Social and Cultural Lives of Immune Systems

By James M. Wilce Jr | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

Corporeal flows

The immune system, global economies of food, and new implications for health

Richard Cone and Emily Martin

Allergies and autoimmune disorders are increasing in incidence, especially among the urban poor. This chapter, 1 which results from conversations and research that bring together knowledge and methods from anthropology and immunology, 2 considers the interrelated biological and social implications of the increasing incidence of immune dysfunctions, and the ways in which changes in food production, transport, and consumption, circulating through global markets, may be contributing to immune dysfunctions, especially through changes in “oral tolerance. ”

Is collaboration between a biologist and a cultural anthropologist possible today? Would bringing insights from biological science and cultural studies together produce a synergy that scholars on both sides would find enlightening? This chapter could be seen as a test case for these questions. Richard Cone is a biophysicist who, for the first half of his career studied the fluid properties of membranes in the cell in order to further basic science. For the second half of his career he has been studying the physiological properties of sperm, the vagina, and the rectum, in order to develop a topical substance for the penis or vagina that would kill sperm and any pathogen found in human sexual orifices. Emily Martin is an anthropologist who, for the first half of her career studied cultural and social organization in the Taiwanese countryside. For the second half of her career, she has been studying the complex interplay among sciences like reproductive biology and immunology and concepts and practices that permeate the wider culture in the United States in order to understand, and influence, contemporary conceptions and practices related to health.

Reactions to drafts of this paper from our respective colleagues surprised us. We were both anxious that immunologists might be affronted by non-immunologists’ suggesting new questions about the immune system. But we both felt confident that anthropologists and other students of culture would react with interest, the more so because the text is experimental in form and content. In spite of our worries, immunologists who read the paper were immensely encouraging, excitedly offering us related thoughts and references. One immunologist immediately made copies of the paper and assigned

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