Assembling Epidemics: Disease, Ecology and the (Un)natural

8 September 2017 - 9 September 2017

SG1/2, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT

Epidemic events have profoundly shaped human perceptions of the natural world and human ways of relating to and engaging with nature. Across everyday speech and in the health related sciences, vocabularies and registers of nature and naturalness are used to describe the complexity and ground the contingency of epidemic outbreaks. Epidemics are often seen and acted upon as resulting from an anthropogenic imbalance in nature. Equally, epidemics are events that exacerbate the marginalization of oppressed and stigmatized people, naturalizing their vulnerability to pathogens by associating their practices, relations and ways of being with contagion and crisis.

Critical perspectives in historical and social sciences have argued that epidemics should be seen not as a rupture in the natural order, but rather as politically ordained and socially distributed crises. Epidemics, from this perspective, are created out of scarcity, neglect, as well as structural and slow violence.

Bringing together interdisciplinary discussions across medical anthropology, social epidemiology, political ecology and human geography, this conference connects perceptions of the natural world as a threat to human health, and of epidemics as a result of human intervention in the natural, to practices and trajectories (discursive, aesthetic, and political) of naturalization.

Possible questions to be addressed include but are not limited to:

  • How are epidemic events used to exclude, enclose, and expropriate and what are the trajectories of the natural and unnatural in this process?
  • What happens when the distribution of “naturally occurring” and globally distributed phenomena (violence, disaster, poverty) are grouped together and politicized as an epidemic?As emerging epidemics may flow down pathways created by already exhausted bodies, debilitated social relations, and compromised immune systems – how can we understand the co-constitution of multiple, intersecting, and coterminous disease
  • As emerging epidemics may flow down pathways created by already exhausted bodies, debilitated social relations, and compromised immune systems – how can we understand the co-constitution of multiple, intersecting, and coterminous disease emergences and disease experiences?
  • Michelle Ziegler has argued that evocations of epidemics as “natural” events rooted in environments as “landscapes”, shifts focus from disease environments as anthropogenic, obscures the role played by human relations as key to creating pathways for contagion, and depoliticizes epidemic response by shifting political responsibility away from human action (Ziegler, 2016). How might a historically informed theory of landscapes as constructed, unintentional, or processual (Gandy, 2016; Fraser, Leach and Fairhead, 2014) shift our perspectives on the political ecology of epidemics?
  • How do theories about the emergence of epidemics from particular environments produce and stabilize “race” as a coherent category?
  • How have naturalistic approaches in arts, natural sciences and human sciences – aiming for the fullest description of the natural world with minimal mediation – shaped our understanding of disease?
  • How is the contention that visualization (maps, photographs, scientific diagrams and illustrations) stabilizes and naturalizes hierarchy and difference supported or challenged by study of the visual representation of epidemics?
  • How are “invisible” epidemics of non-communicable diseases produced as unnatural, for example, in the case of the presence of diseases of (supposed) surplus and overconsumption where they are assumed not to exist?
  • What has the language of entanglement done for understanding disease events within multispecies frames? Which hierarchical, unnatural, deterritorialised, extra-proximate and separate relations has this paradigm obscured? 
  • What is the historical and contemporary impact of equilibrium approaches to epidemics, whether these focus on human-made imbalance or on epidemics as nature’s re-balancing act? How do claims of “naturalness” produce each proposition?
  • How useful are epidemic registers of virality and contagion when it comes to capturing complex, multiscalar and etiologically indeterminate biosocial phenomena?



Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge)

Branwyn Poleykett (University of Cambridge)

Nicholas Evans (University of Cambridge)

Lukas Engelmann (University of Cambridge)



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement no. 336564.


Visiting CRASSH

Information on finding CRASSH and accessibility is available online. CRASSH is based at 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT.