15 Mar 2024 All day Room SG1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DP



  • Michael Degani (University of Cambridge)
  • Grace Zhou (Maynooth University)


Drawing on an improbable mix of philosophy, folklore, theology, communications theory, and behavioural ecology, Michel Serres (1982) offered a theory of the Parasite as any agent, human or beyond, that acts as an interrupting third, perturbing a connection between two (or more) relata. From noise that garbles a channel, to an uninvited guest that shows up for dinner, to a sovereign that expropriates the surplus of its people, to a species that degrades an environment, the parasite stands for all actors who live off–and upon–others. And yet just who is the parasite and who is the host is not always so clear, and often a matter of framing.

We propose that in the parasite anthropologists may find a powerful tool with which to theorise a world of increasingly complex cohabitations, in which such frames themselves exert a powerful organising force. The concept has proven useful for STS and media studies to theorise moments of breakdown and interruption (Brown 2002; Lezaun 2011; Fisher 2020; Wolfe 2021). Uptake in anthropology has been comparatively rare, though it has been used to suggestively rethink assumptions of economic reciprocity (Kockelman 2010; Shryock 2019) or ecological equilibrium (Kirksey 2015; Chao 2021). More broadly, the parasite, which emphasises the reversibility of guest/host or exploiter/exploited, may also be a useful “portable analytic” (Boyer and Howe 2015) across a range of ethnographic contexts. It offers a provocation to consider the ambivalent ethos of co-option, over-intimacy, reappropriation, or adaptation from within a system, in contrast to the purifying imaginaries of redemptive liberalism, overt resistance, and fugitivity. Thinking with parasites brings together questions across economic, political, social, and ecological domains, and our workshop hosts papers that explore this proposition with ethnographic nuance. How might the parasite provide a common framework for subjects as varied as roadblocks, toxic exposure, human-animal relations, and ‘surplus’ populations? How might it help develop an ethnography of disgust, resentment, and other ‘ugly’ affects?

We also take seriously critiques of Serres’ framework for not dealing with the specificities of how parasitic relationality interfaces with structures of oppression and privilege (Snyder 2013), and invite critical reflections on the ways that accusations of parasitism are often gendered and racialised. Who or what is deemed parasitic, and what do these ascriptions reveal about normative judgements of worth, or about the work that is needed to maintain closed systems of power? Finally, how might understanding ascriptions of parasitism as an admission (or disavowal) of fundamental entanglement and mutual dependence open up new avenues for transformation and emergence?

Works cited

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8:00 - 8:30


8:30 – 9:00am

Introductory comments:

Michael Degani (University of Cambridge) and Grace H. Zhou (Maynooth University)

9:00 - 10:40

Panel I:

‘The power of parasites: an otherwise politics’
Grace H. Zhou (Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Anthropology, Maynooth University)

‘Capitulating to parasites: brokers, corruption and state-level bureaucracy in Uttar Pradesh, India’
Akanksha Awal (Lecturer of Anthropology, University College London)

‘Para-Statal, or, sovereign cohabitation in Kenya’
Kevin Donovan (Lecturer, African Studies and International Development, University of Edinburgh)

‘Enemies of the people in Albanian revolutionary vigilance films’
Jonida Gashi (Chair of Art Studies, Institute of Cultural Anthropology, Academy of Albanian Studies)

10:40 – 10:55

Tea and coffee break

10:55 - 11;20


Sian Lazar (Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

11:20 - 12:00

Q & A / Discussion

12:00 - 13:00

Lunch and Presentation:

‘Tactics and strategies of parasite art. A new artistic genre, that provide an unexpected agency in times of neoliberal appropriation and political censorship.’
Jakob Wirth (Bauhaus Universität)

13:00 - 14:40

Panel 2:

‘Wood ticks or sheep ticks? Debating the lesser evil in the context of landscape and wildlife management in the Italian mountains.’
Deborah Nadal (Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer of Anthropology, University of Venice)

‘Roads and nematodes: parasites and the production of knowledge’
Emily Brownell (Senior Lecturer in Environmental History, University of Edinburgh)

‘Medicine in the margins: parasitism, reciprocity, and the work of care in Delhi’
Tanuj Luthra (DPhil Candidate, Oxford Anthropology)

‘A tale of two parasites: the changing face of “nature” from the population bomb to the anthropocene.’
Jack Jiang (PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, New School)

14:40 - 14:55

Tea and coffee break

14:55 - 15:20


Matt Candea (Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

15:20 - 16:00

QA / Discussion

16:00 - 16:15


16:15 - 17:00

Plenary discussion


Panel 1:

Grace H. Zhou (Maynooth University)

The power of parasites: an otherwise politics

Ascriptions of parasitism in Kyrgyzstan carry the historical legacy of Soviet laws. Bolstered by an ideology that fetishised productive labour, classes of people who were deemed idle and unproductive were criminalised. These included prostitutes and addicts, two groups that have become much more visible in the public sphere after the end of socialism. Following drug users and sex workers from communal apartments to underfunded clinics, from drop-in centres to street corners, this paper grapples with a set of concepts that might scaffold an alternative understanding of parasitism as an otherwise politics. First, entering the lifeworlds of chronically homeless and unemployed individuals who struggle with opioid and alcohol addiction as they search for care and recognition in the face of social exclusion, I interrogate economic and medical discourses of parasitic ‘dependence’, arguing that it is actually an active endeavour requiring deep relational labour. Next, I turn to sex work to examine the ways that the ‘porosity’ of the prostitute’s body is viewed as a threat that necessitates regulation and control, but could, in fact, be embraced as an ethics of mutuality that dissolves existing hierarchies and boundaries. Finally, I consider the ways that my marginalised interlocutors accuse the police of being parasites to highlight the function of power in an uneven field of relations, with the goal of more clearly articulating the potentials and pitfalls of parasitism as a politics.


Akanksha Awal (University College London)

Capitulating to parasites: brokers, corruption and state-level bureaucracy in Uttar Pradesh, India

In India, a range of brokers, fixers and middlemen negotiate access to all levels of the state (Sud 2014; Jeffrey and Young 2014; Mathur 2019). However, little is known about how state-level bureaucrats respond to these para-state actors. Based on an ethnography of state-level bureaucrats in Uttar Pradesh in 2022-23, this paper parses what the civil servants refer to as ‘parasites’. Parasites, bureaucrats argue, thrive on vulnerabilities of both the state and their commercial clients, especially in the digital era. By using competition and guile, these para-state actors play one bureaucrat against another, limiting the bureaucrats’ ability to both perform their work and seek bribes. In this hyper competitive world of corruption and slay, fixers and brokers reveal the capitulations to power by a state bureaucracy. Instead of corruption that binds together the brokers with the bureaucrats in making things work (Jauregui 2014), parasites show the contradictions of efficiency, accountability, and boredom at the heart of bureaucratic work.


Kevin Donovan (University of Edinburgh)

Para-statal, or, sovereign cohabitation in Kenya

In 2011, under the leadership of CEO Bob Collymore, the telecommunications firm Safaricom mobilised to raise US$10 million in drought relief in Kenya’s arid northern region of Turkana. In a number of ways, the “Kenyans for Kenya” campaign was a curious amalgam: a foreign-born executive at a multinational corporation donning a nationalist mantle on behalf of populations so marginalised as to often be considered outside of Kenya proper. (“Welcome to Kenya,” goes the joke when travellers return from the country’s north.) Yet, in the past two decades, Safaricom has explicitly worked to not only position itself as the chief promulgator of Kenyan patriotic symbolism; it is also expected by a wide range of Kenyans to provide what, in another time and place, may have been considered ‘public goods,’ including famine relief but also schooling and boreholes. Even its basic commercial activities of connectivity and mobile money are understood by many as market-based means of national improvement. Partly, this reflects a worldwide marketisation of social services; partly, it reflects the fact that Safaricom was once a government entity and is today still partly owned by the state. This paper seeks to develop an account of para-statal sovereignty, in which the cohabitation of putatively normatively distinct organizational forms and ethos – the private corporation and the public state – in fact cohabitate. This has an underappreciated genealogy – after all, the Kenya colony was first the Imperial British East African Company – but it also helps explain the ambivalent dynamics of governing authority, popular politics, and class struggle today. Much like Serres’s attention to the ambiguities of l’hôte, Safaricom exists in a zone of indeterminacy, neither clearly host nor guest, and the source of simultaneous desire and disdain.


Jonida Gashi  (Institute of Cultural Anthropology, Academy of Albanian Studies)

Enemies of the people in Albanian revolutionary vigilance films

One of the key features of class struggle in communist Albania (1944-1991) was the depiction of the enemies of the people as vermin, insects, germs, human garbage, and so on, which reached fever pitch during purging campaigns and around show trials. The main function of such language was the dehumanisation of all those who, for one reason or another, were deemed unfit to be included in the new socialist society and were thus seen as a burden and threat to it. Yet, even after the prewar ruling classes were declared to have been eliminated at the beginning of the 1960s, and the focus of class struggle ostensibly turned inwards in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Ideological and Cultural Revolution – from the “kulaks and other elements of the former exploiting classes, the imperialists, or the Titoist and Khrushchevite revisionists” to the so-called petit-bourgeois remnants “in every person’s consciousness, mind, behaviour and attitudes”, as the Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, put it in his speech to the Fifth Party Congress in November 1966 – the figure of the enemy of the people not only did not disappear but received further elaboration in, among other places, Albanian cinema. I will focus on the so-called ‘revolutionary vigilance films’, a cross between the detective film and the spy thriller with noir undertones, which paint a complex picture of the enemy of the people as not only impossible to eradicate but also as a necessary evil, putting into question who exactly was the parasite and who was the host.


Panel 2:

Deborah Nadal (Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice)

Wood ticks or sheep ticks? Debating the lesser evil in the context of landscape and wildlife management in the Italian mountains.

‘Ixodes ricinus’ is the scientific name of the tick that in everyday language is often known as ‘wood tick’ or ‘sheep tick’. For the communities who live in the mountainous Belluno province of Northeast Italy, these two alternative names are much more than just two names. As my ethnography “from the height of the blades of grass” illustrates, they subsume two very different – although partially overlapping – understandings of what ticks are, where they come from, what they want from humans, and what humans want from them. But how humans and ticks act upon each other is not a matter that involves only these two species. In an area where the current Anthropocene crisis comes in addition to pre-existing economic, social and political ones, several interlinked issues are perceived as ‘problems’: the decline of the primary sector, the abandonment of agricultural and farming land, the expansion of woods, the approach of wildlife to villages and the increasingly frequent contact with ‘wood ticks’. One of the ‘solutions’ that some people consider able to simultaneously address all these problems is restoring and expanding the presence of sheep in the area. In this plan, sheep and their incessant grass grazing are seen as the last bastion of hope to live in the mountains in a way that still makes sense to local people. Yet, sheep come with their ‘sheep ticks’ and for some, this risk unacceptably erodes hope at its very heart, putting humans, wildlife, woods, grass and ticks in a much-suffered impasse.


Emily Brownell (University of Edinburgh)

Roads and nematodes: parasites and the production of knowledge

Kenya’s Rural Access Roads Programme began in 1974 as both an experimental and developmental endeavour. Over the next decade, 40 ‘units’ of manual labourers created 3000 kilometers of roads across the nation. With the participation of the International Labor Organisation, the project took on international dimensions as an experiment in the viability of appropriate technology for infrastructural expansion in developing countries. A majority of the cost of each kilometer of road built went to paying local labourers rather than paying for the capital costs of imported machinery. The scale and scope of the project also made it a particularly good site for other researchers to cohabitate. Most notably, nutrition researchers interested in the relationship between worker productivity and anemia used the construction sites to draw blood and fecal samples from workers and measure their parasitic ‘worm burden’. Marked as ‘new’ and ‘experimental’, the more I read about RARP the more familiar it sounded. Scientists, even laypeople, had long understood that hookworm and other parasites caused fatigue in workers. There was also a long history of manual road construction – often forced labour – in Kenya’s past that suggests it wasn’t a new ‘technology’ to use bodies instead of machines. Is there something about parasitic relationships – in its many forms here– that calls for a constant relearning of knowledge, packaged in new ways? And in another temporal framing, the keeping up of a road and keeping away intestinal worms are equally repetitive tasks, asking for a similar repetition of maintenance.


Tanuj Luthra (University of Oxford)

Medicine in the margins: parasitism, peciprocity, and the work of care in Delhi

In Delhi, unlicensed Informal Health Providers (IHPs) are an important source of primary care for the working poor. Based on ethnographic research with IHPs and their patients, and engaging with Serres’ ideas on parasitism, this article asks: how might seemingly antithetical notions of parasitism and reciprocity intertwine in everyday life? Condemned by the biomedical establishment as parasitic ‘quacks’ who leech off the ignorance of the poor, on the contrary, IHPs are seen as essential by residents in their communities. However, they might be considered parasitic in a different sense. Drawing freely from the technical and conceptual repertoires of biomedicine and nonbiomedical traditions in symbiotically inventive ways (Wolf-Meyer and Collins, 2012), they inhabit the margins of the medical profession and broader healthcare system, complicating straightforward accounts of both. Their clientele comprises socioeconomically marginalised groups who work in informal, low-paying service occupations, and for whom, losing a few days’ wages to illness can be catastrophic. Offering frontline care to these groups, IHPs are mediatory figures within what I call ‘urban economies of wellness’ wherein elites secure their wellness through the labour of the working poor, who must try and remain well amidst chronic precarity. In IHP clinics, patients offer parasitic readings of these relations of labour, wherein the rich feed on the bodily vitality of the poor. So, while one kind of parasitism facilitates IHPs’ medical practice, another brings patients to their clinics. These distinct parasitic relations intersect in the space of the clinic, animating the reciprocity of the clinical encounter between patient and provider. Thus, rather than parasitism preceding or negating reciprocity, this article foregrounds their everyday entanglements.


Jack Jiang (New School for Social Research)

A tale of two parasites: the changing face of ‘nature’ from the population bomb to the Anthropocene

While scientists calculate the carbon footprints of your potential children, activists rally against a resurgence of pronatalist policies. For many across the globe, childlessness has now been reinterpreted as childfreedom, signalling a change in our orientation to human procreation.

In the 1970s, demographers’ observations about growing populations and increasing food scarcity had already pushed policymakers to question our species’ continued reproduction. The ensuing ‘Green Revolution’ that tripled crop productions was thought to have put these conversations to rest, but the 21st century has seen a sharp return in critiques of human procreation. With the added context of the Anthropocene, however, the problematic of procreation has shifted. No longer (just) a matter of human numbers, the question is now one of moral responsibility: am I to blame for subjecting the earth to another child, and my child to a dying planet?

The two moments of the procreative problem also represent two images of the human parasite motif. Through my fieldwork with antinatalists, I chart the genealogy of the human parasite motif, from the early Voluntary Human Extinction Movement to contemporary activists. The first image arose in relation to the population bomb discourse, and cast the Global South, particularly Africa and India, and by extension the (unenlightened) human species, as disruptors of the population-resource equilibrium. The second, by contrast, sees the human species as the tragic victims of the parasitic process of life itself, over which they have no control. These two images, in turn, index larger cultural shifts regarding human agency.



Jakob Wirth (Bauhaus Universität)

Tactics and strategies of parasite art: a new artistic genre that provides an unexpected agency in times of neoliberal appropriation and political censorship.

 My research focuses on Parasite Art, a self-defined new artistic genre, that utilises the characteristics of the parasite for strategic, tactical, and aesthetic purposes. Focused on resistance within dominant systems such as the market, my research challenges traditional notions of appropriation, proposing that being ‘already appropriated’ becomes a strategic tool for Parasite Art and subversive practice. Drawing from experience in activism and sociological methods, this research project engages with social and art theories to redefine aesthetic approaches to counter-hegemonic practices. In my presentation, I will mainly reference artistic projects I realised in the past years, which directly deal with the notion of the parasite and search for its tactical and strategic value for new artivistic practice.

Speaker Biographies

Akanksha Awal is a Lecturer in Anthropology at University College London. She works on sexual politics in contemporary India, focusing both on young women at the forefront of the struggles for sexual freedoms and the state responses to women’s demands. She did her doctoral and postdoctoral work at the University of Oxford, where her research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust and St John’s College.

Emily Brownell is Senior Lecturer in Environmental History at the University of Edinburgh. Her first book is Gone to Ground: A History of Environment and Infrastructure in Dar es Salaam (University of Pittsburgh, 2020). She is currently working on an AHRC-funded project, Stories from the Substrate, examining different histories of soil as a container for life in East Africa.

Michael Degani is Assistant Professor of Environmental Anthropology in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and the Juliet Campbell Fellow in Social Anthropology at Girton College. He researches the politics of energy, infrastructure, and design in Africa and beyond, and is the author of The City Electric: Infrastructure and Ingenuity in Postsocialist Tanzania (Duke University Press, 2022)

Kevin P Donovan is a Lecturer in the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Money, Value & the State: Sovereignty & Citizenship in East Africa (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) and, with Emma Park, is writing a book that will perhaps be entitled Parastatal: Digital Intimacy and the Corporate-State in Kenya.

Jonida Gashi is a senior researcher at the Center for Art Studies, part of the Academy of Sciences of Albania. Her research interests include contemporary art theory and criticism, film theory and the history of cinema, and the artistic experience of post-socialism in contemporary Albania. She is currently completing her first monograph on the newsreels and documentary films of the Albanian communist show trials and their influence on Albanian Socialist Realist cinema. Gashi is editor-in-chief of the journal Art Studies, published annually by the Academy of Sciences of Albania, and one of the founders of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (www.debatikcenter.net).

Jack Jiang is a PhD student at the New School for Social Research in the cultural anthropology department. His doctoral project is centered on the anti-natalist movement, and he is broadly interested in ethics, kinship, ecology, religion, and philosophical anthropology.

Tanuj Luthra is a DPhil candidate in anthropology at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research focusses on the everyday care work of informal health providers (unlicensed doctors), who offer medical care to urban working-class populations in low-income neighbourhoods in Delhi. It seeks to understand how their labour coproduces, or fails to produce, both health and relations of care. The project is also concerned with situated and shifting norms and discourses related to health and wellbeing in urban North India, particularly in relation to durable divisions of class, caste, gender and so on.

Deborah Nadal is a medical anthropologist specialized in diseases shared by humans and animals (with a special interest in rabies and tick-borne diseases), One Health, multispecies ethnography and social epidemiology. Her monograph “Rabies in the Streets. Interspecies Camaraderie in Urban India” has received two important awards. She mainly works in India and, more recently, in Italy and Slovenia. She is a lecturer at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, and an external consultant for the department for the control of neglected tropical diseases of the World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

Jakob Wirth is a freelance artist working in public space and shaping his artistic language in a processual and contextual way. His broad spectrum includes performance art, video, social practice and parasitic art. He is particularly fascinated by the fusion of artistic creation with political and everyday realities. He excels at discovering unknown systems and challenging conventional norms. Jakob Wirth is a PhD candidate in Artistic Research at Bauhaus University, where he completed his Masters in Art in Public Space, including a residency at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Additionally, he expanded his knowledge by studying for a Masters in Spatial Strategies at the Berlin Weißensee School of Art, as well as at the Holbaek Art Colleges in Denmark. In his academic training, he has also studied sociology, politics and economics at the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, as well as at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. His artistic work has been recognised with numerous awards, including the Mart Stam Prize, the German Mobility Award and the Born to be Bauhaus Award. He is also a member of the Modern Art Collection and has been nominated for the Federal Art Award. In recent years Jakob Wirth has exhibited at renowned art institutions and exhibition venues, including Kunstraum Bethanien, re: publica, the Schillermuseum Weimar, the Museum Worpswede, the Kunstverein Rosa Luxemburg Platz, 6018N as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial (US), the Alte Münze (Berlin), the Eiermann Bau of the IBA Thuringia, Kokkenet Copenhagen (DNK), the Emergent Art Space San Francisco (US), Museo Arte Contemporanea (BOL) and Lost and Found (Nuremberg). He also teaches occasionally at Humboldt University Berlin, Bauhaus University Weimar, Holbaek School of Art (DNK), and Agogis in Zurich (CH). Jakob Wirth is also the editor of the independent magazine Parasite Art, and was also guest editor of the newest issue of the magazine Kunstforum International and his work has received national and international press coverage, including Süddeutsche Zeitung, ARTE, New City Chicago, MONOPOL, BILD, Sat1, Deutschlandradio Kultur, The Urban Activists, die taz, tagesspiegel, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Stern, Neon, Deutsche Welle, The Parliament.

Grace H Zhou is a writer and anthropologist with a PhD from Stanford University. Her research and writing explore transnational intimacies, care and precarity in late capitalist and postsocialist contexts, and the mobility of settler colonial formations. She is the author of the chapbook, Soil Called a Country, which was selected for Newfound’s 2023 Emerging Poets Series. Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, Social Science Research Council, Irish Research Council, Kearny Street Workshop, Tin House Workshops, and other organisations. She currently holds a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship at Maynooth University.

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