Social and Cultural Lives of Immune Systems

By James M. Wilce Jr | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

“Immune” to emotion

The relative absence of emotion in PNI, and its centrality to everything else

Margot Lyon

[Mind body problems] are not to be overcome by restricting the scope of explanation, by banishing ontology, but by coming to grips with the complexity of being.

(Engelhardt 1973:166)


Introduction: reframing

This chapter seeks to reframe the “locus” of immune function, to see it as emergent in the wider context of ongoing social and bodily relations. The proposal for the American Anthropological Association panel for which this contribution was originally drafted suggested a “dialogue between critical anthropology and a phenomenological PNI [psychoneuroimmunology]. ” My aim here is to enter this dialogue through examining how the complex phenomena glossed under the term immune function might be seen as implicate within social processes - processes in which the body is also inevitably engaged. In what ways can one represent the ongoing processes through which social life “becomes” and simultaneously “is” bodily life? In what ways can one theorize the interrelationship between these two sorts of phenomena, without committing the error of reducing one to the other, nor collapsing the distinction between them? Such a reframing requires a shift in perspectives not only toward the notion of immune functioning but also toward the conceptualization of the place of the body in social life.

Below, following a general introduction, I will examine briefly a series of concepts in science and social science that address, in differing ways, the axis of relationship between bodily and social worlds. Included are the concepts of conditioning and habit, as well as mimesis and emotional contagion. I will argue that social-emotional processes are fundamental to understanding the operation of each of these, and more centrally that an examination of the role of emotion is required for the conceptualization of the interrelationship between social and bodily domains within them. An adequate conception of emotion is crucial in any understanding of the dialectic between social and bodily life, and therefore ultimately in understanding issues related to the social origins of health and illness.

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