Entanglement’s Limits: An Interview with Elizabeth F. S. Roberts

The November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology featured the research article “What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City,” by Elizabeth F. S. Roberts, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Katherine Sacco and Hilary Agro conducted with Roberts about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Katherine Sacco and Hilary Agro: The research for this article emerges from a collaboration with public health and environmental health scientists across North America. Elsewhere, you’ve written about the goals of a bioethnographic approach that integrates biological and ethnographic data. Your ethnographic data is foregrounded in this article, but did biological data also inform your thinking on boundaries and entanglement? Could you tell us how you first became interested in developing interdisciplinary bioethnographic research, and where this line of research is headed?

Elizabeth F. S. Roberts: The answer to this question is complicated, because it requires reviewing the backstory of what I call bioethnography. Attempting to combine my ethnographic data with biological data from the ELEMENT (Early Life Exposures in Mexico to Environmental Toxicants) project is indeed the larger goal of my Mexican Exposures project. I want to loop the specific data I gathered while working with six ELEMENT participant families in their neighborhoods with the specific longitudinal health data collected about these same families in order to make knowledge about health and inequality. My inspiration for this model came from Margaret Lock’s local biologies (now “situated biologies”) approach for understanding the dynamic specificity of bodies in their life worlds. I am hoping that our work will provide a model of how to do this.

My previous work on assisted reproduction in Ecuador (see Roberts 2012) ended up being about how, in the Andes, nature is always in process—entangled in assisted relations with deities and humans, not fixed or outside of the human. Thinkers like Margaret Lock, Annemarie Mol, Lorraine Daston, Donna Haraway, and Bruno Latour helped me to notice these entanglements in my interactions with people in and out of IVF clinics in Ecuador. But what I also noticed was that in this resource-poor and unstable world, people were already living what these scholars had come to name: that objects are made through relations. It’s easier to live this and to know this in unstable places where certain kinds of relations—the electric grid, racial being—often shift or fall apart. When I was nearly done with God’s Laboratory, I was looking for a new project that would allow me to put these insights about what it’s like to live in a world of unstable nature into dialogue with emerging North American research on epigenetics. Latin America seemed like a good place to look at the unfolding of epigenetic research, which explores the entanglement of relations that organisms experience over and even before the life course. It is a new theory of the organism that is not really new to Latin American life or biomedical research.

I got interested in the ELEMENT project because its instigators are engaged in epigenetic research on Latin American populations. Since the beginning of our collaboration, I have not focused as much on epigenetics as I thought I would, but I hope that will change through working with Jackie Goodrich, an extremely open and intellectually curious epigeneticist within ELEMENT who seems willing to entertain my naïve questions about how we might make bioethnographic knowledge with epigenetic data. So far, though, our attempts at bioethnography have focused on blood lead level. Blood lead levels are simpler to associate with ethnographic data than epigenetic data are, and we needed to start simple because putting ethnographic and biological data together is complicated work.

Now, to answer your question about whether biological data informed my thinking for this article: it did, but mostly as reinforcement—after the fact—of my ethnographically conceived argument about boundaries. For the article, I wanted to say something about how toxic boundaries seemed so important and life-sustaining in the Mexico City neighborhood I call Colonia Periférico. While I was working on the article, I was also working closely with ELEMENT’s project director in Mexico, Mara Téllez Rojo, who was on sabbatical at the University of Michigan. We were eager to see if we could make any statistical associations that linked bodily status to neighborhood. My ethnographic findings pointed to neighborhood effects on bodies. But ELEMENT had never examined participants by neighborhood before, and attempting these associations was a difficult operation. Just deciding what constitutes a neighborhood is complicated, for example, and is connected to another complicated issue of what constitutes a participant’s address. Our first efforts involved over six months of close work with an ELEMENT database manager in Mexico and with a very limited question that could be answered using existing ELEMENT data (see Roberts and Sanz 2017). And then, one day, Mara showed us a statistically significant finding: children’s blood lead levels in Col. Periférico were higher than in the cohorts overall. 

We have more work to do to establish the strength of that finding and what it means, but it was a troubling and powerful discovery. Troubling, because high blood lead levels can have devastating consequences, and I am connected to these children and their families. While I had sensed that the toxic boundaries surrounding Col. Periférico did a good job at keeping out the larger threat of the police, I now knew more about the destructive consequences of those boundaries. Powerful, because this finding gave Mara and other ELEMENT researchers something that they valued: a number. This number demonstrated that my ethnographic work might allow them to ask new kinds of questions, especially at the neighborhood scale. This new finding became a means to enroll ELEMENT researchers in ethnography and bioethnography. It was legitimating. It also felt like an opportunity discuss how numerical results are not as straightforward as they seem, because my ethnographic work demonstrates that those higher blood lead levels might link to some benefit—in this case, maintaining a safe and cohesive neighborhood. Since then, we have been engaged in foundational work aimed at building tools for drawing more associations like this one. We haven’t had time to revisit that number and check it, and so I didn’t include the number as evidence in my Cultural Anthropology article. But it strengthened my sense that Col. Periférico’s boundaries have powerful effects. What stays out is the police; what gets inside is lead.

KS and HA: At one point in the article, you compare Colonia Periférico to gated communities in the United States. This is a rich comparison insofar as it upends class-based assumptions about what kinds of communities establish boundaries and why. What do you see as the implications of your research for how we understand boundaries in urban and suburban spaces beyond Colonia Periférico?

EFSR: This is such an interesting question—and I have to admit that I still have a lot to learn about gated communities, partly because I am new to spatial analysis. I had previously done clinical ethnography, not neighborhood ethnography. But what was familiar to me in thinking about Colonia Periférico’s boundaries was how geographical boundaries felt contiguous with bodily boundaries and concerns with bodily sovereignty. This seems especially true in regard to how both bodily and territorial boundaries demonstrate power: who gets to control what gets in and out of bodies and communities. Part of my thinking about this came from Teresa Caldeira’s (2000) book on security and gated communities in Brazil, City of Walls, where she links poor women’s inability to maintain bodily integrity to the inability to maintain spatial boundaries. Integrity, of course, is steeped in Enlightenment thinking about purity and the sovereign self. The folks I work with aren’t all that concerned about purity, but they live in a world where outsiders are often dangerous.

Our sense that it is the wealthy and powerful—those in gated communities—who get to control both bodily and spatial boundaries with impunity may make it difficult to appreciate how important boundaries can be for those who are not well-positioned to control them. In Latin America, rural poor indigenous and campesino communities have made boundaries through road blockades and autonomous zones to grant what’s inside more safety and stability. But state institutions attack these as antidemocratic, while giving gated communities a pass.

KS and HA: By exploring the utility of boundaries for residents of Colonia Periférico, you develop a critique of celebratory calls for entanglement as an analytic. In Colonia Periférico, residents establish boundaries as a coping mechanism for living circumstances that are fully entangled—circumstances that you evocatively describe as “living in the shit.” It seems like you distinguish entanglement as an epistemology and entanglement as lived experience in order to point to the potential violence of the latter. Is that right? How do you hope that your ethnographic depictions of lived entanglement might shift epistemological understandings of entanglement?  

EFSR: I wonder about distinguishing entanglement that way (epistemology vs. lived experience), because my sense of entanglement as deployed in anthropology and science studies is that it’s a call to move past that very divide. Entanglement asserts that you cannot divide the epistemological and the ontological, subjects and objects. To be is to be related. Your question, however, helps me to clarify my own discontent with how entanglement has been taken up and often celebrated. Scholars, including myself, who are positioned in resource-stable worlds yearn for all of those things we moderns tend to yearn for: connection, community, release from the iron cage of individuality, the destabilization of oppressive binary categories like gender. What my previous work in Ecuador and, now, Mexico did to me was force me to appreciate how fluidity, shapeshifting, and relentless connectedness are often intensely hierarchical. They take a toll on those with less power, and so autonomy and the stability of boundaries and objects can have deep appeal.

Now I sound like a Cold War modernization theorist calling for the end of affiliation, the extended family, and other sticky ties that prevent nucleated families from consuming to their full potential! But the difference between me and a Cold War Warrior (I hope) is that I do see connection, and our recognition of entanglement, as vital. I guess my modest intervention would be to trace entanglements while recognizing that they are not necessarily the end goal (and neither is autonomous isolation). Another way to address your question is to insist that “staying with the trouble” (Haraway 2016) is a pretty strange proposition for those living in shit. I don’t think Haraway ever intended this reading. Her call to stay with the trouble is directed at scholars, and we scholars would do well to remind ourselves that entanglement and trouble are what many people would like less of.

Finally, it is important to note that entanglement in unstable places is not all the same. For instance, Mexico is a very different place than Ecuador, where I worked previously. Mexican state institutions have been and continue to be much stronger and more stable. For now, more Mexicans are interpellated into biopolitical projects of state health care. Much of this stability, produced by nearly a century of one-party paternalistic rule, is threatened by the ongoing destabilization of NAFTA and the Drug War. But still, more things work more of the time in Mexico than in Ecuador, thanks in part to stabilizing boundaries. And I have come to appreciate that immensely.

KS and HA: The connection between NAFTA’s effects on land dispossession, increased socioeconomic inequality, and health and nutrition are well-documented. But the impact of the militarized War on Drugs on the consumption of sugary foods and beverages is less clear: can you elaborate on this connection?

EFSR: Thank you for asking this; the connection between NAFTA, the Drug War, sugar, and bodies was the part of the article that I now realize got short shrift due to space constraints. One very useful source on this topic is Dawn Paley’s (2014) Drug War Capitalism. Paley traces how, despite NAFTA’s comprehensiveness, land tenure in Mexico remained among the most equitable in Latin America, and most health care, education, and energy remained nationalized. The Drug War, or Plan Merida, has succeeded in destabilizing Mexico where NAFTA failed. While Plan Merida does nothing to dampen the flow of drugs between Mexico and the United States, it clears territory by dispossessing indigenous and campesino communities from their land through terror, and it allows for further opening of the economy through so-called reform. The extralegal, legal, and economic reforms made possible by Plan Merida now provide more hospitable terrain for transnational corporate investments. Thus, the Drug War opened markets even further than NAFTA, making processed foods and sugar even cheaper and more available.

So one way that the Drug War has put sugar into bodies is by opening markets to cheap U.S. sweeteners, continuing a project that NAFTA started. A second way is an effect of the terror and destabilization that the Drug War has wreaked: in other words, stress eating. This became very clear to me during the 2014 disappearance of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa. Amid the massive protest marches, the government was charged with deliberately bungling the investigation so as to obfuscate energy and health reforms. The veracity of these rumors didn’t matter. They were part of an ongoing atmosphere of distrust and destabilization (now familiar in the United States under Trump). In my life and work with families in Mexico at this time, it became evident to me that sugar offered comfort, and eating it provided a way to respond when no response was adequate.

In sum, the intertwined, destabilizing effects of NAFTA and the Drug War made sugar cheaper, more available, and more irresistible. I have a lot more thinking and writing to do on this issue.

KS and HA: Recalling Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg’s concept of the moral economy, you discuss how public health messages can fail to factor in forms of sociality, like the sharing of soda, that are necessary for survival in marginalized circumstances. In what ways can knowledge of the chemical kinships formed by the bonds of what you call “protective porosity” be incorporated into public health approaches? Is this a goal worth pursuing?

EFSR: I love this question, because I’m asking it myself. I don’t know the answer, but I am trying to figure it out. To my surprise, I am actively seeking to make public health knowledge, and potentially interventions, with my ELEMENT collaborators. Until recently, it felt like I couldn’t possibly know enough to make an intervention in any realm. But the stakes of my work in Mexico are higher for me than in previous work. First of all, the situation in Mexico is dire.  And my ongoing work with the ELEMENT participant families and with ELEMENT researchers feels urgent. I admire and respect both groups and what they do matters, and I see certain possibilities for my work to usefully connect working-class lives and public health knowledge in this critical moment.  

My sense of the effectiveness of public health approaches has also changed over time. To give an example, when I first started working in Mexico City I was disdainful of the ubiquitous public health messaging around the city that was meant to reduce soda consumption by proclaiming that soda is bad for your health. It seemed classist and ineffective, and it didn’t address the structural or emotional realities that make it nearly impossible to trust water and that made soda taste so good and feel so good to share. I still think these campaigns are classist, but I now know more about the context in which the creators of those campaigns and of the 2014 soda tax live, one in which transnational corporations make structural change nearly impossible.

Over time, I have seen that public health messages are in fact received and absorbed among the families I work with. They are often received in surprising ways, but they are received nevertheless. I am now working on an article about this very issue, which focuses on how people struggle with soda and how young people, especially, have come up with innovative means to stop drinking it—through promises that they make to family members and saints and through a specific sense of addiction. The goal is not to conquer addiction but to have the right addictions, the ones that best allow you to live in your relationships. So what if, instead of the message that soda is bad for your health, we promoted the message that soda is bad for your relationships? I have some proposals out for work with public health and urban water ecologists to develop an approach that would take these kinds of realities into account.

KS and HA: Will you be continuing work in this area? What does your future scholarship look like?

EFSR: Yes! ELEMENT has been going for almost twenty-five years, and I plan to keep going with it. There is so much to do and develop and explore, both in terms of my collaboration with ELEMENT and with the six families with whom I work most intensively. This means that my focus—well, the focus of Mexican Exposures—will keep expanding, because the way we make and put data together will keep changing, and the people involved in that process will keep changing and thus expanding the questions. This is exciting and also challenging, because at this point, cultural anthropology is not well situated for team-based endeavors. My current postdoc, Mary Leighton, and I are experimenting with ways to make Mexican Exposures team-based and are writing some methods articles about the implications of team-based work for cultural anthropology. We have an undergraduate coding lab and their work is inspiring; we work with ELEMENT researchers on specific subprojects; and most recently, we received a grant from the National Science Foundation that funds unusual interdisciplinary work. On this grant we are bringing together environmental engineering, public health, and anthropology for a sixteen-person team project called “Neighborhood Environments as Socio-Techno-Bio Systems: Water Quality, Public Trust, and Health in Mexico City,” where we will work together to understand how water moves into neighborhoods, households, and bodies and then moves out again. This project involves ELEMENT participant families, including the six families I work with, who will participate in the development of protocols for gathering socio-techno-bio knowledge. They have already taught me so much about what we are calling “water trust” and why a socio-techno-bio approach is essential for investigating why no one trusts water in Mexico City.

I am also working on single-authored articles and books about my Mexican Exposures work. I’m developing what I think will be a short book about how people’s relationships with sugar and lead in Mexico City provide a different model for understanding addiction. The other, longer book that I have in mind will take years to write, because I want it to be truly bioethnographic, looping the daily lives of the six families with whom I work together with biological data. And we are still in early days in terms of making bioethnographic knowledge.

As we work to develop bioethnography, I am also contributing to several multiauthored publications, a fascinating and new process for me. Some of the articles are more after-the-fact, in that we use ethnographic data to interpret an existing public heath finding or concept. Others are focused on demonstrating how different modes of gathering and analyzing data provide different kinds of results. The next step is working on publications where the ethnographic and public health questions were asked at the same time. My key ELEMENT collaborator, Brisa Sanchez, a biostatistician, and I call this “making better numbers,” producing numbers through ethnographic methods. Some of this work can be uncomfortable. As I mentioned above, making health knowledge is not something I thought I would ever do, and that’s especially true for making numbers. I was more comfortable in critique mode, but because I want to situate biologies to be able to say more about health and inequality, it seems to me that I need to be part of making biological knowledge—hopefully, better biological knowledge.


Caldeira, Teresa P. R. 2000. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press.  

Paley, Dawn. 2014. Drug War Capitalism. Oakland, Calif.: AK Press.  

Roberts, Elizabeth F. S. 2012. God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes. Berkeley: University of California Press.  

_____, and Camilo Sanz. 2017. “Bioethnography: A How-To Guide for the Twenty-First Century.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society, edited by Maurizio Meloni, John Cromby, Des Fitzgerald, and Stephanie Lloyd, 749–75. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.