THE WITCH AND THE MICROBE
Once magical, rebellious, and contagious, both witches and microbes are recalcitrant figures in the Euro-American imaginary. The Witch and the Microbe is based on the thesis that microbial science and immunology together with new urban food cultures around fermentation in the West, capture, mobilise and reinvent (1) the figure of the ‘witch’ as a multispecies and traditional/ folk healer, (2) traditional non-western food cultures, and (3) women’s embodied knowledge and experiences of cooking and caring, particularly around the ‘personalised’ approach women develop in the confines of domesticity. This research project is conceived as longitudinal qualitative project centres on the embodied knowledges, practices and experiences of healing differently with (some) microbes (focusing on E.coli and SARS-CoV-2). The project has three complementary strands.
Traditional food cultures, health, and microbial science (EcoSocieties Research Fund, The University of Nottingham).
UTIs and Covid-19 embodiments and unscripted collective remedies
Socio-Cultural Histories of Microbial Healing in Galicia and Taiwan: Meigas and Pulingaws
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OF SOCIAL CATEGORIES OF DIFFERENCE
The human microbiome—trillions of symbiotic microbial cells harboured in the human body—challenges the tenet of a fixed and self-contained human nature by recognising the role of microbes, along with environmental and lifestyle factors, in the shaping of the
immune function. Does this mean that the material-semiotic paradigm of the immune self, or immunity-as-defence (Cohen, 2009), is obsolete? Through the development of what I call ‘feminist para-ethnographies’—an intersectional method that entangles embodied
experiences and ethnography with ‘fugitive’ qualitative data in technoscientific claims and quantitative research—and through using analytical frameworks from body studies,
science and technology studies, and anthropology of science, this thesis asks in what ways and to what extent human microbiome research is shaping and reconfiguring biomedical
practice and experimentation and older scientific and popular ideas associated with the immune self.
Drawing on my research findings, I argue that human microbiome science is displacing older ideas of immunity as a guarantor of biological identity and individuality, rendering notions of the self as bounded, universal, and autonomous increasingly difficult
to maintain. Yet, I hold that, simultaneously, it instantiates new forms of difference, particularly ‘immunitary privileges’ based on a higher microbial diversity, and
reproduces old ones in terms of neo-colonial practices of bioprospecting biodiversity. The central argument I make in this thesis is that human microbiome science takes social
groups as pre-existing, ‘natural’ phenomena, and biologises them by attributing microbes and microbial profiles to them. By correlating certain microbial species and diversity with hunter-gatherers (race), women (gender), or high-income families (class), social categories of difference become ‘microbiomised’.
Importantly, this thesis also sheds light on how to (co-)produce scientific
knowledge that becomes more sensitive and responsive to its social implications (Stengers, 2018) through another dimension of ‘feminist para-ethnographies’: as a material-semiotic device of registration, documentation, and analysis of embodied
experiences of human–microbe relations.
Further information on this ongoing research: