A new article by Alex Nading available now in Science as Culture
Read Alex Nading's new article "Evidentiary Symbiosis: On Paraethnography in Human–Microbe Relations" in Science as Culture
Read the article here
Though microbial infections are central concerns for public health workers in urban Nicaragua, health workers there rarely if ever speak of the existence of a ‘microbiome’ when they address such problems. Among scientists and the public in the United States, on the other hand, the microbiome, seen as the ‘internal ecosystem’ that regulates the workings of human guts, is a regular topic of conversation. This raises questions about how one might go about doing a social study of the microbiome in places where it does not (yet) exist as a category of expert practice or public discourse. Evidence from Nicaragua and the United States highlights two sites at which experts engage people in research and discussion about microbial ecologies. In their work, U.S. microbiome scientists and Nicaraguan public health workers both engage in ‘paraethnography,’ the practice of collecting and analyzing qualitative information that does not fit into statistical or other kinds of scientific models. In the United States, paraethnography has driven both traditional scientific experiments on the microbiome and online, crowd-sourced experimental platforms for collecting and analyzing information about gut microbes. In Nicaragua, hygienists generate paraethnographic evidence through word-of-mouth, radio, and print media. A comparison between the work of U.S. scientists and that of Nicaraguan hygienists suggests three different ways (commensal, parasitic, and mutualistic) in which the cultural/interpretive evidence of paraethnography interfaces symbiotically with the quantitative/statistical evidence of bioscience. Attention to evidentiary symbiosis provides insights into the operations of publicly oriented science under conditions of bodily and planetary uncertainty.