Bio-ethnography, a view from philosophy by Vivette García Deister

Full frontal disclosure: I am not an anthropologist (by training). But my work is informed by historical research, ethnographic methods, and critical anthropology of science. And as someone who has –Developmental Systems Theory willing- taken on the inquiry of scientific research exploring gene-disease associations, I side with Liz Roberts’ want for a “synthetic, symmetrical analysis that understands environment-body interactions as always relational and constructed phenomena”. This is no easy thing to achieve. My way into discussing her proposal is more philosophical than anthropological, and deals with what I identify as three core concerns of her bio-ethnographic approach: integration, symmetry, and interaction. I will try to show briefly why I think bio-ethnography is on the right (yet somewhat beaten) integrationist path, why it is at risk of collapsing causal parity with explanatory symmetry, and why it can and should steer clear of any form of interactionist consensus.

Roberts’ description of the ELEMENT project places it as one that tends to situate “key mechanisms for health and disease inside individual bodies.” Also, ELEMENT has recently appropriated some tenets of epigenetic analysis in the examination of chemical interactions in specific environments and their effects on health. ELEMENT’s recognition of a looping effect between organisms and environments hints at its being suitable for a “collaborative, methodological experiment” in which biological data gathered by ELEMENT’s biomedical researchers might be integrated with ethnographic data “about the larger histories and life circumstances that shape health,” gathered by Roberts and her team. As I see it, the very attempt at developing a meaningful collaboration between both teams necessitates the adoption of a symmetry thesis whereby causal factors traditionally located either on the “biological” or the “cultural” end of the “bio-cultural synthesis” do not, in principle, contribute distinctively towards human development in terms of health or disease.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.