Gut Anthro

An Experiment in Thinking with Microbes

2023
Author:

Amber Benezra

A fascinating ethnography of microbes that opens up new spaces for anthropological inquiry

Gut Anthro tells the fascinating story of how a sociocultural anthropologist developed a collaborative “anthropology of microbes” with a human microbial ecologist to address global health crises across disciplines. Revealing how racial categories are used in microbiome research, Benezra argues that microbial differences need transdisciplinary collaboration to address racial health disparities without reifying race as a straightforward biological or social designation.

From start to finish, Gut Anthro demonstrates how relations are integral to science. With bold, page-turning prose, Amber Benezra traces microbiokinships from kitchen tables to scientific laboratories, offering a refreshingly honest analysis of how knowledge and process are one and the same. Miscarriage. Diarrhea. Career ambitions. Humanitarian hubris. Anthropological complicity. We learn from microbes—and the messy, fragile, tenacious humans that study them—how much the minute details of mundane life matter. Alternately hopeful and unsettling, this is a book that expertly does what microbes have always done: change how we see, how we collaborate, and who we are.

Emily Yates-Doerr, author of The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala

The trillions of microbes in and on our bodies are determined by not only biology but also our social connections. Gut Anthro tells the fascinating story of how a sociocultural anthropologist developed a collaborative “anthropology of microbes” with a human microbial ecologist to address global health crises across disciplines. It asks: what would it mean for anthropology to act with science? Based partly at a preeminent U.S. lab studying the human microbiome, the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University, and partly at a field site in Bangladesh studying infant malnutrition, the book examines how microbes travel between human guts in the “field” and in microbiome laboratories, influencing definitions of health and disease, and how the microbiome can change our views on evolution, agency, and life.

As lab scientists studied the interrelationships between gut microbes and malnutrition in resource-poor countries, Amber Benezra explored ways to reconcile the scale and speed differences between the lab, the intimate biosocial practices of Bangladeshi mothers and their children, and the looming structural violence of poverty. In vital ways, Gut Anthro is about what it means to collaborate—with mothers, local field researchers in Bangladesh, massive philanthropic global health organizations, the microbiome scientists, and, of course, with microbes. It follows microbes through various enactments in scientific research—microbes as kin, as data, and as race. Revealing how racial categories are used in microbiome research, Benezra argues that microbial differences need transdisciplinary collaboration to address racial health disparities without reifying race as a straightforward biological or social designation.

Gut Anthro is a tour de force of science studies and medical anthropology as well as an intensely personal and deeply theoretical account of what it means to do anthropology today.

Amber Benezra is assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

From start to finish, Gut Anthro demonstrates how relations are integral to science. With bold, page-turning prose, Amber Benezra traces microbiokinships from kitchen tables to scientific laboratories, offering a refreshingly honest analysis of how knowledge and process are one and the same. Miscarriage. Diarrhea. Career ambitions. Humanitarian hubris. Anthropological complicity. We learn from microbes—and the messy, fragile, tenacious humans that study them—how much the minute details of mundane life matter. Alternately hopeful and unsettling, this is a book that expertly does what microbes have always done: change how we see, how we collaborate, and who we are.

Emily Yates-Doerr, author of The Weight of Obesity: Hunger and Global Health in Postwar Guatemala

This is an utterly arresting ethnographic examination of a networked bioscience project that stretches from sample collection in Bangladesh to data analysis at a U.S. university. Amber Benezra offers an account—rigorous, revelatory, wrenching—of the vexed promises of acting as both participant and observer in the contact zones of today’s international biomedical research.

Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology