Introduction: Embodied Ecologies

From the Series: Embodied Ecologies

Photo by Franck Genten, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

The materiality of human bodies at the smallest scales—genes, microbes, chemicals, hormones—is increasingly being understood as both responsive to broader environmental contexts and as a site where environments are manifested in health and well-being. Phenomena from epigenetics to the microbiome, from toxic stress to toxic pollution, are raising new questions among the scientific community. They point to indeterminacies in personal and social capacities that might be transmitted across generations and implicated in patterns of inequality. Indigenous, activist, and popular knowledges operate alongside and in various relationships to these shifts in scientific paradigms. From the Anthropocene to postgenomic science, a tidal shift in approaches to human (and nonhuman) bodies is making it untenable to consider health as an individual property limited to the space of one’s body or the time of one’s lifespan—or even as something wholly human.

This Theorizing the Contemporary series, which grew out of a set of panels at the 2018 annual meetings of the Association for Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth and the American Anthropological Association, develops embodied ecologies as a conceptual framework for describing a fluidity between bodies and worlds that foregrounds relations instead of bounded entities. In such a framework, humans are inseparable from surrounding environments and also function as environments themselves. What are the implications of imagining porous and receptive bodies that are intimately influenced by their surroundings, both material and immaterial? What changes if we foreground the microbial composition of human bodies or attend to how human desires, energies, moods, and potentials are produced at the level of the body's materiality? Such conceptions do more than bypass ingrained forms of dualistic thinking; they inspire the reframing of volition and futurity, responsibility and accountability, inequality and justice, and the ever-vexing category of the natural.

At its core, this series probes the relationship between changing bio-scientific ideas about bodies and the lived realities of bodies in contemporary societies. Drawing from diverse ethnographic material, some of the contributors engage with scientists, describing how stem cells’ nature is being explored as a product of their embodied context, or asking how microbiome research changes the figure of the human by considering microbial agency and radically expanded scales of analysis. Others explore toxic industrial impacts, including lead contamination from polymetallic smelting and radiation from nuclear power plants. Reproduction is an important site where embodied ecologies play out; grappling with reproductive epigenetics pushes scientific methods and fields into new shapes, whether by defining infertility as an ecological problem or acknowledging the limits of controlled trials. Stress straddles maternal and fetal bodies, as it bridges biology and psychology. Food proves to be an important site of intervention, from the manufacture of taste and flavor in processed food to the dietary management of food allergies. Colonial relationships echo through relations with food, as agricultural chemicals on sugarcane plantations permeate both laboring bodies and laborers’ kitchen gardens.

Although each of the essays offers its own take on how embodied ecologies is useful as a conceptual framework, there are three important aspects that I wish to highlight:

  1. Fluidity between bodies and worlds involves both what surrounds bodies and what composes (or resides within) them;
  2. Thinking with ecologies encompasses both bodies and environments, emphasizing relations instead of entities. Humans are not coherent objects set against the background of their environment, but are relationally implicated with it (and each other);
  3. When relations are prioritized, distinctions between material substance and immaterial experience become blurry. Embodied ecologies are decidedly non-Cartesian.

This approach engages converging anthropological interests in ontology, scientific frontiers, and postindustrial environments. The ontological turn and its kin in new materialism, indigenous metaphysics, and feminist approaches to embodiment involve more than emphasizing the material aspects of social life; they invite reconsideration of what the material is and what it operates in distinction to (e.g., Cruikshank 2005; Descola 2013; Kohn 2013; Giraldo Herrera 2018). Scientific frontiers reshaping biology have been studied in relation to reproductive technologies (Franklin 2013; Sanabria 2016), epigenetics (Lock 2015; Lamoreaux 2016), metabolism (Landecker 2013; Solomon 2016) and microbiome research (Lorimer 2016; Rees, Bosch, and Douglas 2018; see also Paxson and Helmreich 2014). Postindustrial toxicity has drawn anthropological attention to built environments (Murphy 2006; Shapiro 2015) and the pollution of land, water, air, and food (Mansfield 2011; Choy 2012; Agard-Jones 2012; Solomon 2015; Paxson 2016; Hoover 2017; Roberts 2017).

In the background of these conversations and underpinning their convergence is the surge of attention to the Anthropocene, whose effects are simultaneously geological and exquisitely intimate. They are also simultaneously local and universal; while some communities are at greater risk for embodied harm, human-induced environmental changes affect everyone (Lock 2017). Rather than emphasizing the class, race, and gender inequalities in the distribution of harm, which can reentrench those inequalities and stigmatize groups or kinds of people as “damaged” (Murphy 2017, 469), I hope thinking with embodied ecologies will center our shared need to find better ways of living.


Agard-Jones, Vanessa. 2012. “What the Sands Remember.” GLQ 18, nos. 2–3: 325–46.

Choy, Timothy. 2012. “Air’s Substantiations.” In Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics, and Governance in Global Markets, edited by Kaushik Sunder Rajan, 121–52. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. Originally published in 2011.

Cruikshank, Julie. 2005. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in 2005.

Franklin, Sarah. 2013. Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Giraldo Herrera, César E. 2018. Microbes and Other Shamanic Beings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hoover, Elizabeth. 2017. The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lamoreaux, Janelle. 2016. “What if the Environment is a Person? Lineages of Epigenetic Science in a Toxic China.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2: 188–214.

Landecker, Hannah. 2013. “Post-Industrial Metabolism: Fat Knowledge.” Public Culture 25, no. 3: 495–522.

Lock, Margaret. 2015. “Comprehending the Body in the Era of the Epigenome.” Current Anthropology 56, no. 2: 151–77.

_____. 2017. “Recovering the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46, no. 1: 1–14.

Lorimer, Jamie. 2016. “Gut Buddies: Multispecies Studies and the Microbiome.” Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1: 57–76.

Mansfield, Becky. 2011. “Is Fish Health Food or Poison? Farmed Fish and the Material Production of Un/Healthy Nature.” Antipode 43, no. 2: 413–34.

Murphy, Michelle. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

_____. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.

Paxson, Heather. 2016. “Rethinking Food and its Eaters: Opening the Black Boxes of Safety and Nutrition.” In The Handbook of Food and Anthropology, edited by Jakob A. Klein and James L. Watson, 268–88. New York: Bloomsbury.

_____, and Stefan Helmreich. 2014. “The Perils and Promises of Microbial Abundance: Novel Natures and Model Ecosystems, from Artisanal Cheese to Alien Seas.” Social Studies of Science 44, no. 2: 165–93.

Rees, Tobias, Thomas Bosch, and Angela E. Douglas. 2018. “How the Microbiome Challenges our Concept of Self.” PLoS Biology 16, no. 2.

Roberts, Elizabeth F. S. 2017. “What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 592–619.

Sanabria, Emilia. 2016. Plastic Bodies: Sex Hormones and Menstrual Suppression in Brazil. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Shapiro, Nicholas. 2015. “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3: 368–93.

Solomon, Harris. 2015. “Unreliable Eating: Patterns of Food Adulteration in Urban India.” BioSocieties 10, no. 2: 177–93.

_____. 2016. Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.