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Essay Excerpt

The origins of immunology as a medical discipline can easily be traced to the 19th century. But in the late 1960s the notion of an “immune system” first appeared, marking a conceptual shift in which immunity involved not only sensitive reactions to allergens and pathogens, but an orchestrated cellular defense in which complex responses protected an autonomous self. Since then, immunity has in broad terms come to be understood primarily as a dynamic process of recognizing and eliminating so-called “nonself.” However, over that same period, immunologists have gradually grown dissatisfied with the general self–nonself construct as they grapple with the disjunction between what they evidence experimentally, and received ideas about organic preservation and the effects of “foreign” bodies on a self that is otherwise sovereign.

This disjunction has increasingly demanded a serious rethinking of the nature of selfhood, reaching far beyond the constraints of bench science. Why is anthropology so relevant to this emerging change in a scientific subspecialty? One answer is that immunology and virology are not only the very sciences that focus on the individual as “self” but also the sciences, it could be argued, that most embody social constructions of personhood and, today, prevailing neoliberal ideas about individual autonomy. Cultural discourse influences medicine as does medicine influence culture; our everyday notions of selfhood affect as much concepts of mortality and morbidity as concepts of health and illness affect our views on agency and autonomy (118).

Napier, A. David. "Introduction." Cultural Anthropology 27.1(2012): 118–121.

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