Zoonoses, anthropology and the challenge of epistemological entropy

Contra readings of epidemiology as determined by the identification of pathogens (e.g. Latour, Cunningham) it is well understood today that whilst bacteriology may be able to establish what a zoonotic disease is (in terms of its causative agent) it cannot determine what this disease does. In this sense, bacteriology’s power is limited to establishing the ontology of disease. What remains an open question is how a zoonotic disease operates within and between human and non-human animal populations in different physical and social contexts. As a result epidemiology has employed a wide range of disciplines in the exploration of the epidemicity and endemicity of zoonoses. The result of this has been the production of an enormous bulk of data, as well as a range of methodologies and epistemological frameworks through which these have been examined. In his recent work on what he calls epistemological entropy, the leading plague scientist Michael Kosoy has problematised this in a way that underlines that as more data is gathered about a disease, the more we dwell in a realm of uncertainty as regards “the description of all components of host-pathogen systems at the population and community level”.

This paper examines the role of ethnography in the context of this epistemological predicament. Drawing on historical and contemporary examples, it explores the prospects and perils of transforming ethnographic data into evidence about zoonotic diseases.

To be presented at the Anthropology of Zoonoses conference, 26-27 February 2015.

Christos Lynteris, University of Cambridge


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