Wild Goose Chase: The Displacement of Influenza Research in the Fields of Poyang Lake, China: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Wild Goose Chase: The Displacement of Influenza Research in the Fields of Poyang Lake, China,” which was published in the February 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Farmed Wild Geese in Flight. Photo by Lyle Fearnley.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published several articles on studies of disease and its securitization. See Andrew Lakoff’s “The Generic Biothreat, or How We Became Unprepared” (2008) and Carlo Caduff’s “The Semiotics of Security: Infectious Disease Research and the Biopolitics of Informational Bodies in the United States” (2012).

Cultural Anthropology has also published studies of scientific practice and the laboratory, including Arpita Roy’s "Ethnography and Theory of the Signature in Physics" (2014), Damien Droney’s “Ironies of Laboratory Work During Ghana’s Second Age of Optimism” (2014). See also the curated collection Ethnographies of Science.

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on multispecies ethnography and the potential dangers of relations between humans and other species, including AlexNading’s “Dengue Mosquitos are Single Mothers: Biopolitics Meets Ecological Aesthetics in Nicaraguan Community Health Work” (2012), Heather Paxson’s “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States” (2008), and Celia Lowe’s “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia” (2010). See also the special issue (25.4) on multispecies ethnography.

About the Author

Lyle Fearnley is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Humanities, Science and Society at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His current research explores contemporary encounters between transnational health sciences and China's farming systems, with a particular interest in the reconstructions of knowledge, life, and nature taking shape around zoonotic disease and food safety. Fearnley's book project, provisionally titled The Pandemic Epicenter: Rural China and Animal Disease in the Making of Global Health, analyzes the transformation of southern China's poultry farms and farmers from heralds of post-Mao rural development into objects of transnational health research and governance.

Other Works by the Author

2008. “Redesigning Syndromic Surveillance for Biosecurity.” In Biosecurity Interventions: Global Health and Security in Question, edited by Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff, 61–88. New York: Columbia University Press.

2008. “Signals Come and Go: Syndromic Surveillance and Styles of Biosecurity.” Environment and Planning A 40, no. 7: 1615–32.

2010. “Epidemic Intelligence: Langmuir and the Birth of Disease Surveillance.” Behemoth 3, no. 3: 37–56.

2015. Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Edited with Anthony Stavrianakis and Gaymon Bennett. New York: Fordham University Press.


A wild swan goose breeder explains what distinguishes a “wild” goose from a domestic goose. Video by Lyle Fearnley
Farmed wild birds in flight at Poyang Lake. Video by Lyle Fearnley.


Julia Sizek: The researchers who you study moved from studying influenza in the lab to moving out to the field. How did you arrive at your fieldsites and relate the shifting understandings of the field in the biological sciences with debates in anthropology?

Lyle Fearnley: The field in contemporary anthropology takes shape at multiple scales and so there are multiple arrivals, multiple Malinowskian beaches. Before my dissertation research, I had conducted research on the scientific and political questions raised by emerging diseases through fieldwork on the design and use of early warning "syndromic" surveillance systems by the New York City health department. That research was conducted between the years 2004 and 2007, during which time both SARS and the re-emergence of avian influenza H5N1 brought China to the center of scientific and popular discourses about emerging diseases. Important work has been done deconstructing these discourses (especially by historian Nick King), but I was interested in what was actually happening in China in response to emerging diseases. This brought me to China, to Beijing at first, where I began my dissertation fieldwork.

It took me a longer time to recognize the importance of Poyang Lake and to get myself there. I was amused when I recently looked back at my early fieldnotes from a "Working Group on Diseases at the Human–Animal Interface" in Beijing. I realized that the speaker, in commenting on "non-virological factors" in the emergence of a disease, had showed photos of a lake that exemplified "domestic–wild interactions," and I had apparently not heard the name clearly because I wrote down "Lake Quyum(?)." Only later, when that speaker and others from the Food and Agriculture Organization kept repeating that Poyang Lake was a "perfect storm" did I realize that I needed to know more about what was happening there, both the scientific research and the world of poultry breeders and local veterinary practice there. Although Poyang Lake has become a kind of central icon for organizing the field of relationships among transnational scientists, Chinese state-employed veterinarians, and poultry farmers that I discuss in my book, and the story that I tell, this "field" emerged as a consequence of commitments and friendships I made with flu researchers in Beijing rather than out of a grant proposal written from Berkeley.

It is true that I do not discuss anthropology, often called a field science, in this article. I would emphasize that I am not arguing for a classificatory difference between field and lab sciences, but rather noting the particular dynamic of knowledge production in the movement toward the field—a dynamic in which research objects and categories are displaced through encounter with the outside of the experimental system. This is what I argue is not well described or analyzed by STS and the anthropology of science, due to the predominance of the laboratory model and lab-based ethnographies. In anthropology itself, it is quite possible that the problem is inverse: there are extensive debates and discussions about anthropology as a field science, but much less is known about how anthropologists "leave the field" (cf. Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013) toward libraries and even "laboratories" (Collier, Lakoff, and Rabinow 2006).

JS: In reading the article, I was struck by the language of mobility you used—for example, traffic, vectors, displacement. When and why did movement become relevant to your research?

LF: Mobility became important for my research quite early, in part because I was interested in the specific effects of the movement of pandemic preparedness interventions into southern China, rather than the pandemic preparations that others and I had previously studied in Europe or the United States. As the terms you have highlighted note, movement is also a characteristic of the research objects of flu scientists: the movement of viruses into new populations (through "traffic" or in the bodies of "vectors") is what makes an emerging disease and, if at a large enough scale, a pandemic. With all of these things moving around (scientists, birds, viruses), it became important to develop some conceptual precision beyond the general flow, which is why I centered the article on the concept of displacement and charted the distinctive arc of its motion.

JS: What are you working on now and how does it relate to this project?

LF: I have begun a second project on the contested futures of rice breeding in contemporary China. The project analyzes the contemporary intersections of Chinese rice genome research (led by the Shenzhen based BGI), anti-genetic modification (GM) movements, and the sophisticated rice breeding and cultivation techniques of rice farmers in the Poyang Lake region. A long tradition of scholarship has noted the distinctive mode of historical and technological development associated with rice cultivation, sometimes called the "rice economy" (e.g., Geertz 1963; Bray 1994). In this project, I ask how research on the gene transforms the rice economy, and analyze the emergence of new ethical and political terrains linking rice genes, human health, and the vitality of the nation around the safety of rice and especially GM rice. The project continues the methodological approach that I develop in the present article: drawing from extensive fieldwork among both scientific experts and rural producers, I go beyond a comparison between "scientific" and "savage" mind, or modern and traditional knowledges, toward an examination of how exchanges and encounters between scientists and farmers reconstruct contemporary nature and life

Breeding Geese in a Wild Living Environment. Photo by Lyle Fearnley.

Related and Resonant Readings

On strange encounters between humans and other species

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kosek, Jake. 2010. “Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 650–78.

Weiss, Brad. 2011. “Making Pigs Local: Discerning the Sensory Character of Place.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 3: 438–61.

On the “field” and scientific research objects

Knorr-Cetina, Karen. 1995. “Laboratory Studies: The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science.” In Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Petersen, and Trevor Pinch, 140–66. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Kohler, Robert E. 2002. Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vetter, Jeremy. 2010. Introduction to Knowing Global Environments: New Historical Perspectives on the Field Sciences. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.


Bray, Francesca. 1994. The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Collier, Stephen, Andrew Lakoff, and Paul Rabinow. 2006. "What is a Laboratory in the Human Sciences?" ARC Working Paper No. 1.

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rabinow, Paul, and Anthony Stavrianakis. 2013. The Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.