New & Notable

Michael Dove Interviews Emily Wanderer, 2014 Rappaport Finalist

MRD: Your site – Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Disease or INER – and your topic – the role that concepts of air pollution and disease play in making the Mexican nation – are, to say the least, quite unique.  How did you come to be there in the first place and studying these topics?  What was the first ‘aha’ moment that led you to think of this as your dissertation topic?

Emily: I found my way to my dissertation topic through a combination of strategy and serendipity (as I imagine many people do). I have long been interested in the development of biosecurity practices and the intersection of science and politics. Early on I had done ethnographic research in a biodefense and infectious disease research lab in Chicago, and I wanted to build on that experience for my dissertation. The outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu, that started in Mexico, drew my attention. The outbreak was a surprise to public health experts, who had anticipated that the next influenza pandemic would be one of bird flu from Southeast Asia. The outbreak generated debates in Mexico, as people argued about why it happened and what should be done about it. Different people blamed the outbreak on the industrialization of Mexican agriculture, the lack of funding for public health, the absence of regulations, neoliberalism, and even human genetics.

Intrigued by these debates, I went to Mexico to study the development of biosecurity. I wanted to know how scientists produced knowledge about Mexican biology, and how this knowledge informed political projects to protect health. In short, I was interested in how science and the nation are co-constituted through biosecurity projects. I thought Mexico would be a provocative site to study these issues because while it’s deeply implicated in western projects and foundationally conditioned by European expansion, indigenous worlds are also essential to understanding Mexico. This combination of European and indigenous worlds continues to be an important element of the collective imagination of the nation and political ideology, informing the ways people think about the population and serving as the basis for arguments that Mexican populations are different. Further, looking at scientific and health research on the periphery helps demonstrate how contingent and local relations shapes discourse and scientific research about biological organisms. This is especially relevant in an age of global health and conservation regulations. Work in Mexico helps critique or complicate the idea of the universality of biology (both as discipline and life forms).

Initially, I planned to look at biosecurity in relation to infectious disease. However, what I found was that while in the U.S. biosecurity tends to be defined as protecting the population from intentionally introduced disease, in Mexico, when people talk about biosecurity they talk about health and the environment much more broadly – not just human health, but also ecological health, invasive species, biotechnology, and genetically modified organisms. My dissertation ended up being a multi-sited project, and the paper that I presented for the Rappaport prize addressed just one of those sites. In addition to working at Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Disease, I did fieldwork with conservationists eradicating invasive species on Mexico’s islands, and with ecologists at the National Institute of Ecology who were involved in regulating the use of genetically modified organisms.

Emily Wanderer

MRD: One of your most interesting findings is that the history of HIV/AIDS in Mexico, by comparison with the U.S., is seen by Mexican and U.S. scientists alike as an ‘asset’.  Crucial differences – Mexican doctors tends to not see HIV/AIDS patients until much later in the progression of the disease; on the other hand Mexico’s relatively late arrival to establishing a national HIV/AIDS treatment program means that it did not repeat the U.S. history of treating patients with suboptimal anti-retroviral therapies – means that Mexico has many patients with personal illness histories that are rare in the U.S. As one American doctor visiting the INER said, “It’s a fantastic opportunity”, for research.  Can you say more about the significance of this perceived time-lag in disease treatment between developed and late-developing countries, which in a way is reminiscent of another purported time-lag currently in the news, namely that between early industrializing countries that are now curbing their carbon emissions and late-industrializing countries that are loathe to do so?

Emily: This question gets at something that was difficult for me to grapple with, which was how to think through my interlocutors’ tendency to articulate difference in terms of temporality or a time-lag. As Johannes Fabian writes, ethnographic narratives have often placed their subjects outside of the time of the anthropologist writing them. I didn’t want to replicate that kind of temporal relationship, but I was quite interested in the ways that the physicians and other scientists I talked with proposed various gaps in times between different places, and in thinking through how people in other disciplines view time, and see various people or places as located in different times, or make reference to different historical periods to ground their work.

For example, determining whether a species is native or invasive often entails choosing a particular temporal reference point for an ecosystem. The Mexican National Strategy for Invasive Species, an important planning document developed by the federal government’s National Commission for the Study and Use of Biodiversity gives definitions of key terms. The strategy defines native species as “those naturally found in a region as a result of a long process of adaptation to the existing environmental conditions,” while alien species, on the other hand, are species occurring outside of their past or present natural range. So, whether a species is native or alien is in some ways a question of the duration of their presence in a place.

I did fieldwork with conservationists from the Grupo de Ecología y Conservacíon de Islas, an NGO that works on islands in Mexico, eradicating invasive species in an effort to restore a past natural order. Islands have long been imagined as utopian spaces where the social and natural order can be rethought, and where the past has been preserved. Following the work of GECI scientists, I found that while they did not see islands as places out of time or where the past had been precisely preserved, they did represent a more recoverable past than the mainland, and places where it would be possible to undo some of the homogenization of the environment brought about by processes of globalization and capitalism.

I’m hesitant to frame the question of carbon emissions and industrializing in terms of a time-lag, which to me implies that industrialization in all countries should follow the same path and that some countries are merely further behind on this path. I suppose I’m an optimist, in that I hope that late-industrializing countries might be places in which a better path can be found. Further, I believe that ultimately it is the responsibility of early-industrializing countries like the U.S. to radically curb their carbon emissions, regardless of the activities of other countries.

MRD: Another major finding of your’s concerns the link between disease and national identity and boundaries.  You demonstrate that the Mexican medical establishment believes in a uniquely Mexican biology and so, contra the prevalent idea that “disease knows no boundaries”, they see the particular manifestation of HIV/AIDS there as a specifically Mexican problem, one moreover that unites the populace in facing a shared national risk.  This contrasts starkly with the recent U.S. stance toward the Ebola outbreak in Africa, which was seen – albeit with some exceptions within the U.S. political establishment – as a shared global risk.  Your case seems to be another example of how the processes of globalization that were until fairly recently seen as rolling uniformly over the globe, can encounter locally opposing tendencies, in the most unexpected places and topics – as Mexican HIV/AIDS surely is, yes?

Emily: Yes, definitely. The rhetoric of disease knowing no borders has been very powerful in public health, and there’s been a push to move beyond state-centric or nation-based health projects towards treating health and biology as a global system. Part of the argument for this change is that globalization has transformed the nature of health risks and essentially dissolved the borders between nations, at least in terms of disease.

This move, however, has generated tension in Mexico between international goals and expectations and local needs. For example, in the case of HIV/AIDS, the scientists I worked with argued that it was essential to understand the epidemiology and viral diversity of HIV in Mexico. The argued that HIV was different from other places as a result of the genomic characteristics and immune responses of the human population of Mexico, as well as the political, social, and economic history that shaped trajectories of access to antiretroviral therapy in different countries. Standard reference strains used in HIV research that come primarily from U.S. patients may miss important aspects of viral life in Mexico. Conducting research similarly requires scientists to analyze and reckon with the way local biology is different – how the microbial and viral ecology around the lab and the state of the immune systems of lab workers are not the same globally and must be accounted for in analyzing the risk of various lab procedures. So, while organizations like the WHO seek to implement global health systems and regulations, scientists in Mexico are dealing with biology that refuses to be global, and instead remains idiosyncratically local.

MRD: Your research clearly also contributes to ongoing discussions within anthropology about the sense of place.  As you point out, attitudes toward air within the Mexican medical establishment complicate ideas of place – by expanding boundaries (of those affected by pollution and disease) outwards; at the same time as the aforementioned notion of a uniquely local, Mexican biology contracts boundaries (viz., of a unique HIV/AIDS threat) inwards.  Can you expand on these divergent tendencies and on what you think you can contribute to current theorizing regarding place in anthropology?  

Emily: My sense of one way that these divergent tendencies are linked is that they both tell us something about the politics of scale. Both air and HIV are in this case abstractions or incorporeal elements that people are using to understand their connection to one another. The borders around air or biology could be drawn in myriad ways. I’m interested in the particular connections that people see in the movement of air or patterns of viral infection. The scale at which the boundaries of care or concern could be drawn is flexible, and in this case it tended to be drawn at a national level, encompassing the entire population. In this way I see echoes in current scientific practice of historical political and social projects to unite the entire nation through the process of mestizaje, or the mixture of indigenous and European populations to produce a homogenized national body.

Regarding place in other sense, I’m also interested in places of science, particularly the lab and field. Historian of science Robert Kohler outlined the divide between lab and field, identifying them as two distinct cultural domains with different languages, customs, material, and moral economies. I suggest, however, that this dichotomy did not hold for the scientific practices I observed. Neither the lab nor the field in Mexico were purely lab or purely field. Instead, both represented hybrids. Laboratories, even those that specialize in containment, were not separated from the city in which they were located, and the scientists I studied did not think of the lab as placeless. Similarly, field sites were transformed into laboratories in which large-scale scientific experiments were conducted. The work of ecologists was not simply to characterize natural places but also to intervene in them. I also argue for the importance of a third scientific space, the office. The office was distinct from but also entangled with the lab and the field, and was where scientists engaged with bureaucratic processes and paperwork and shaped the administration of Mexican ecosystems and agriculture.

MRD: You speak of your research, in part, as a study of the way that “biosecurity projects” contribute to the production of Mexican science and nation.  For a decade and more, many anthropologists have drawn on Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics’ to analyze similar sorts of issues.  How does your research contribute to – or move beyond – this literature on biopolitics?

Emily: One thing that I hope to contribute to the extensive literature on science, nation, and biopolitics is an understanding of how biopolitics and biosecurity have been extended beyond the reglation of human life to encompass animal, plant, and microbial worlds. In my dissertation I bring together accounts of scientists working on lab safety, urban air quality, viral ecologies, biotechnology and bureaucracy, and island laboratories in order to analyze what happens when biology becomes the subject of security practices.

By analyzing these wide-ranging security practices, I can show how the nation is being defined in scientific work, as people establish who or what is within a group and who is excluded from group membership. In these practices, scientists make claims about how biology has been shaped by history, culture, and environment. They define which life forms are to be protected, which constitute a threat or danger, and they make arguments for how to adjust human behavior to improve the health of people and the environment more generally. I argue that Mexican biopolitics have become multispecies projects, and as a result, disciplining and regulating the health of the nation entails thinking about many kinds of life forms and their interactions.

Posted in Featured Research, New & Notable | Comments Off on Michael Dove Interviews Emily Wanderer, 2014 Rappaport Finalist

Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, And Ecovillages

Edited by Joshua Lockyer and James R. Veteto In order to move global society towards a sustainable “ecotopia,” solutions must be engaged in specific places and communities, and the authors here argue for re-orienting environmental anthropology from a problem-oriented towards a solutions-focused endeavor. Using case studies from around the world, the contributors—scholar-activists and activist-practitioners— examine the interrelationships between three prominent environmental social movements: bioregionalism, a worldview and political ecology that grounds environmental action and experience; permaculture, a design science for putting the bioregional vision into action; and ecovillages, the ever-dynamic settings for creating sustainable local cultures.
Posted in New & Notable | Comments Off on Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, And Ecovillages

Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution

Eugene N. Anderson reviews Sponsel’s Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution:

Leslie Sponsel has defined a new field of inquiry: spiritual ecology. He traces spiritual views on the environment from early roots to modern advocates for religious, spiritual, or mystical approaches to environment. The first three chapters concern traditional societies. The first examines animism, a concept being rehabilitated after some years of relative eclipse. Sponsel then surveys the better-known studies of traditional societies and their views of their environments. The third chapter covers the “ecologically noble vs. ignoble savage” controversy. Sponsel dissects the popular culture views of the former and the various protests, ranging from politically conservative to academically searching. He compares these with the actual record, which reveals a tremendous variety and a lack of any “savages” or other stereotypic beings.

Follow Link→

Posted in New & Notable | Tagged , | Comments Off on Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution

How Will New Models Shape Our Research?

In a recent article, Genes, Culture, and Agriculture: An Example of Human Niche Construction, Michael J. O’Brien and Kevin A. Laland propose a model for understanding human relationships with created or built environments, particularly those associated with agriculture. O’Brien and Laland combine niche-construction theory (NCT) and gene-culture coevolutionary theory (GCT) to suggest that as people created and settled into agricultural environments, they themselves changed genetically to suit the environment. From the Current Anthropology article: “Anthropologists have long known the power that culture exerts in shaping the human condition, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the interactions of genes and culture—literally, their coevolution—offer a faster and stronger mode of human evolution than either by itself.” (See article here.) For anthropologists wanting to learn more about niche construction theory, the March edition of The Quarterly Review of Biology will feature a major article, Niche Construction Theory: A Practical Guide for Ecologists.

Posted in New & Notable | Comments Off on How Will New Models Shape Our Research?

Bring heritage breeds to holiday table

Peggy F. Barlett’s Op-Ed on genetic diversity in our food system on CNN:

Last week, I sat down with colleagues and students to an early Thanksgiving meal prepared by my university’s cafeteria. Along with our winter greens, butternut squash, brussels sprouts with apples and bacon, and pumpkin grits, we ate a roasted “heritage breed turkey.”

Posted in New & Notable | Comments Off on Bring heritage breeds to holiday table