American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 5, Issue 1–2, pp 181–224 | Cite as

Work, welfare, and the values of voluntarism: Rethinking Anscombe’s “action under a description” in postwar markets for human subjects

  • Laura StarkEmail author
Original Article


This paper documents an exchange for healthy human subjects of medical experiments brokered and carried out by a labor union (The United Mine Workers of America) and the federal government (The US National Institutes of Health). The organizations legally established the exchange in a 1960 contract; jobless people took part in the exchange throughout the decade; and the exchange served as a “prototype” for additional exchanges between NIH and organizations in blue-collar communities. The exchange was successful because the organizations negotiated two “dissonant descriptions” of the same action to manage two different audiences – one legal, one vernacular. The case engages three issues in cultural sociology. First, the episode illustrates how philosopher GEM Anscombe’s concept of “action under a description” solves a puzzle embedded in studies of culture-in-action and offers a way to more systematically study symbolic action. Second, it demonstrates precisely how organizations, paradoxically, use the language of voluntarism to accomplish market goals. Third, it illuminates the terms of engagement with new commodities and markets in the age of biocapital and in doing so helps deepen understandings of moral markets.


Anscombe inequality employment welfare War on Poverty volunteer economy UMWA moral markets labor unions NIH human subjects 



I am grateful to my colleague-friends for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article: Dominique Béhague, Angela Creager, Aimi Hamraie, Sarah Igo, Sally Kohlstedt, Ken MacLeish, Terry Maroney, and Alistair Sponsel. Ruha Benjamin, Jill Fisher, and other audience members offered invaluable feedback during the “Science at the margins” session, organized by Logan Williams, at the 2016 annual meeting of American Sociological Association. I benefited enormously from a summer fellowship and feedback on this research from scholars in Division II at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science. The editors of this journal and two anonymous reviewers also gave me generous and apt advice on earlier versions of this article. To complete this research, I received much-needed research support from Vanderbilt University as well as an invaluable research leave AY 2013–14. Laura Farris provided, as always, exceptional research assistance. In the archives, Jim Quigley (Penn State) and Harrison Wick (Indiana University Pennsylvania) gave generously of their time and expertise. At NIH’s Office of Patient Recruitment, Dinora Dominguez and Mandy Jawara provided gracious and important help. Finally, I am grateful to the more than one hundred scientists and former human subjects who donated their own personal “vernacular archives” and oral histories to this research.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Vanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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