The Social Life of the Microbiome
Human bodies are full of life. The year 2013 marks the completion of the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, which has produced a detailed picture of the “personal ecosystem” of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and archaea that thrive in human skin, guts, sinuses, ears, and genitalia. As a result of the Microbiome Project, scientific and public understandings of the place of these creatures in regulating human health are changing. Long seen primarily as agents of disease, microbes are now recognized as a more diverse set of actors. Some of those that reside in the body are co-workers, regulating metabolism and even controlling the proliferation of other microbes. The creatures that occupy the borders and passageways of the body have become a central concern of medical experts and patients interested in mitigating everything from cancer to child development disorders to obesity.
The recent flurry of media reports about such discoveries, however, elides the longstanding importance of human-microbe relations in the cities of the global South. Microbes, both inside and outside the body, are anything but a novel concern for people in such places. The Social Life of the Microbiome is an ethnography of hygiene, care, and interspecies kinship in urban Nicaragua, where diarrheal, respiratory, and skin diseases remain among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. The regulation of microbial communities is perhaps most visible in the work of the Nicaraguan healthcare workers who monitor water and food quality and the clinicians who prescribe antibiotic drugs. Antibiotics, once hailed by international health organizations as a key to stopping microbial disease, are now being re-evaluated as a possible source of disruption to the balance of microbial diversity in the bodies of people who live in the city. The potential for unregulated antibiotics to contribute to pathogen resistance is also now a grave concern.
But people in urban Nicaragua frequently encounter microbes without the mediation of the health system. For example, many of those who suffer from irregular access to clean water also manipulate bacteria to make cheese, sour cream, fermented vegetables, and homemade alcohol, key components of nutritional and social life. Nicaraguans depend upon a variety of food products, some fermented or cultured with care in small-scale urban farms and kitchens, some infused with antibiotics in faraway feedlots, and some molding due to age and humidity. Thus, it is possible to analyze human-microbe relations in Nicaragua through the lenses of medical anthropology and “multispecies” anthropology. Such an analysis would include health workers as well as farmers, food producers, market workers, and householders.
Building on ethnographic research I have been conducting since 2006 in Managua, this project will trace the ways in which city dwellers come to understand health through intimate, sometimes cooperative, and sometimes antagonistic engagement with the microbes that live within and around their bodies.