James M. Wilce Jr
Human immune systems evolve and function in social contexts. Cultures formulate varying representations of immunity and health, and such cultural concepts might well have feedback effects on immune function. Thus “immune systems” have social and cultural lives. To say this is simply to remind ourselves that human immune systems are human. Like all aspects of our bodies, our immune systems are embedded in sociocultural life, and this book’s contributors illustrate that claim in rich and varied ways. They face squarely the paradox evoked by the title: to label something a “system” is to attribute to it a large degree of autonomy, but this autonomy, according to these essays, is a chimera. 1 These authors reassert the social ontology, the social and cultural lives, of immune systems. Not only this; they challenge the autonomy of the psyche in “psychoneuroimmunology. ” Thus, for example, most of our contributors reflect on local forms of “stress” - or simply “cortisol response” 2 - and “social support” (McDade, this volume), forms whose significance is always relative to local sociocultural realities.
Thus, taken together, these chapters reinsert immune systems and psyches in their social and cultural contexts. Why is this necessary? Health scientists admit, without controversy, that epidemics are social events; but, beyond the recognition of infection’s social context, when have culture, society, and immune systems appeared, intertwined, within the pages of a single book? This volume brings together disciplines that are barely on speaking terms. It does so by bringing together authors from disciplines - anthropology, psychology, immunology, and psychiatry - whose practitioners usually ignore one another. This coming together was face-to-face before it was in cover-to-cover (book) form. It results from two panels in 1997 - one at the spring meetings of the Society for Medical Anthropology in Seattle, the other at the fall meetings of the American Anthropological Association.
This book not only brings authors together across disciplines; it also reorganizes previous cross-disciplinary dialogues that were differently hyphenated, as Lyon notes in her chapter. So, for example, biological-anthropologists 3 have studied variability in immune-related markers across different populations, but seldom attended to cultural themes; and rarely have