Oral Presentation Session - Executive Session Status Awarded
Sponsored by: AAA Executive Program Committee
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Biologies
Secondary Theme: Environment and Environmental Inequality
Germ theory gave rise to a binary distinction between communicable and noncommunicable conditions: namely, that communicability involves infection passing between live vectors, while noncommunicable conditions come from within bounded organisms (genetics) or individual lifestyle choices. This binary remains key to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention in medicine and the life sciences and has also come to shape social science analyses of the human condition (think social contagion metaphors and “going viral”). But as bacteriological science replaced miasmatic models that assumed the constant entanglement of bodies and ecologies, we lost widely shared frameworks for reflecting critically on the constant interrelations between them. Arguably, the underlying logic of bacteriology that assumed organisms and environments to be mutually distinct reinforced new logics of industrial growth that helped to generate the acute global crisis in which we find ourselves now.
This panel examines, implodes, and reimagines this boundary-making distinction. It brings together anthropologies from across the four fields and the history of science to reflect on alternative possibilities such as “eco-social” embodiments (Krieger) and “para-communicability” (Moran-Thomas)—approaches that explore how chronic conditions like diabetes may be materially transmitted as bodies and environments intimately shape each other over time, with unequal and compounding effects for historically situated groups of people. These possibilities foster attention to “connectors” (Benton) instead of vectors alone, raising questions about our anthropological objects and modes of study that have broad implications for cultural, linguistic, biological, and archaeological anthropology as well as histories of science and technology.
The panel puts practitioners and approaches from each of these subfields in dialogue. Collectively, we ask: What does the distinction between “infectious” and “noncommunicable” conditions hold in place, and what forms of inquiry might it preclude? How might we make sense of this binary distinction through new models of disease (both chronic and acute), language, mediascapes, and animal and chemical actors? How might older paradigms be rethought in light of growing crises like diabetes and asthma, cancer clusters, and antibiotic resistance, as well as viral memes that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere?
Contributors to this panel explore these broad lines of inquiry by tracing how germ theory and dissenting paradigms become enacted in practice, recovering forgotten historical debates over “infectious heredity,” and querying legacies of chemical exposure (Landecker); examining how unevenly distributed risk for diseases like seemingly “noncommunicable” uterine fibroids are embroiled in deep-seated material and semiotic realities of race, gender, and class that may become embodied in ways akin to transmission (Benn Torres and Torres-Colón); exploring conundrums of what “communication” means within an attempted archaeology of plastic debris, a supposedly inert material that in fact infects the world around it (Geller); and attending to the ways that public health literature and educational media can actually help to shape the ever-shifting bodily conditions they represent (Briggs). Taken together, these papers examine how distinctions between communicability and noncommunicability have shaped the pressing material realities of our contemporary moment. Collectively, they ask what emerging concepts might offer traction for rethinking and responding to our current predicament.