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January 07, 2009

On Microbes

Erin Koch has an excellent post over at Somatosphere regarding the social life of microbes.  It is common to think of microbes as purely biological entities, and indeed, there is obviously something "biological" about microbes.  The term "biological" is nettlesome, because, on the one hand, it is inadvisable to suggest that the framing of illness and disease entities like bacteria or viruses (and, of late, genes, which are not disease entities per se but can cause disease on the molecular level) strips these entities of any notion of reality outside of this framing.  Yet, on the other hand, to term something a biological entity often erroneously implies that these entities exist in some realm hermetically sealed off from social and cultural influences and understandings.  (For more, see the Lexicon entry on the social construction of disease).

This, as Charles Rosenberg and Richard Lewontin suggest, is fallacious as well.  Thus Rosenberg argues that diseases are both biological and social entities, and more so, are social actors.  Koch discusses some of these matters in thinking about TB, and concludes that the irreducibly social nature of TB

underscore[s] the fuzzy nature of cultural lines that are taken-for-granted between microbial and social realms, and call into question the ways in which social scientists confront biology that run the risk of producing both biological and cultural reductionisms.  Clearly microbes are part of the social fabric, rather than external agents that infect sociality.

Read the whole post, as they say.

Also read Rosenberg, Explaining Epidemics, for excellent analysis on similar themes.


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