies notions about the substance of the human, about who and what you are and therefore willy-nilly transforms the person who speaks. The results of our research project on the "reflexive gene" and the gene in common parlance will be published in a monograph within the next year.

Research project after Fall 2004

At the request of English-speaking colleagues I would like to summarize and update my findings for a North American audience.

After that, I intend to take up a thread from my dissertation and for two years study the history and the symbolic effects of taught self-determination, that is, the re-definition of "decision" by counseling services. With non-directiveness as a basic rule and aiming at enabling autonomous decision-making, genetic counseling is paradigmatic for a fundamental shift of the professional-client relationship in the medical service system: The shift from "doctor knows best" to "patient decides best." My project will rest on three pillars: First I would like to trace back the history of the managerial technique of "decision-making" in the twentieth century that has shaped our contemporary understanding of "decision" as synonymous with choosing between pre-determined options with probable outcomes. Secondly, I will analyze a historic conundrum which has not been given due attention: the history of how the feminist and patient rights' movement fighting the paternalism of the "demigods in white" unwittingly encouraged the transformation of citizens into "decision-makers," that is, into self-managers. And thirdly, I will broaden the scope of my research and include different kinds of counseling services such as breast cancer consultations, family or investment counseling to show that educational services mobilizing clients to make their own decisions and take responsibility for the (probable) outcomes are widespread and indicate a fundamental shift in the professional-client relationship. I intend to weave these three threads together towards a critique of taught self-determination as a perversion of autonomy.



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  • Samerski, Silja (2003): Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten. Wie die genetische Beratung zum Selbstmanagement verpflichtet. Vortragsmanuskript für die Tagung "Gute Gene - schlechte Gene?", Bremen, 16.09.2003.
  • Samerski, Silja: Entmündigende Beratung. Über die Aufforderung zur "selbstbestimmten Entscheidung". Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Europäisches Denken (in press).
  • Samerski, Silja: Genetic counseling. Encyclopedia of Science, Technology and Ethics. New York (in press).
  • Samerski, Silja und Illich, Ivan (Dezember 2002): Vom Zahlenzauber der Statistik. Ein Lehrstück über die Zumutungen des Risikodenkens. Gerd Gigerenzer (2002): Das kleine Einmaleins der Skepsis. Über den richtigen Umgang mit Zahlen und Risiken. Berlin (Rezension).
  • Samerski, Silja und Illich, Ivan (2003). Zahlenzauber der Statistik. Einmaleins der Skepsis. Ein Lehrstück über die Zumutungen des Risikodenkens. In: Freitag 24/2003:18. (gekürzte Version).
  • Samerski, Silja (2003). Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten, oder: Wie die genetische Beratung zum Risikomanagement verpflichtet. In: Berliner Blätter. Ethnographische und ethnologische Beiträge 29/2002:15-23.
  • Samerski, Silja (2003). Entmündigende Selbstbestimmung. Wie die genetische Beratung schwangere Frauen zu einer unmöglichen Entscheidung befähigt. In: Graumann, Sigrid und Schneider, Ingrid (ed.): Verkörperte Technik - Entkörperte Frau. Biopolitik und Geschlecht. Frankfurt a.M.
  • Samerski, Silja (2003): "Il mito della 'scelta informata' e della 'autonomia'. Come le decisioni personali e libere divengono illusione in un mondo dominato dal rischio." Presetatiazione di "Le paci dei popoli" - una rivisitazione del pensiero di IVAN ILLICH sulla pace Lucca Palazzo Ducale Sede della Provincia, 13-14 giugno 2003 SCUOLA DELLA PACE.
  • Samerski, Silja (2002). Autodeterminazione e paura del rischio. In: Donna&Donna. Il Giornale delle Ostetriche 38: 50-52.
  • Samerski, Silja (2002). Bekehrung zur Risikohörigkeit. In: Basler Magazin 12.10.2002: 8-9.
  • Samerski, Silja (2002). Die "informierte Entscheidung" als Falle. Wie die genetische Beratung zum Selbst-Management verpflichtet. In: SOWI 4/02: 53-61.
  • Samerski, Silja (2002). Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten. In: Steiner, Theo (ed.): Genpool. Biopolitik und Körperutopien. Wien: 268-281. (Gekürzte und überarbeitete Version des folgenden Vortrages: )
  • Samerski, Silja (2002). Die verrechnete Hoffnung. Von der selbstbestimmten Entscheidung durch genetische Beratung. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot. Dissertation an der Universität Bremen (ISBN: 3-89691-531-2).
  • Samerski, Silja (2001): "Eine Sache des Risikomanagements" Erschienen in der Wochenzeitung FREITAG Nr. 38, 14. September 2001, S. 3.
  • Samerski, Silja (1998): "Liebe Beate." Ein Brief über den Un-Sinn der genetischen Beratung.
    In English: "Dear Beate. A letter about the non-sense of genetic counseling."
  • Samerski, Silja (1998): "Schwanger gehen mit dem 'Risiko'? Professionelle Ver-ratlosung in der genetischen Beratung." in: Psychomed 11 (2), 1999, S. 72-76.
  • Duden, Barbara and Samerski, Silja (1998). Das aufgeschwatzte Risiko - genetische Beratung als Sprach-Ritual. In: psychosozial, Jg. 21 (1998) Heft I (Nr.71), S.79-88.. And in: Brähler, Elmar, Stöbel-Richter, Ive, and Hauffe, Ulrike (ed.): Vom Stammbaum zur Stammzelle. Reproduktionsmedizin, Pränataldiagnostik und menschlicher Rohstoff. Gießen, 223-238.
  • Beck, Johannes; Ivan Illich und Silja Samerski (1999): "Der verhältnismäßige Mensch". European Conference "Lifelong Learning - Inside and Outside Schools" 25. - 27. February 1999, University of Bremen.
  • Beck, Johannes, Samerski, Silja, und Illich, Ivan (1999). The Conditional Human. In: Alheit, Peter, Beck, Johannes, Kammler, Eva, Taylor, Richard, and Olesen, Henning Salling (ed.): Lifelong Learning Inside and Outside Schools, vol.1. Second European Conference on Lifelong Learning, Bremen, 25.-27.02.1999. Roskilde: 26-38.
  • Frauen gegen Bevölkerungspolitik (Ed.) (1996): LebensBilder - LebensLügen. Leben und Sterben im Zeitalter der Biopolitik. Hamburg. Co-Editor
  • Goettle, Gabriele (2001): "GEN-Versuche. Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten." Artikel erschienen in: taz Nr. 6534 vom 28.8.2001, Seite 15, 19. Original siehe unter
  • Vorträge und Lehrveranstaltungen (Auswahl)

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  • "Theory and history of professional counseling". Seminar in the Department of Education at the University of Bremen, Winter 2002/2003.
  • "The paradox of taught self-determination". Seminar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hannover, Summer 2003.
  • "Das 'Gen" als Plastikwort". Workshop-Seminar in Bad Neresheim, Nov. 15.-17. 2002.
  • Organization of "The Oakland Table" in September 2000 and May 2001 on the invitation of Jerry Brown - a six weeks lecture series and gathering of scholars from different countries discussing topics such as the "History of city planning" or "The loss of hospitality". Public lectures and workshops on both occasions.
  • Vorträge

  • "Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten". Lecture together with Ivan Illich, Volksuni Berlin, 26.06.2000.
  • "Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten". Genpool, Menschenpark, Freizeitkörper. Steirischer Herbst 2001, Graz, 11.-14.10.2001.
  • "PEER, or How decision-making destroys the possibility of being hospitable." Presentation at the 2nd Oakland Table, April and May 2001.
  • Participation as expert at the final meeting of the Citizens' Conference on Genetic Testing, Dresden Nov. 23th -24th 2001.
  • "Der Mythos von der 'informierten Entscheidung'." Manuskript für den Workshop Schöne - gesunde - neue Welt? Das humangenetische Wissen und seine Anwendung aus philosophischer, soziologischer und historischer Perspektive, Bielefeld, 18.01.2002.
  • "Was heißt hier Entscheidung? Fragen im Zusammenhang der genetischen Schwangerenberatung". Opening lecture together with Ivan Illich at the ULF-FORUM in Bremen, 21.1.2002.
  • "Risk - Anxiety and the Myth of Informed Decision Making." Lecture at the Institute for Criminology, University of Oslo (Norway), April 17th 2002.
  • "Prenatal diagnostics as genetic fortune-telling". Lecture in Vidarasen (Norway), April 28th 2002.
    "Der Mythos vom Gen". 5. Kleiner Universitätstag Ahaus, 21.März 2003.
  • "Il mito della 'scelta informata' e della 'autono-mia'. Come le decisioni personali e libere diven-gono illusione in un mondo dominato dal rischio." Le paci dei popoli - una rivisitazione del pensiero di IVAN ILLICH sulla pace. Lucca (Italy), 13-14 giugno 2003.
  • "The Release of Genetic Terms into Everyday Language: How the 'Pop Gene' Stimulates Risk Anxiety". Symposium: Genes, Gender, and Generation (sponsored by CESAGen and the Wellcome Trust), University of Lancaster, June 26th 2003.
  • "Die Freisetzung genetischer Begrifflichkeiten". Good Genes, Bad Genes? National Conference for Civic Education, Bremen, Sept. 15th-17th 2003.
  • "Das Paradox der "Selbstbestimmung". Wie die genetische Beratung schwangere Frauen zum Selbstmanagement verpflichtet". XIII Kongress der Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für Soziologie: Triumph und Elend des Neoliberalismus. Zürich, Oct. 1st-3rd 2003.
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