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Keywords:

  • blood donation;
  • gift exchange;
  • genetics research;
  • bioethics;
  • community consultation;
  • India;
  • Indian community in Houston;
  • International HapMap Project

This article is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with the Indian community in Houston, as part of a NIH–NHGRI-sponsored ethics study and sample collection initiative entitled “Indian and Hindu Perspectives on Genetic Variation Research.“ At the heart of this research is one central exchange—blood samples donated for genetic research—that draws both the Indian community and a community of researchers into an encounter with bioethics. I consider the meanings that come to be associated with blood donation as it passes through various hands, agendas, and associated ethical filters on its way to the lab bench: how and why blood is solicited, how the giving and taking of blood is rationalized, how blood as material substance is alienated, processed, documented, and made available for the promised ends of basic science research. Examining corporeal substances and asking what sorts of gifts and problems these represent, I argue, sheds some light on two imbricated tensions expressed by a community of Indians, on the one hand, and of geneticists and basic science researchers, on the other hand: that gifts ought to be free (but are not), and that science ought to be pure (but is not). In this article, I explore how experiences of bioethics are variously shaped by the histories and habits of Indic giving, prior sample collection controversies, commitments to “good science“ and the common “good of humanity,“ and negotiations of the sites where research findings circulate.