Aarhus University Seal


This project has been completed, and the website is therefore no longer being updated.

Day 1 – Wednesday 1 October

9:00-9:30 Welcome

Theme 1: Local biologies and global technologies – the changing interface between biology and anthropology

9:30-10:30 Margaret Lock: Demarcating Environments: Epigenesis, Epigenetics, and Molecular Epigenetics

A potential for neo-reductionism has been noted by social scientists in connection with the majority of projects carried out to date by molecular epigeneticists. In order to conduct research, researchers usually demarcate ‘environment’ as the experience of traumatic and violent events resultant in intra-cellular changes that bring about behavioral changes and psychiatric disorder. These epigenesists set to one side both environment-writ-large and socio-political variables well correlated by epidemiologists with malaise, psychiatric disease, and early mortality. In this paper I document changes in the concept of environment over time by first tracing the genealogy of epigenesis, a term made use of in Europe consistently to the end of the 19th century. A brief elaboration of the consolidation of epigenetics as a discipline in the mid-20th century is then set out followed by findings of several behavioral molecular epigeneticists who deliberately ‘miniaturize’ environment in their work. In conclusion, a case study from the Canadian North is introduced that draws on historical and ethnographic findings highlighting the singular importance of expanding the horizons of molecular epigenetics.

10:30-11:00 Tea/Coffee

11:00-12:00 Jörg Niewöhner: Localising biology through co-laborative ontography. The case of social differentiation in molecular biology and anthropology

This paper is concerned with the question whether recent developments in the life sciences require the social sciences to reconsider how they incorporate material aspects of material- semiotic practices into their research. The paper takes social difference as an example and sets off from a contrasting discussion of two studies – one anthropological, one molecular biological, both demonstrating the material effects of social difference. The paper argues from a life scientific and from a social scientific perspective, how the link between nature and culture presents itself. The juxtaposition reveals fundamentally different ontological commitments to reality as singular or multiple. In a final step, the paper takes up recent debates around the ontological turn to demonstrate that the ontological openness suggested in the notion of ontography is important when the nature of nature is the object of inquiry. It argues for co-laborative ontography as a mode of research to localise biology.

12:00-13:00 David Napier: The New Sociobiology: Symbiosis and Local Meaning

In this paper I argue that epigenetic and symbiotic relations mean that sociobiology as it is commonly defined is actually a form of bio-sociology—in which deterministic biological mechanisms are tied to Darwinian and social evolutionary models. Redefining sociobiology as the impact of social practices on biological mechanisms helps us clarify the syndemic and symbiotic nature of human practices and their transformation over time. It also helps re-aligns social anthropology with emerging trends in science, raising new and exciting opportunities for a ‘new sociobiology’.

13:00-14:00 Lunch

14:00-15:00 Allan Young: Nanostrife, Human Nature, and Anthropology

Sociality means living in groups. Group living intensifies two opposing forces: conflict and cooperation. Beginning in the 1960s, biologists and ethologists targeted the forces of conflict and cooperation shaping social life among terrestrial vertebrates. Eventually, their interests expanded to include the social life of eukaryotes (such as social amoebas) and prokaryotes (notably bacteria). By the year 2000, they had advanced to prokaryotes who, very long ago, had surrendered their autonomy, joined multicellular systems, and subordinated themselves to regimes of dependence and self-transformation.

Microbiologists report that bacteria lead rich social lives, develop collective memory, generate common knowledge, develop group identity, recognize the identity of members of other colonies, learn from the experience of others to improve themselves, and engage in group decision making. In other words, bacteria possess collective abilities equivalent to ‘social intelligence’, as this term used by cognitive scientists. The life, death and well being of each of our body cells depends on a colony of hundreds of thousands of former bacteria, located in the mitochondria. These ‘colonies’ have their own genetic code, communication system, collective self-identity, and self-interests.

Intracellular elements are connected via social relations; individual cells are connected to one another and to the organism as a whole via social relations; and the organism is connected through social relations to other organisms and influences comprising the external environment. Now imagine that a populated planet has been discovered. The first ethnographers arrive and it is within their power to re-conceive the ontology of social life. Why wait though? Biology gives us the ticket, but where are the ethnographers?

Human Nature was invented in 17th century, at the dawn of the Enlightenment and modern times. Properly understood, Human Nature is a constellation of puzzles minus the divine puzzle-solver of previous millennia. Human Nature can no longer be understood as ‘humans and nature’ or ‘humans in nature’ (the so-called ‘anthropocene’) – that is to say, as two nouns conjoined. But make no mistake: this is a radically reconceived ‘nature’, defined by its sociality. In other words, it is not bideterminism: it makes biodeterminism unthinkable

‘Anthropology’ was created together with Human Nature, as a program for tackling its puzzles. For three centuries, anthropologists concentrated on the ‘human’ half of Human Nature. Today, just as post-colonial anthropology is running out of steam, we are given access to a new New World: the nature half of the Human Nature equation. Social anthropologists recall African Political Systems (1940). The eighth chapter is E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Nuer, an acephalous society lacking institutions and authorities that constitute ‘government’. Despite Hobbes’ predictions, Nuer society does not collapse into chaotic disaggregation, but holds together via ‘segmentary opposition’. This is the principle that biologists now associate with nanosocieties: it is a dynamic of cooperation and competition.

To be more exact, there are three principles at play – cooperation, competition, and kinship. Nuer kinship is based on patrilineal descent; with bacteria, kinship is expressed via genetic identity and entitlement to biological resources – toxins and antitoxins rather than cattle. What interests me is not that biological science and social anthropology have hit upon similar solutions, but that they are committed to similar puzzles.

The web of social relations that constitutes life is regulated by genomes. The genome is the social world of its constituent molecules. Within this world, scientists detect evidence of ‘the will to power’ – the readiness of members to repress and deceive their perceived rivals. The ‘epigenome’ is a name for the social life of the genome. ’Genomic imprinting’ is another name, referring to Intrauterine competition between paternal and maternal molecules (DNA) insidewithin the genome. Epigenetics and genomic imprinting are the ethnographer’s ports of entry: an opportunity to study the vertical integration of Human Nature, the relations connecting molecular society to global society. And this is the subject of my presentation. I will illustrate this framework with the work on the ‘autism- psychosis continuum’ and imprinting by Benjamin Crespi and Christopher Badcock.

This framework has been elaborated during the past two decades in top-tier scientific journals – Nature, Science, Trends in Microbiology, etc. It is a response to puzzles discovered during the Enlightenment and represents the workings of what we can call a ‘cultural ontology’. My presentation will conclude by asking whether these developments have further significance. Can this cultural ontology advance our practical (medical) interests? For example, might it allow us to disseminate disinformation to ‘unfriendly’ bacterial communities and thwart their intentions? (In my paper, I will justify the use of the term ‘intentions’ regarding bacteria.) And, if the answer is yes, what would be anthropology’s contribution in this new world?

15:00-15:15 Grab a coffee/tea

15:15-16:15 Tobias Rees: Snails, subjects, and suffering. An Anthropology of (Neuro)Biology

Snails are hardly anthropological matter. And yet, almost everything we know, neuronally speaking, about how humans form memories we know from snails. The aim of this talk is threefold. One, reflect about the constitutive importance of snails for the emergence, in seventeenth century Europe, of humans as subject (and of the world and of animals as objects). Two, explain why and in which concrete sense the neurobiology of snails as it has emerged since the 1950s might be responsible for the end of this subject object distinction. Three, critically think through –– from the perspective of neurobiological snail research –– some of the major epistemological presuppositions of medical anthropology. An anthropology of Snails? Not exactly. Rather an anthropology of the epistemic space broken open by snails –– and of the effect this epistemic space has on the conceptions of the human that have (largely) organized (medical) anthropology.

16:15-17:15 Andreas Roepstorff and Martijn van Beek: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the Brain  

The advent of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other therapies inspired by Eastern contemplative practices are on the rise, in particular in the Western world. Seemingly, they offer a new sort of treatment to hitherto difficult-to-deal-with, and expensive, patient groups. Increasingly, the outcome of these therapies are evaluated with reference to brainbased methods. This may at first seem as a rather unholy marriage between the material and the mental. Is it a new form or materialism, a victory of mind-over-matter, or perhaps one outline of a complex cosmology for the 21st Century?

17:15-17:30 Winding up, practical information

Day 2 – Thursday 2. October

9:00-10:00 Daniel Lende Drug Use, Addiction, and Neuroanthropology: Global Technologies and Locally-Situated Biology

Since the 1990s, the “addiction is a brain disease” model has been exported globally by the United States’ National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), facilitated by NIDA-driven neuroimaging of “addicted brains.” This model is based on a universalist biology; even research on the neuroplasticity of addiction points to loss of neuroplasticity as explaining destructive drug use. This paper will challenge this model through consideration of both technology and biology. A technology even more global than neuroimaging happens to be drugs themselves, which have often been understood using a nature/culture paradigm – drugs as both pharmacological agent and commodity. A neuroanthropological approach resizes drugs in human ways, revealing the embodied and social dimensions of drugs and drug use. With addiction, neuroanthropology emphasizes situating biology within local experiences and social contexts. Experiences like a drug “high” do rely on biology and pharmacology, but cannot be reduced to these alone. Rather, how people interpret and manage these experiences matters a great deal for why certain drug users consume to such excess.

10:00-11:00 Des Fitzgerald: The Metropolis in Neural Life: Psychiatry and the City after Biodeterminism

The relationship between urban life and mental health has long existed on the edges of biodeterminism. From the beginning of psychiatric epidemiology in the 19th century, to the emergence of the ‘human ecology’ school of social science in the 1930s, to the detailed rat models of urban stress and crowding that became prominent in the 1970s – a deep concern with madness in the metropolis has long animated scholars interested in how social life becomes biologically legible, and in how culture might be indexed as a relation between the organism and her environment.

But the relationship between urban stress and psychiatric illness is well known – and even a bit clichéd – a recent epigenetic and neurodevelopmental attention to the nexus of metropolitan and mental life has significantly re-animated, and torqued, this connection. What distinguishes this more recent turn is a specifically ‘postgenomic’ insistence that city life and psychiatric distress cannot now be fixed through relations of cause or determination – but must instead be understood, as always-in- motion, tangled and developmental webs of stress, noise, violence, smoke, discrimination and brain function.

In this paper, I draw on the ‘urbanicity’ literature to show how the traffic between social and biological life is being re-made in the contemporary biosciences. And if there are reasons to be sceptical, I argue for a deeper and fuller empirical engagement with this research from the social sciences. In particular, I ask: how are we to understand the potential for re-imagining stressful life in the neurological city? What can this research tell us about the claims, responsibilities and implications embedded in a postgenomic imaginary more generally? And how, then, should we rethink, as well as re-connect, the rights of urban citizenship, the politics of urban space, and the claims of mental health, in a post-biodeterminist age?

11:00-11:30 Coffe/Tea

11:30-12:30 Mette N. Svendsen: Pig-human relations in neonatology: towards a multi-species anthropology of health in the global south and north

This paper employs a multi-species perspective in investigating life’s worth in the field of neonatology in Denmark. The topic of life’s worth at human life beginnings raises central questions about who can become a viable member of society and what it means to be a human person. In anthropology, these questions have always been answered through investigations that have taken the human being as their starting point and highlighted the cultural production of viability and personhood. In this paper I urge us to move beyond this focus on the anthropos and situate questions of life’s worth in the context of research on animals whose lives are entangled in creating a worthy life for humans.

Specifically I follow the socio-spatial practices in a Danish pig laboratory in which piglets are born prematurely to function as a model of the premature infant at risk of serious diseases due to an immature gut. The piglets used in these experiments are offspring of Danish production pigs which as a result of systematic breeding practices exhibit the famous “local biology” of leaner meat, an extra rib and an increasing number of piglets per litter. In the experiments the premature piglets are put in incubators, fed cow colostrum, taken care of night and day by a team of researchers and on the last day of the experiment killed and turned into scientific samples. The involved researchers, clinicians, nutrition companies and funding bodies articulate and view the experiments as a means to enhance neonatal health in a global world. Right now the pig experiments become the starting point for planning clinical trials in Denmark and China, trials in which Danish and Chinese infants will be fed Danish cow colostrum in an effort to translate research results into NICUs in the global south and north.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Danish pig laboratory I investigate the spatial and conceptual processes through which the local biology of the pig is made into an instrument for human infant life globally. I argue that the social and spatial segregation between infant and piglet in the Danish setting is part of a politics of life that morally disconnects the piglet from the infant in order to facilitate their connection in the battle for infant health in a global world. In short, the processes of establishing differences between the worthy (human) and the less worthy (animal) become part and parcel of public health efforts that aim at creating equality in human health on a global scale. In drawing together classic anthropological thinking on the cultural production of viability and personhood with the recent questioning of the anthropocentric perspectives inherent in such thinking my multi-species perspective uncovers how the Danish pigs and global knowledge technologies come together in negotiations of life’s worth within neonatology.

12:30-13:30 Lunch

Theme 2: Theoretical perspectives on health in the global south and north

13:30-14:30 Adrianna Petryna: What is a Horizon? Extinction and Time amid Climate Change

This paper explores the models, values, and tools that scientists are developing to address rapidly changing ecosystem dynamics and behaviors. It is based on field research among scientists in Europe and the United States who are quantifying points of no return for ecosystems under threat and related potential early warning signals. Extinction is an ecological construct that assumes some loss of natural structural stability. It also signifies a curious and troubling hiatus in the scientific imagination of what comes next. I call “horizoning work” what scientists do in the face of nature's increasing physical incoherence and the undetectability of catastrophic surprise.  The heuristic significance of horizons inheres in their ability to calibrate complexity, yet the human capacity to negotiate catastrophic surprise is still far from solved.

14:30-14:45  Grab a coffee/tee

14:45-15:45 Susan L. Erikson: Fungibilities, Potentialities, and Liabilities in (Supposed) Philanthropies of Global Public Health

‘Social determinants of health’ logics, models, and metrics impose a particular set of limitations on global public health as a social field. Many public health practitioners believe in social determinants in apostolic and universal ways. Failures to acknowledge the market logics of contemporary global health, which is anything but ‘determined,’ are legion. This is a current conundrum: Determinants ‘determine’; money is fungible. In our contemporary moment, global health business – which is fungible, flexible, fickle, and seemingly largely invisible to most global public health practitioners – is quickly changing on- the-ground realities well beyond the old public-private binary. As my data from Sierra Leone show, public health’s paradigmatic and plodding uptake of ‘determinants’ can stifle discursive public analytics in ways that serve market logics of global health business very well; determinants distract attention away from the new ways commodifying health makes money and alters health services-scapes. “Plod on,” investors say, as finance logics transformatively drive global industries, investments, and profits. In this paper, I take up some of the emerging global finance rationalities affecting global health. Global health financing is introducing new stakes, new arrangements, new leveraging, and new excesses of capitalism as the investment sector makes its claim on global health as a commodity that can be traded, bought, and sold. ‘Innovation’ in health treatments, technologies, policy, and financing is vogue, more is good, and excess is even better. ‘Health securities’ is as likely to mean tradable assets as corporeal wellness. ‘Deep pools’ are not of the therapeutic sort, but rather where investors trade global health goods ‘offline.’ In sum, biodeterminism is not the only determinist paradigm that medical anthropology has the potential to disrupt; in global health, ‘social determinants of health’ beg the ‘med anthro treatment’ that lays bare, by disciplinary imperative, a more holistic view of global health goods, in this case, with special attention on ‘goods’ bought and sold.

15:45-16:45 Jens Seeberg: Virus as medicine, medicine as virus: exploring MDR-TB

Bacteria can get ill, too. Vira that are capable of infecting bacteria are called bacteriophages; if they are able to infect mycobacteria, the genus that causes diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy and a range of other diseases, they are called mycobacteriophages. A phage that infects M. tuberculosis was first discovered in 1947, and hundreds of such ‘TB vira’ have subsequently been identified. Once they are hosted by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, they ‘inject’ genetic material – i.e. information – into the TB cell, affecting different aspects of its genetic code. Little is known about the complex relationship between phage infection and bacteria behaviour, but some phages seem to enhance the ability of the bacillus to produce biofilm, while only a few have the potential to kill their hosts. The latter have inspired therapeutic use of mycobacteriophages against TB, but this remains difficult and controversial and is so far only approved in a medicinal form for treatment of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) in Russia and Ukraine. Recently more attention has been given to the diagnostic potential of mycobacteriophages in detection of MDR-TB.

The relationship between mycobacterium and phage can be fatal, symbiotic, or resistant, i.e. a bacillus can develop resistance to a ‘killer phage’. In this regard, the response of the bacillus to phages is similar to its response to antibiotic drugs used for TB treatment. In the remainder of this paper I’ll analyse TB treatment in India through a viral metaphor. Using this metaphor allows us to understand the establishment of direct contact between medicines and Mycobacterium tuberculosis as the raison d’etre of the DOTS program. I explore how the regime of Directly Observed Treatment – Short-course (DOTS) – promoted by the World Health Organization as a strategy to treat TB and prevent drug resistance – in the case of India has contributed significantly to treatment but failed to prevent drug resistance, both in its own domain of public healthcare services and in a context dominated by commercial healthcare. While the spread of tuberculosis can best be understood as a syndemic due to its simultaneous co-morbidity with other epidemics and close interdependence with social conditions of poverty, I seek to ‘stretch’ the idea of syndemic by comparing DOTS treatment to a viral mycobacteriophagal epidemic whose outcome in individual cases for the TB cell may be fatal (curative for the patient) or leading to drug resistance (potentially fatal for the patient). The epidemic potential of chemically-biologically modified strains of TB is explored as processes of contamination to address questions such as how is the social life of drug resistance created and maintained over time; and the politics of configuration is discussed to understand how the epidemic of MDR-TB is driven and distributed among populations, and how, paradoxically, dispensable drugs come to create dispensable people.

16:45-17:00 winding up, practical information

19:00- Conference dinner


Day 3 – Friday 3 October

Theme 3: Epidemics – communicability and non-communicability

9:00-10:00 Steve Ferzacca: Diabetes and the Vital Organization of Daily Life

This paper derived from a professional career attentive to Type 2 diabetes addresses the 3 “core questions” posed for discussion regarding “New Directions for Medical Anthropology.” The number of diabetes sufferers worldwide is now larger than the populations of most nation-states (366 million people worldwide according to the International Diabetes Federation [IDF] 2011). If diabetes were a recognized form of political organization, a security apparatus, imaginative devices, and a structure of feeling at least in normative terms are already in place on a global scale. Here, local biologies are examined across the multiple sites of ethnographic inquiry in order to explore the changing ‘nature’ of this health problem. While it may be the case that medical anthropology originating in the “global north” reflects middle class values and concerns, the global health phenomenon of diabetes fostered by a global dispostif organizing diabetes management and treatment generates a somatic self deeply implicated in the middle class values and concerns of the now global everywhere. This capacity, this dispositif of endless entanglements networked among already proliferating network of nation-medicine-economy, further facilitated by interactions with ‘inanimate” medical things deemed necessary for diabetes management and treatment are also augmented within local biologies. In fact the durability of any local biology inspires the flexibility of security apparatus and imaginative devices to capture – dispossess – individuals of all forms of capital so acquired that lack referents. In the process the communicable capacity – the heritage involved -- is not to be found in the biological DNA of diabetes sufferers, but rather in the dispositif – in the cultivations and techniques of the bio-social and somatic selves which establish the contagious quality of this supposedly non-communicable disease. Locality – the body in its relations -- is the ‘milieu’ for living diabetically; a milieu in which lived histories, global medical perception and practice, local knowledge, moral economies of governance, the animate quality of things are appropriated as “devices of saturation” so that a lived diabetic life becomes available – communicable everywhere -- to sufferers and non-sufferers alike.


10:00-11:00 Simon Cohn: Making and explaining the obese body

Some are suggesting that the nature-nurture debate is finally being rendered obsolete. Fields such as neuroscience and epigenetics now foreground on-going plasticity and interaction with the physical and the social environment, whilst social theorists are promoting a turn to materialism to counter what are claimed to be the excessive constructivist arguments of the past. The result is an expectation that traditionally opposing perspectives will combine in order to achieve a more detailed and complete understanding of human variation and disease, and hence that old disciplinary wars will be over.

However, this promissory vision ignores the possibility that the issue is not, and perhaps has never been, simply about how different approaches propose different causal entities, but rather that these approaches concern very different kinds of realities. In this paper I wish to draw on the example of obesity research to illustrate how different bodies come to be known and acted upon. Rather than start from how the obese body might be explained through biological and social arguments, which is how medical researchers imagine they work, I wish to suggest ways in which social and biological accounts actively construct the obese body in particular ways. Ethnographic data from a clinical trial will illustrate how, in addition to how the body is variously conceived of materially, a further set of distinctions concern matters of temporality and causation. Thus, whilst many talk about obesity as a global epidemic that demands universal and totalising solutions, I wish to explore to what extent framing it in this way serves to produce a particular kind of problem and the extent to which this relegate other claims as mere cultural interpretations.

I will conclude by arguing that acknowledging differences as ontological, rather than epistemological, ensures that the political and moral consequences folded into assumptions of the obese body are not occluded through talk of interdisciplinary unification. Medical anthropology should not only protect its critical stance, but extend it to address what is natural as well as what is cultural.

11:00-11:30 Coffe/Tea

11:30-12:30 Julie Livingston: Co-infection and co-morbidity on an epidemic scale: thinking with HIV, TB, and Cancer in Botswana

In Botswana simultaneous epidemics of tuberculosis, HIV, and cancer are deeply entangled and fueling one another. This situation is creating great challenges and confusion for both patients and their clinicians. They are seeking diagnosis and treatment in a health system whose institutional and intellectual architecture continually separates each disease category even as these diseases continually clot back together or aggregate in the human body and in daily life. The confusion is compounded by the potential for a silent or latent stage of each of disease, the ways that AIDS continually threatens to dissolve into its array of manifestations only to re-aggregate under the umbrella of HIV, and the dissonance the relative novelty of cancer in the country. Some patients arrive in Botswana’s oncology ward suffering from HIV, Kaposi’s Sarcoma, and TB. Others have scar tissue in their lungs from previous TB infections that increase their susceptibility to lung cancer. Sometimes the oncologist finds both KS or lymphoma cells and TB bacilli in the same lymph node. Some patients have been on TB treatment for months to no avail, before they are able to get the cancer in their lungs diagnosed, while others have to let their cancer wait while hopefully their TB and HIV are brought under control enough to give them the strength to undergo chemotherapy. This paper, situated in the cancer ward, tries to understand how the meanings of comorbidity and the densities of entanglement shift over time and across scale. Moving across cellular, clinical, social, biographical, institutional, epidemiological, and political layers, it pursues the dynamic qualities of co-morbidity in the context of intersecting epidemics.

12:30-13:30 Lotte Meinert and Susan Whyte: Legacies of violence: the communicability of spirits and trauma in northern Uganda

In the aftermath of the long war in northern Uganda, people struggle to give affliction a social and manageable form. Two ideas have spread so rapidly that they might be considered epidemic in the etymological sense of ‘upon the people’.  Both conceive strange behavior as a legacy of violence. Both are flexible notions without sharp contours. But the nature of their communicability, their appeal, and their treatment differs. The notion of cen, roughly spirits of the unhappy dead, is an old one among Acholi people. Cen are communicable in that spirits afflict the descendants of those who have killed someone without making reparation. Or they are contagious to those who happen upon a victim of violence left unburied. As an explanation cen is proposed by ritual specialists and resonates for many, although it is contested by strong Christians. Trauma was originally a biomedical concept that has spread through the work of the many NGOs working in the region during and after the war. It has been popularized as an enlightened understanding of mental problems caused by difficult experiences. Trauma afflicts individuals who have been exposed to violence or extreme suffering, but is not thought to spread to other family members. As a plan for action, cen invites a communal affirmation that a violent incident occurred and efforts to cleanse the wrong by sacrifice. Trauma invites individual medication and counseling, but not necessarily a common recognition of a particular violation. It resonates within the humanitarian and biomedical domains, where scientific instruments are used to document its presence, even among people who have not framed their problems with that term.  In this paper we explore the kinds of communicability that are at play in these two sets of ideas and the politics that animate their spread.

13:30-14:30 Lunch for presenters