Dr. Barnes’s research in reproductive sociology can be categorized into three current projects: Conceiving Masculinity, The Sperm Collection, and Seminal Work.
In 2007 Dr. Barnes conducted the first ethnographic investigation of male infertility in the United States for her doctoral dissertation at the University of California at San Diego. She attended infertility patient advocacy meetings and medical conferences; toured sperm banks and laboratories; followed developments in reproductive science in the medical literature; visited five male reproductive health centers and shadowed male infertility specialists; interviewed ten male infertility specialists and their staff; and conducted two rounds of interviews with twenty four infertile men and their partners. This ethnography was recently published as the monograph Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Masculinity, and Identity (2014). Dr. Barnes argues that traditional gender beliefs historically slowed and channeled the development of male reproductive medicine and continue to shape clinical practices today. She describes how men conceptualize their poor fertility status in light of popular gender beliefs and choose to engage with new reproductive technologies. Dr. Barnes continues to publish articles on data collected during this research study.
The Sperm Collection
In September 2014, Dr. Barnes and historian Dr. Christina Benninghaus hosted a conference at the University of Cambridge dedicated to the historical and social study of male sterility. Thirty scholars participated in the event, including historians, sociologists, social psychologists, and anthropologists. Presenters and discussants represented 15 different universities from ten different countries. As the conference demonstrated, male reproduction provides a rich site for exploring a variety of sociological themes and pressing social issues, including gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, global inequality, eugenics, religious ethics, epigenetics, environmental degradation, reproductive tourism, state-building, veteran rehabilitation, HIV stigma, and alternative family building. This conference was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the Sociology of Health and Illness Foundation, the Reproductive Sociology research team, and the Generation to Reproduction research initiative. Papers presented at the conference are being edited for publication in a volume entitled The Sperm Collection.
This new socio-historical research project explores two prominent debates related to semen analysis: 1) sperm count decline; and 2) the sperm count ‘gold standard’ adopted by the World Health Organization. In 1992 a team of Danish researchers claimed that sperm counts around the globe had declined by 40% in the previous half century. More than twenty years since these findings were first published, scientists and practitioners continue to debate the validity of sperm decline claims. At the same time, leaders in the field of male reproductive science have been debating the “gold standard” for sperm counts as established by the World Health Organization (WHO). For decades the WHO claimed that men needed a sperm count of 20 million sperm to achieve pregnancy. In 2010, after considerable debate and deliberation, the WHO lowered the gold standard to 15 million sperm per milliliter. Scientists and practitioners continue to debate the gold standard as a predictor of men’s and nations’ fertility and the validity of techniques used for counting sperm. While the medico-scientific community relies on quantifiable measures and “evidence” to standardize best practices, the debates reveal the organizational and global politics that shape the creation, authentication, and dissemination of knowledge. This research project is sponsored by the Future Research Leaders funding scheme of the Economic and Social Science Research Council in the UK and the Isaac Newton Trust at the University of Cambridge.