Universal Biology, Local Society? Notes from Anthropology

  • Patrick Bieler
  • Jörg Niewöhner


We outline four perspectives on the body that have emerged from ethnographic research on (bio)medicine. We describe these with particular attention to the way they relate ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ All four approaches engage the human body through ‘culture’ as meaning or practice. The material body is either implicitly treated as universal or particularized through discourse, experience or practice. Trying to stake out a middle ground between material universality and cultural particularity, we discuss the potential within these approaches for an anthropological engagement with the evolution of human bodies over time. In concluding, we use the case of the entanglement of mental illness and urban environments to underscore four modes of engaging the situated body-in-action through long-term, co-laborative ethnographic research.


  1. Barad, Karen. 1999. Agential Realism: Feminist Interventions in Understanding Scientific Practices. In The Science Studies Reader, ed. Mario Biagioli, 1–11. London; New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Barry, Andrew, and Georgina Born, eds. 2013. Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences. London; New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  3. Beck, Stefan. 2015. The Problem of Expertise: From Experience to Skilful Practices to Expertise. Ecological and Pragmatist Perspectives. European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 7 (1): 8–23.Google Scholar
  4. Beck, Stefan, and Jörg Niewöhner. 2006. Somatographic Investigations Across Levels of Complexity. BioSocieties 1 (2): 219–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Biehl, João. 2005. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bister, Milena D., Martina Klausner, and Jörg Niewöhner. 2016. The Cosmopolitics of ‘Niching’. In Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, Assemblies, Atmospheres, ed. Anders Blok and Ignacio Farías, 187–206. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Blackman, Lisa. 2007. Psychiatric Culture and Bodies of Resistance. Body & Society 13 (2): 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. ———. 2008. The Body: The Key Concepts. Oxford; New York: Berg.Google Scholar
  9. Blok, Anders, and Ignacio Farías, eds. 2016. Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, Assemblies, Atmospheres. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. Blumhagen, Dan. 1980. Hyper-tension: A Folk Illness with a Medical Name. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 4 (3): 197–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge, MA; London, UK: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Boyer, Dominic. 2014. Reflexivity Reloaded: From Anthropology of Intellectuals to Critique of Method to Studying Sideways. In Anthropology Now and Next: Essays in Honor of Ulf Hannerz, ed. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Christina Garsten, and Shalini Randeria, 91–110. New York; Oxford: Berghahn.Google Scholar
  13. Callard, Felicity, and Des Fitzgerald. 2015. Rethinking Interdisciplinarity Across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Clarke, Adele E., et al. 2003. Biomedicalization: Technoscientific Transformations of Health, Illness, and US Biomedicine. American Sociological Review 68 (2): 161–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Das, Veena, and Ranendra K. Das. 2006. Pharmaceuticals in Urban Ecologies: The Register of the Local. In Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices, ed. Adriana Petryna, Andrew Lakoff, and Arthur Kleinman, 171–205. Durham; London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Daston, Lorraine. 2002. I The Morality of Natural Orders: The Power of Medea & II. Nature’s Customs versus Nature’s Laws. In Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Harvard, MA.Google Scholar
  17. Deeb, Hadi Nicholas, and George E. Marcus. 2011. In the Green Room: An Experiment in Ethnographic Method at the WTO. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34 (1): 51–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. 2012. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Open Humanities Press. Accessed 20 October 2016.
  19. Downey, Greg. 2016. Being Human in Cities: Phenotypic Bias from Urban Niche Construction. Current Anthropology 57 (S13): S52–S64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Eisenberg, Leon. 1977. Disease and Illness Distinctions between Professional and Popular Ideas of Sickness. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 1 (1): 9–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Epstein, Steven. 2007. Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fassin, Didier. 2009. Another Politics of Life is Possible. Theory Culture & Society 26 (5): 44–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fitzgerald, Des, and Felicity Callard. 2014. Social Science and Neuroscience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements. Theory, Culture & Society 32 (1): 3–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fitzgerald, Des, Nikolas Rose, and Ilina Singh. 2016a. Living Well in the Neuropolis. The Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 221–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. ———. 2016b. Revitalizing Sociology: Urban Life and Mental Illness between History and the Present. The British Journal of Sociology 67 (1): 138–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  27. Foucault, Michel, and James D. Faubion. 2000. Power. New York: New Press. Distributed by W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  28. Franklin, Sarah. 2003. Re-thinking Nature—Culture: Anthropology and the New Genetics. Anthropological Theory 3 (1): 65–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Good, Byron J. 1977. The Heart of What’s the Matter: The Semantics of Illness in Iran. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 1 (1): 25–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Good, Byron J., and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good. 1981. The Meaning of Symptoms: A Cultural Hermeneutic Model for Clinical Practice. In The Relevance of Social Science for Medicine, ed. Leon Eisenberg and Arthur Kleinman, 165–196. Dordrecht, Boston; Hingham, MA: D. Reidel Pub. Co.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio. 1995. American Medicine: The Quest for Competence. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hacking, Ian. 2007. Kinds of People: Moving Targets. Proceedings of the British Academy 151: 285–318.Google Scholar
  33. Hahn, Robert A., and Arthur Kleinman. 1983. Biomedical Practice and Anthropological Theory: Frameworks and Directions. Annual Review of Anthropology 12 (1): 305–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–599.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  36. Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling & Skill. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ingold, Tim, and Gisli Palsson, eds. 2013. Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Kleinman, Arthur. 1980. Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology, Medicine and Psychiatry. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  40. ———. 1981. On Illness Meanings and Clinical Interpretation: Not ‘Rational Man’, But a Rational Approach to Man the Sufferer/man the Healer. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 5 (4): 373–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. ———. 1988. Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing and the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  42. Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. 1991. Suffering and its Professional Transformation: Toward an Ethnography of Interpersonal Experience. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 15 (3): 275–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Konrad, Monica. 2005. Narrating the New Predictive Genetics: Ethics, Ethnography and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kontopodis, Michalis, Jörg Niewöhner, and Stefan Beck. 2011. Investigating Emerging Biomedical Practices: Zones of Awkward Engagement on Different Scales. Science, Technology & Human Values 36 (5): 599–615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Krieger, Nancy. 2013. History, Biology, and Health Inequities: Emergent Embodied Phenotypes and the Illustrative Case of the Breast Cancer Estrogen Receptor. American Journal of Public Health 103 (1): 22–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kuper, Adam, and Jonathan Marks. 2011. Anthropologists Unite! Nature 470: 166–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Landecker, Hannah, and Aaron Panofsky. 2013. From Social Structure to Gene Regulation, and Back: A Critical Introduction to Environmental Epigenetics for Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 39 (1): 333–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  49. ———. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Law, John. 1994. Organizing Modernity: Social Order and Social Theory. Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  51. Law, John, and Annemarie Mol. 1995. Notes on Materiality and Sociality. The Sociological Review 43 (2): 274–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Lederbogen, Florian, Leila Haddad, and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg. 2013. Urban Social Stress: Risk Factor for Mental Disorders—The Case of Schizophrenia. Environmental Pollution 183: 2–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lederbogen, Florian, et al. 2011. City Living and Urban Upbringing Affect Neural Social Stress Processing in Humans. Nature 474: 498–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Lock, Margaret. 1993. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  55. ———. 2001. The Tempering of Medical Anthropology: Troubling Natural Categories. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 15 (4): 478–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lock, Margaret, and Judith Farquhar, eds. 2007. Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Lock, Margaret, and Vinh-Kim Nguyen. 2010. An Anthropology of Biomedicine. Malden, MA; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  58. Lock, Margaret M., Allan Young, and Alberto Cambrosio, eds. 2000. Living and Working with the New Medical Technologies: Intersections of Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Lynch, Michael. 2013. Ontography: Investigating the Production of Things, Deflating Ontology. Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 444–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Marcus, George E. 2010. Contemporary Fieldwork Aesthetics in Art and Anthropology: Experiments in Collaboration and Intervention. Visual Anthropology 23 (4): 263–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Marks, Jonathan. 2013. The Nature/Culture of Genetic Facts. Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (1): 247–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Martin, Emily. 1994. flexible Bodies: The Role of Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  63. Mattingly, Cheryl. 1991. The Narrative Nature of Clinical Reasoning. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 45 (11): 998–1005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. ———. 2009. Reading Medicine: Mind, Body, and Meditation in One Interpretive Community. New Literary history 37 (3): 563–581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Melby, Melissa K. 2005. Factor Analysis of Climacteric Symptoms in Japan. Maturitas 52 (3–4): 205–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. ———. 2015. Lessons on Aging: Hopes and Concerns of Japanese Women at Midlife. Journal of Women & Aging 28 (2): 1–14.Google Scholar
  67. Melby, Melissa K., Margaret Lock, and Patricia Kaufert. 2005. Culture and Symptom Reporting at Menopause. Human Reproduction Update 11 (5): 495–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Meloni, Maurizio. 2016. Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics. Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Meloni, Maurizio, Simon Williams, and Paul Martin, eds. 2016. Biosocial Matters: Rethinking the Sociology-Biology Relations in the Twenty-First Century. Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  70. Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham; London: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Mol, Annemarie, and John Law. 2004. Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: the Example of Hypoglycaemia. Body & Society 10 (2): 43–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Nature. 2012. Life Stresses. Nature 490 (7419): 143.Google Scholar
  73. Niewöhner, Jörg. 2011. Epigenetics: Embedded Bodies and the Molecularisation of Biography and Milieu. BioSocieties 6 (3): 279–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. ———. 2016. Co-laborative Anthropology: Crafting Reflexivities Experimentally. In The Interpretation and Analysis of the Ethnological: Towards More Transparency in the Investigation Process, ed. Tytti Steel and Jukka Jouhti, 81–125. Tallinn: Ethnos.Google Scholar
  75. Niewöhner, Jörg, et al. 2016. Phenomenography: Relational Investigations into Modes of Being-in-the-World. The Cyprus Review 28 (1): 67–84.Google Scholar
  76. Novas, Carlos, and Nikolas Rose. 2000. Genetic Risk and the Birth of the Somatic Individual. Economy and Society 29 (4): 485–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Oyama, Susan, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray, eds. 2001. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  78. Palsson, Gisli. 2016a. Nature, Culture and Society: Anthropological Perspectives on Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. ———. 2016b. Unstable Bodies: Biosocial Perspectives on Human Variation. The Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 100–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Petryna, Adriana. 2003. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ; Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  81. Rabinow, Paul. 1992. From Sociobiology to Biosociality: Artificiality and Enlightenment. In Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, 234–252. New York: Urzone.Google Scholar
  82. ———. 2008. Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary. Princeton, NJ; Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  83. Rabinow, Paul, and Gaymon Bennett. 2012. Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Rabinow, Paul, et al. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham; London: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Raman, Sujatha, and Richard Tutton. 2010. Life, Science, and Biopower. Science Technology & Human Values 35 (5): 711–734.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Rapp, Rayna. 2004. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  87. Rose, Nikolas. 2001. The Politics of Life Itself. Theory, Culture & Society 18 (6): 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. ———. 2013. The Human Sciences in a Biological Age. Theory, Culture & Society 30 (1): 3–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret Lock. 1987. The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1 (1): 6–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Söderström, Ola. 2017. ‘I Don’t Care About Places’: The Whereabouts of Design in Mental Health Care. In Care and Design: Bodies, Buildings, Cities, ed. Charlotte Bates, Rob Imrie, and Kim Kullmann, 56–73. Chichester, West Sussex: Jon Wiley & Sons, Ltd.Google Scholar
  91. Sørensen, Estrid. 2009. The Materiality of Learning: Technology and Knowledge in Educational Practice. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. 1989. Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39. Social Studies of Science 19 (3): 387–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  94. Timmermans, Stefan, and Steven Haas. 2008. Towards a Sociology of Disease. Sociology of Health & Illness 30 (5): 659–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Tsing, Anna. 2000. The Global Situation. Cultural Anthropology 15 (3): 327–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. “What is Anthropology?”. 2016. American Anthropological Association. Accessed 20 October 2016.
  97. Wilson, Edward O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  98. Young, Allan. 1981. When Rational Men Fall Sick: An Inquiry into Some Assumptions Made by Medical Anthropologists. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 5 (4): 317–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. ———. 1982. The Anthropologies of Illness and Sickness. Annual Review of Anthropology 11 (1): 257–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Zola, Irving K. 1972. Medicine as an Institution of Social Control. The Sociological Review 20 (4): 487–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick Bieler
    • 1
  • Jörg Niewöhner
    • 1
  1. 1.Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations