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Mass hysteria in Le Roy New York: How brain experts materialized truth and outscienced environmental inquiry (2015)


Abstract and Figures

Teenage schoolgirls in Le Roy, New York, captured the attention of the U.S. public in 2011 and 2012 when they developed acute motor and vocal tics. Dramatic images of the girls’ involuntary movements were briefly seen on national news and social media before clinical neurologists diagnosed the girls with “mass psychogenic illness” and required their retreat from media as part of the cure. Drawing from perspectives in medical and linguistic anthropology as well as the anthropology of expertise, we interrogate how this diagnosis, called “mass hysteria” in a previous generation of Freudian psychology, came to be favored over attribution to a potential environmental cause. Neurologists countered the evidential vagueness of environmental claims by suggesting that material proof of psychological origin could lie in fMRI data, contributing to a public narrative on female adolescent brains and rural U.S. communities that foreclosed environmental inquiry. [brain imaging, environmental toxicity, expertise, mass hysteria, media discourse, mimicry, neurology]
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University of Colorado Boulder
Mass hysteria in Le Roy, New York:
How brain experts materialized truth and outscienced
environmental inquiry
Teenage schoolgirls in Le Roy, New York, captured
the attention of the U.S. public in 2011 and 2012
when they developed acute motor and vocal tics.
Dramatic images of the girls’ involuntary movements
were briefly seen on national news and social media
before clinical neurologists diagnosed the girls with
“mass psychogenic illness” and required their retreat
from media as part of the cure. Drawing from
perspectives in medical and linguistic anthropology
as well as the anthropology of expertise, we
interrogate how this diagnosis, called “mass
hysteria” in a previous generation of Freudian
psychology, came to be favored over attribution to a
potential environmental cause. Neurologists
countered the evidential vagueness of
environmental claims by suggesting that material
proof of psychological origin could lie in fMRI data,
contributing to a public narrative on female
adolescent brains and rural U.S. communities that
foreclosed environmental inquiry. [brain imaging,
environmental toxicity, expertise, mass hysteria,
media discourse, mimicry, neurology]
In fall 2011 in the small town of Le Roy, in upstate New York,
12 students enrolled at Le Roy Junior–Senior High School devel-
oped involuntary motor and vocal tics that resembled symptoms
associated with Tourette syndrome. After widely publicized calls
for help (Today Sh ow 2012b), experts from the DENT Neurologic
Institute in Buffalo and Rochester, a private practice group established in
1963, declared the affliction to be conversion disorder or, rather, because
of its purported spread across acquainted persons, mass psychogenic
illness (Today Sh ow 2012a; WIVB-TV 2012).
The diagnosis initially inspired strong opposition from many parents of
afflicted students. Some of them, supported by visiting journalists, won-
dered whether the causes of the illness might lie in the area’s accumula-
tion of multiple and potentially interacting industrial toxins (Dupont et al.
2012; Olmstead and Blaxill 2012a, 2012b), a phenomenon for which we use
the shorthand term toxic layering. But within the first weeks of national
news coverage, so many toxins had been proposed as potential sources
of the illness that commentators began to dismiss all such claims as too
muddled for consideration. Nevertheless, the possibility of toxic contam-
ination caught the attention of environmental celebrity Erin Brockovich,
whose team of assessors arrived in Le Roy, drawing even more news cover-
age to the cases (Dr. Drew 2012a, 2012b). In that coverage, however, Brock-
ovich’s investigators were ultimately “outscienced” by the DENT neurolo-
gists, who secured public acceptance of their diagnosis by deploying con-
vincingly illustrated scientific discourses about the brain and its relation-
ship to teenage girl sociality.
In this article, we analyze how expert knowledge from brain science
came to trump a long list of environmental concerns. Our purpose is
not to diagnose the mysterious illness; we are certainly not qualified to
make this assessment. Rather, we seek to document how one authoritative
profession managed to elevate its own knowledge system at the expense of
another. Our interviews with local residents and a lead neurologist in the
case during field visits to Le Roy in 2013 and 2014 give us an ethnographic
AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 640–657, ISSN 0094-0496, online
ISSN 1548-1425. C
2015 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/amet.12161
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
starting point for understanding how this occurred. But we
are equally interested in expertise as a broader discursive
achievement. The neurologists’ expertise was magnified by
state administrators and journalists whose audiences were
already primed to accept it by media valorizations of brain
science and popular ideas regarding the behavior of teenage
girls. As the case unfolded, parents and afflicted teenagers
who contested this expertise became framed as demon-
strating small-town ignorance of contemporary psychiatry
(Dominus 2012; WGRZ 2012a).
We argue that the diagnosis of mass psychogenic
illness prevailed because it served both a professional need
to revalidate psychiatry as clinical neurology and a media
investment in the popularization of “brain science.” Both
of these projects relied on and reinforced gender, age, and
class stereotypes and protected powerful political and eco-
nomic interests by diverting attention away from questions
of responsibility and legal liability. In addition, the diagno-
sis appealed to the very human hope for a cure. But it also
prevailed because the opposing discourse was weak: Toxic
layering not only complicates causality but also, by its na-
ture, generates audience fatigue, becoming banal. Current
methods in laboratory-based science are rarely able to link
individual industrial toxins to human harm (Altukhov 1990;
van der Schalie et al. 1999), much less toxins in combina-
tion. In this late industrial era, when suspicions of toxicity
are pervasively mediatized but rarely proven, the public has
become increasingly aware of science’s inability to provide
resolution regarding harm claimed from nuclear, indus-
trial, or agricultural waste (Goldstein 2014; Little 2014; Nash
2007). Even if an environmental diagnosis could have been
achieved in the Le Roy case, in the current legal and regula-
tory climate it would have offered little hope of compensa-
tion or future prevention (Jasanoff 2005; Urbina 2013).
Medical anthropologists and scholars in science,
technology, and society (STS) studies have exposed the
manner by which qualities and symptoms associated with
particular kinds of subjects are transformed into categories
that then become interpreted by powerful medical and
scientific experts (Latour 2013; Scheper-Hughes and Lock
1987). Yet some projects fail to capture the imagination
of scientists, perhaps because they are too political, too
underfunded, or too difficult to address with current meth-
ods and established ways of knowing. This research void,
recently highlighted in the literature as “undone science”
(Frickel et al. 2010; Hess 2007), includes industrial toxicity
and its effects on humans. The variability that accompanies
the embedding of toxins in diverse social and geographic
landscapes cannot be replicated in laboratories designed
to be context free (Nash 2007), leading to impoverished
accounts of the effects of toxicity in particularized environ-
ments. We thus employ the strengths of a contextualized
anthropology to track how science’s inability to handle
spatial and temporal complexity enables other nonen-
Figure 1. Main entry to Le Roy Junior–Senior High School, the site of
a Tourette-like epidemic in 2011 and 2012 that was later diagnosed by
the New York State Department of Health as mass psychogenic illness.
Photograph by Donna Goldstein, 2013.
vironmental theories, even if questionable, to prevail in
the space of uncertainty. In the Le Roy case, discursive
alignments of Freudian theory, stereotypes of teenage girls,
and the promise of new methodological directions in brain
science colluded to foreclose environmental questions that
could not readily be answered.
Expert narrations
In mid-January 2012, a desperate group of Le Roy parents
took their children’s cases to the national media in the
hope of finding a diagnosis. They had spent much of the
fall watching their children battle a range of neurological
symptoms that also seemed to bewilder their doctors. For
some children, these symptoms required hospitalization,
involving violent seizures that could not be controlled even
under heavy sedation.
Over the following three weeks, several of the girls
appeared on television shows like the Tod a y Show and
Dr.DrewOnCall. Others uploaded videos of their symp-
toms to social media and video-sharing websites such as
Facebook and YouTube. Audiovisual images of teenage girls
with flailing arms, twitching faces, and intermittent vocal
outbursts quickly captured the attention of the public. The
majority of the victims were students at Le Roy Junior–
Senior High School (see Figure 1), and several, but not all,
were involved in cheerleading or sports. Two girls from the
town of Corinth, about two hundred fifty miles away, de-
veloped similar symptoms within the same time frame and
were brought into the national spotlight as well. Shortly af-
ter the girls began to appear on national television, three
American Ethnologist Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015
more Le Roy students came down with symptoms, as did
a 36-year-old woman who lived in the town but was not
overtly associated with the school. One of the students in
this second cluster of cases was male, though his biography
is rarely discussed in media coverage.
The media appearances were precipitated by what
many of the parents saw as a lackadaisical response on the
part of school administrators. After the first group of cases
surfaced in October 2011, the Le Roy Central School District
partnered with the Genesee County Health Department,
the New York State Department of Health, the New York
State Office of Mental Health, and medical professionals
from WorkFit Medical to investigate causes of the illness.1
On January 11, 2012, the associate commissioner of the
New York State Department of Health, Dr. Gregory Young,
announced the results to a crowd of over 300 concerned
parents and students in the Le Roy school auditorium.
Stating that the three-and-a-half-month investigation
had “conclusively ruled out” infectious or environmental
causes, he alluded to a stress-related diagnosis that could
not be disclosed because of medical privacy rules. The
statement angered many of the girls’ parents, who had
never received any kind of diagnosis from the physicians
they had visited.2They were also disturbed that the in-
vestigation had not sampled soil and water on the school
grounds. When two of the girls appeared on NBC’s Today
Show (2012b) a week later with their mothers to voice
concerns about the investigation, physicians from the
DENT Neurologic Institute appeared on local and national
television to announce that they had evaluated 11 of the
12 afflicted students and that the diagnosis was conversion
disorder (Tod a y S h ow 2012a; WIVB-TV 2012).
At first glance, the collaborative investigation, whose
report was released two weeks later, on January 31 (Le Roy
Central School District et al. 2012), seems to have been
quite thorough. Epidemiologic methods were employed
to check out family medical history, significant life stres-
sors, past and current medications, recent illness, drug
use, and possible common exposures to toxic materials.
Additionally, investigators searched biomedical literature
for possible associations between environmental chemical
exposures and the development of neurological tics. Three
drinking water samples taken from the school building were
tested for toxins that included 58 volatile organic chemicals,
63 separate pesticides and herbicides, and 11 metals. Data
on indoor air quality and mold were also analyzed. Inves-
tigators considered the possibility that the Gardasil vaccine
might have been associated with the girls’ neurological
symptoms. They even checked for PANDAS, a diagnosis
that remains controversial in the medical profession for
presuming a link between tic disorders and streptococcal
infection (Leckman et al. 2011; see Le Roy Central School
District et al. 2012:7). None of these tests revealed environ-
mental or infectious disease factors. The report therefore
concluded, on the basis of consultations with “the pediatric
neurologist” at the DENT Neurologic Institute who had
evaluated 8 of the 12 cases, that “this cluster of cases [is] the
result of conversion disorder/mass psychogenic illness” (Le
Roy Central School District et al. 2012:7).
The January 11 meeting had motivated some of the
parents to call in Erin Brockovich, whose 1993 landmark
case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California
was popularized in a 2000 Hollywood film that shares her
name. In late January, Brockovich sent a team of asses-
sors to Le Roy, led by civil engineer Bob Bowcock of the
California-based Integrated Resource Management firm, to
take soil and water samples from the school grounds. Upon
arrival at the school, Bowcock was forbidden by local law
enforcement to enter the premises, though he was eventu-
ally allowed to tour the grounds as long as he did not take
samples. A statement issued later that day by Superinten-
dent Kim Cox accused Bowcock’s group of “grandstanding”
and said that any samples gathered would have had “no
scientific value” (2012). Riposting that the district’s inves-
tigation “wasn’t even close to science” (Owens 2012c),3
Bowcock did manage to collect water samples from four
residential wells in the town, two of them in a field adjacent
to the school, promising to collect soil samples when the
ground thawed. As pressure from parents mounted, the
school hired an environmental consulting firm, Leader
Professional Services, to review previous testing and
make additional recommendations for testing on school
Like many towns in upstate New York and, indeed,
across the United States, Le Roy has a long history of expo-
sure to an extensive list of industrial toxins. Most notable is
the not-yet-remediated Lehigh Valley Railroad Derailment
Superfund site just 3.5 miles east of the school, where a train
accident in 1970 released 30,000 gallons of trichloroethy-
lene (TCE) and 2,000 pounds of cyanide crystals into the
ground. A 2014 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) describes the TCE-contaminated groundwa-
ter plume that extends east and southeast of the original
spill.4Two other state superfund sites in the area—the Lapp
Insulator site and the delisted Target Products site—had
earlier contributed to contaminated groundwater near the
school (Cattaraugus County Board of Health 2012; DeSmit
2009a, 2009b; Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning
Council and EcoLogic 2010). In addition, Le Roy is only 90
miles away from the West Valley nuclear fuel reprocessing
plant that is controversial in the region for periodically
leaking radioactive materials such as cesium 137, stron-
tium 90, and mercury into the air and water; the plant
experienced several leaks shortly before the first Le Roy
cases were reported (Cattaraugus County Board of Health
2012). Other industrial pollutants include the arsenic-laden
rat poison Rough on Rats, which was manufactured in town
at the turn of the 20th century with materials that may
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
Figure 2. Welcome sign in downtown Le Roy, New York, that showcases
the city’s industrial achievement as the birthplace of Jell-O. Photograph
by Donna Goldstein, 2014.
Figure 3. One of six natural gas wells on the grounds of Le Roy (New York)
Junior–Senior High School. Photograph by Donna Goldstein, 2013.
have been improperly disposed of after the plant’s closure
(lucysfootball 2012; Olmstead and Blaxill 2012a), as well
as toxic dye byproducts from the manufacture of (locally
invented) Jell-O gelatin (see Figure 2), which residents
claim were leaked into Oatka Creek daily until the closure
of the General Foods plant there in 1964 (Dominus 2012).
Finally, some parents suspected contaminants in the
school itself, constructed in 2003. Their concerns included
residual pesticides, such as lead arsenate that might have
entered the school grounds from fields formerly used as
farmland or hazardous waste dump sites (Olmstead and
Blaxill 2012a), as well as brine leaks of “produced water
from at least one of the six fracking wells on school grounds
(see Figure 3) onto athletic fields in July 2011 (NYSDEC
2011).5Others wondered if the culprit might be a crop-
dusting plane, captured on video by a local resident during
a school day in late September spraying the insecticide
Bifenthrin over a cornfield uphill from the girls’ softball
field (Olmstead and Blaxill 2012b). Still others voiced
suspicion that ergot alkaloids from a fungus that grows on
rye might be responsible (Olmstead and Blaxill 2012a). This
toxic product, often found in the latex paint used to mark
athletic fields, is believed by some scholars to have caused
the convulsive symptoms labeled “demon possession” in
17th-century Salem (Caporael 1976; Matossian 1982).
Although extremely common in industrialized areas,
such toxic layering complicates the establishment of clear
causality with respect to environmentally induced harm. In
Le Roy, the potential reach of each of these toxic materials is
extended by the unique hydrogeological characteristics of
the area, which include underground drainage associated
with local karst topography as well as the susceptibility to
flooding of Oatka Creek, which runs through the town cen-
ter (Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council and
EcoLogic 2010). Indeed, the school itself is partly situated
in a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood hazard
area and wetlands. The year 2011, the year of Hurricane
Sandy, was the wettest in recorded history for New York
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2012),
with Buffalo, Rochester, and Le Roy all experiencing epic
rainfalls in the spring preceding the outbreak.
The environmental concerns of Brockovich and Bow-
cock clustered around a yellow-orange substance seen
on the athletic fields, possibly related to the existence of
natural gas wells on the school property, and the train
derailment spill. In several media interviews (e.g., Dr. Drew
2012a, 2012b), the two explained that remediation had
not begun on the 1970 derailment site until the 1990s and
that large drums of toxic waste still stood on the site. Their
public statements motivated the EPA to remove 253 drums
in early February 2012; 32 of those drums were found
to contain detectable though minimal concentrations of
contaminants, including TCE and cyanide.
Supported by a range of environmental bloggers,
each of whom advanced his or her own theory about the
illness, Brockovich argued that environmental concerns
merited an independent toxicology review of the school
grounds. Journalists and Le Roy residents familiar with
environmental issues in the region understood this as a
reasonable demand, given the complex flow of toxic mate-
rials through rock, the hydraulic fracturing that had taken
place on school grounds, and the many additional forms of
toxicity in the area. A 1997 NYSDEC report, which provided
Brockovich’s team with much of its information, stated
that 30,000 gallons of TCE had gone into the ground and
never been recovered. The report additionally describes
remediation as “complicated” by the ongoing underground
movement of the TCE plume.6Water samples taken in the
early 1990s from more than 35 residential wells east of the
site were deemed contaminated, as were samples from
both soil and bedrock. Brockovich additionally expressed
interest in the claim that contaminated rock from the
quarry had been used to build the Le Roy school. The
American Ethnologist Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015
January 31 report confirms that this was indeed the case,
though it speculates that any residue left from that process
would have met New York State drinking water standards.
Just a few weeks after the so-called mystery illness was
introduced to the public, news stories about Le Roy came
to an abrupt halt. From the beginning, the two leading
neurologists associated with the Le Roy cases, Dr. Laszlo
Mechtler and Dr. Jennifer McVige, had provided therapy
that included strong prohibitions on “texting and friend-
ing” (Eakin 2012). When the number of students affected
rose from 12 to 19 after the case went national,7DENT
neurologists issued a statement that media coverage ex-
acerbated the girls’ symptoms and, through social media
mimicry, might create new victims among an already
impressionable population. Indeed, Dr. Mechtler overtly
blamed the media for the “continued hysteria” and urged
parents to “take away the social media and segregate
[children] from friends who may be afflicted” (Owens
2012aa). The local media took these warnings seriously.
Buffalo NBC affiliate WGRZ, for instance, publicly an-
nounced that “if not showing the teens and their tics will
help, then we’re in. . . . We’ve decided to do this because the
doctors say it is best for the kids in this situation” (2012c).
Without support from local news stations, the national
media were unable to sustain interest in the case. A Febru-
ary 17 article by the Batavia, New York, Batavian, citing
Mechtler on the absence of new cases after this waning in
coverage, reported that “the national media spotlight on Le
Roy . . . has nearly faded away” (Owens 2012b).
Not all of the affected families acceded to the media
ban. One of the last discussions of the mystery illness in
mainstream media was a 2013 interview for ABC’s Good
Morning America. In it, the mother of one of the Corinth
teenagers voiced serious concern: “I really think they want
people to hide somehow. DENT has clamped the mouths
up of Le Roy people and I don’t know how or what, but I
know a lot of them don’t want the media” (Lupkin 2013).
But the news story emphasized that this mother, against
the advice of DENT neurologists, was pursuing treatment
for chronic Lyme disease, a diagnosis not recognized by the
mainstream scientific community.
Assorted experts had been deeply involved in the
case since its emergence in national news: journalists,
academics, environmentalists, and neurologists appearing
in outlets such as the Atlantic, the Huffington Post, the
New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine as well as
scores of bloggers who followed the case from various
angles in excruciating detail. While many of these experts
expressed skepticism at DENT’s involvement when the
case first emerged, a majority eventually came to support
the diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness. The results of
Bowcock’s water sampling, released in mid-February, were
depicted as a victory for the neurologists. Even though his
team had found higher-than-recommended amounts of
the illegal gasoline additive MtBE in a well adjacent to the
athletic fields, the media overwhelmingly focused on his
parallel finding that the TCE plume had not moved toward
the school. Brockovich’s subsequent promise to continue
her investigation was seen as irresponsible, and she too
disappeared from the media. In June 2012, when the school
district released 6,000 pages of unproblematic findings by
Leader Professional Services, Mechtler declared his diagno-
sis confirmed and asked Brockovich to take back her “dra-
matic speculation about environmental toxins” (Tan 2012).
Anthropologists often trace contemporary research
on expertise to Michel Foucault’s (1980, 1994) early work
on knowledge and power—work readers may remember
as first taking aim at the discursive practices of psychiatry.
Foucault brought a new consciousness to social science
understandings of the relationship between specialized
knowledge and claims to authority, particularly in the
medical world. Anthropologists inspired by his work began
to examine certain kinds of knowledge as emerging from
particular constellations of history, society, and culture.
More recently, scholars have emphasized that the contin-
ued elevation of expertise requires hard work. Timothy
Mitchell, for instance, argues that economic expertise in
Egypt “works very hard to help format and reproduce the
exclusions that make the economy possible” (2002:301).
Dominic Boyer points out that these exclusions are often
produced by experts themselves, and he argues that an-
thropology will never understand the real work of expertise
unless it moves beyond treating experts as rational carica-
tures and instead approaches them as human subjects—as
“desiring, relating, doubting, anxious, contentious, affec-
tive” (2008:38). We attend somewhat to this prescription
here as we relate the story of the lead neurologists in the
case, although without inviting legal trouble.
But it is equally important to recognize the human
subjectivity of the experts’ target audience, as Carla Jones
does when she explains that femininity training courses
in Indonesia succeed in part because they immerse them-
selves within existing gendered anxieties while offering
“facts in moments of ambiguity” (2010:278). Similarly,
E. Summerson Carr, offering a semiotic perspective, asserts
that expertise “requires the mastery of verbal performance,
including—perhaps most importantly—the ability to use
language to index and therefore instantiate already existing
inner states of knowledge” (2010:19). Yet expertise is not
only communicative; it is also a deployment of structural
power. Gwen Ottinger (2013) shows how scientists working
for corporations are viewed as more credible than citizen-
scientists engaged in data collection, even when their
professional involvement is clearly interested. Programs
of corporate social responsibility can exploit the cultural
capital of hired experts to reposition concerns about the
environment as a problem of public relations instead of
industrial waste.
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
In the Le Roy case, neurological and psychiatric ex-
pertise gained traction because it appealed to existing
anxieties and ideologies regarding teenage girls, the rural
U.S. working class, and social media. But it also prevailed
because of the compounded power of neuroscience in the
early 21st century. The expert narrations we have outlined
in this section are not simply competing scientific theories
jockeying to provide the best explanation for the girls’
affliction. Rather, they are competing regimes of expertise
backed by powerful networks of professionals, lay citi-
zens, corporations, resources, funding bodies, and ideas.8
In what follows, we thus call attention to the expertise
that fails as well as to the expertise that succeeds. Our
analysis suggests that environmental inquiry is, for many
Americans, quite ambiguous, leading to endless research
and lawsuits and hence easily supplanted by authoritative
epistemologies that appear more concrete.
Modernizing hysteria
Conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness are the
contemporary terms for hysteria and mass hysteria, respec-
tively, which recall the writings of Sigmund Freud. Freud
was primarily interested in the hysteria of individuals, not
collectives, and did not discuss psychogenic contagion in
Studies of Hysteria (Breuer and Freud 1955). Nevertheless,
contemporary psychologists critical of the modern turn
away from Freud watched the Le Roy case with hardly con-
tained glee. Forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond exem-
plifies this reaction in Psychology Today: “In a tiny, unknown
New York town, something remarkable is happening. Some-
thing that, in this rabidly anti-Freudian, anti-Jungian, anti-
psychodynamic, cognitively, behaviorally and pharmaco-
logically indoctrinated climate of contemporary psychology
and psychiatry, shouldn’t be happening. But it is” (2012).
Most readers are familiar with the voluminous critiques
of Freud’s writings on hysteria, particularly the Anna O.
and Dora case studies. Medical historians claim that Freud
missed what would today be viewed as obvious organic
causes (Webster 1995). Feminist critics have charged Freud
with denying sexual actualities and power dynamics be-
tween women and men, and some, like Jeffrey Masson
(1984), extend the critique beyond Freud to a broader Victo-
rian context. Cultural and medical anthropologists sympa-
thetic to Foucauldian poststructuralism view Freud’s work
as a curiously Western mixture of fantasy and repressed Vic-
torianism that has fallen out of analytic fashion. Yet the Le
Roy case illustrates that the diagnosis of mass hysteria is
alive and well. Resuscitated from its Freudian past by DENT
neurologists, the diagnosis rapidly earned nationwide sup-
port as the appropriate descriptor for a community of
teenage girls suddenly afflicted by involuntary movements.
Anthropologists have long been uneasy about how the
psychiatric diagnosis of mass hysteria dismisses culture,
political economy, and patient perspectives. Medical soci-
ologist Robert E. Bartholomew (1990) perhaps speaks for
many anthropologists when he echoes Arthur Kleinman’s
argument that “mass hysteria is an imaginary mental
disorder invented by Western psychiatry” (1977:473).
Bartholomew has since reversed his position on this point
(cf. Bartholomew and Wessely 2002), but his early work
prefers a Geertzian symbolic interpretive approach, which
allows for a particularist exposition of unique cultural con-
texts that may give rise to the “collective exaggerated emo-
tion” falsely universalized under the label “mass hysteria.”
But, as Bartholomew himself acknowledges, a
Geertzian approach may underemphasize political and
economic influences. A second line of anthropological cri-
tique is often traced to Aihwa Ong’s (1987) analysis of spirit
possession among female factory workers in Malaysia. Ong
notes that the medical literature on spirit possession often
paints the afflicted as having “superstitious beliefs” and ex-
isting outside “modern institutions” (1987:30). In response,
she reminds readers of the very material “health hazards
in microchip assembly plants” (1987:36–37). Although the
behaviors she studied are quite distinct from the “tics”
observed in Le Roy, in both cases a categorization as mass
hysteria invokes modern hegemonic discourses of medical
supervision and does not question whether material condi-
tions may have precipitated the incidents. In the end, Ong
suggests that the use of cosmopolitan medical concepts in
Third World settings may erase authentic experiences of
the sick, whether physiological or psychological.
This suggestion links to a third anthropological
critique, that psychiatry tends to overlook patient perspec-
tives. A recent example comes from Susie Kilshaw’s work
on Gulf War syndrome, which calls for more attention to
“sufferers’ own accounts” (2008:220). Her work traces how
psychiatry’s suggestion that the syndrome is stress related
and thus psychiatric was “fiercely disputed by [UK] veter-
ans” (2008:226) who maintained that their psychological
problems were chemically induced. Kilshaw believes that
the UK media, which explored the potential of diverse toxic
agents, were instrumental in moving the public to support
the veterans’ definition of Gulf War syndrome.
In the Le Roy case, the U.S. media saw things differ-
ently, and we cannot help but wonder whether the reason
involves existing anxieties about both gender and class.9
The neurologists voiced a Freudian understanding of hys-
teria, even if they called the condition by its modern name.
First, their diagnosis of conversion disorder relied on the
idea, popularized by late-19th-century case studies, that
adolescent girls are particularly susceptible to the illness.
In several public interviews, DENT neurologists argued
that mass psychogenic disorder is the only diagnosis that
can explain why the illness predominantly affected female
teenagers. Their embrace of Freudian tradition contrasts
with the high-tech packaging of the DENT Neurologic
American Ethnologist Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015
Institute in Buffalo, where Dr. McVige sees patients. We
visited her there in the spring of 2014 to interview her about
the Le Roy case. Surrounded by informational pamphlets
celebrating DENT as “West New York’s Leader in MRI and
CT Imaging,” McVige justified the diagnosis by recalling
gendered understandings of hysteria: “Why is it only girls?
Why are they healthy young teenagers? Why are there not
elderly people and children affected? It doesn’t make any
sense” (Goldstein interview with McVige 2014).
The possibility that women and men—or for that mat-
ter, adults, teenagers, and children—may react differently
to toxins or confront different kinds of exposure in their
daily routines did not surface in this debate. Yet organi-
zations such as the Endocrine Disruption Exchange argue
that interactions among hormones and chemicals are key
to understanding the toxic effects of chemical exposure (see
TEDX 2015). Questions about gendered social routines and
differentiated bodies may thus inform the deeply biological.
The DENT neurologists tread carefully between the
datedness of Freudian psychiatry and the newness of neu-
rology. Consider how Mechtler answers a question about
adolescent girls in a media interview:
Interviewer: Are adolescent girls somehow more sus-
ceptible to this sort of thing?
Dr. Mechtler: They are and—and I’m not sure if we
know why. Hippocrates is the father of medicine—used
the term hysteria initially. And hysteria or hystera is the
uterus. So hysterectomy is the taking out of the uterus.
So whatever reason, our forefathers in medicine real-
ized young women—adolescent women—are far more
prone to have this. Doesn’t mean boys can’t have it. One
could get into the psychosocial reasons why that oc-
curs, but that’s a discussion that’s too lengthy. [WGRZ
Through talk of forefathers and etymologies, Mechtler
authorizes himself as an expert on gender and hysteria.
But he does this without ever mentioning psychiatry,
making Hippocrates his referent instead of Freud. Still, the
perception that boys can also suffer from the illness is more
aligned with Freud than Hippocrates, who had in the fifth
century attributed the condition to a “wandering womb.”
Freud significantly updated earlier ideas regarding hysteria
in his text with Josef Breuer (Breuer and Freud 1955), even
arguing for the existence of male hysteria in rare cases.
A second way that DENT neurologists revived Freud
was by asserting that the girls had somatized stress. Noting
the statistical tendency for mass hysteria to emerge in small
rural towns, the DENT team held up the girls’ everyday
problems (here read as class issues related to rust-belt im-
poverishment) as a potential source of this stress. Many of
the girls themselves, however, joined their parents in reject-
Figure 4. Retail store in the economically compromised downtown of Le
Roy, New York, home of approximately eight thousand residents. Photo-
graph by Donna Goldstein, 2013.
ing stress as a causal mechanism. Consider the following
reactions by several of the girls’ parents to the diagnosis,
as reproduced in Amanda Blue’s (2012) documentary The
Town That Caught Tourette’s:
Katy’s mother: I just didn’t feel that it was Katy. I mean,
she was outgoing, she was doing her schoolwork, she
was into sports, she had a boyfriend. Everything was
going well for her.
Katy’s father: And Katy was on the high honor roll when
this all started.
Katy’s mother: She never really seemed to be stressed
about anything.
Lauren’s mother: I know my daughter. I mean, I’m
home with my kids and, you know, I—I know. They’re
on. It just does not make sense.
Lori’s mother: It was completely out of this world, to
me, that they would say that this was a psychiatric is-
sue. . . . Not that she would never have any problems.
She’s a teenager—has a boyfriend. There’s a lot of issues
that we all go through. . . . But—for her to develop into
this because of a psychiatric issue? Absolutely not. So
when a doctor says it’s conversion order, you know I re-
ally feel like saying to them, “Stop lying to me and just
tell me you don’t know what in the hell’s going on!”
For DENT neurologists, these responses were just more de-
nial. “No one wants to hear that anything is within self,”
Dr. McVige asserts in the same documentary. “They want
a pill, or a shot, or to blame it on the environment, or to
blame it on an infectant—I want the magic pill to make me
Across media interviews, the DENT team implied that
residents of this rural town of 8,000 people (see Figure 4)
were uncomfortable visiting a psychiatrist or admitting
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
a psychological problem. Those who resisted care were
simply too uneducated to recognize expertise:
Interviewer: Do you think some parents just don’t want
to have their child affiliated with some sort of psychi-
atric condition?
Dr. Mechtler: I think to accept a psychiatric disorder is
much more difficult to accept than a problem such as
MS or brain tumors. . . . We’ve reached out to the par-
ents to come in. . . . The individuals that have come to
us and that have been under our care are doing better.
And the ones on the media are the ones that have not
come to the Institute and are not actually followed by an
individual with an expertise in that field. . . . The way we
examine a patient tells us more than any other test. And
that’s what is very difficult to understand: how a neu-
rologist can examine (the) patient and know that this is
a conversion disorder. That’s the point that’s not being
accepted. [WGRZ 2012a]
Indeed, McVige suggested to us that clinical neurology, a
field popularly viewed as being about the brain instead of
the psyche, is able to escape the stigma of psychiatry in ru-
ral areas, even if neurologists and psychiatrists often agree
on the same diagnosis and treatment: “Many of the families
didn’t want to go to a psychiatrist because they didn’t want
the stigma. So they ended up going to neurology because
it’s easier to say it’s a neurologic disorder than a psychiatric
disorder” (Goldstein interview with McVige 2014).
Journalists quickly took the neurologists’ class-based
reading of the victims to a new level. In a feature essay
in the New York Times Magazine, introduced by a bleak
photograph of two of the girls in a messy kitchen next to a
giant box of Froot Loops, Susan Dominus (2012) produces a
Freudian-style analysis that emphasizes stress and explores
a “common thread” among the victims of absentee biolog-
ical fathers. Her essay reflects a New York City discomfort
with this upstate village, particularly in the way she dis-
cusses residents’ provincialism with respect to psychiatry
and, by implication, attributes the girls’ own denial of stress
to false consciousness. Dominus is careful throughout the
article to address the many different perspectives on the
case, so we cannot help but wonder at the ease with which
she ignores what the girls themselves tell her.
Other commentators were intrigued by the way the
mystery illness managed to transform the banality of
small-town America. Marion Rust, a professor of English at
the University of Kentucky, theorizes how otherwise “unex-
ceptional women” became temporarily famous by entering
a larger cultural debate regarding “the mind’s capacity to
unravel the body” (2013:16). Rust argues that where middle-
class television audiences understood the families’ resis-
tance to psychology as reflecting a diminished interpretive
capacity, residents of Le Roy searched for nonpsychological
explanations that synced with their hardy working-class
materialism, preferring “‘hard science,’ whether in the form
of environmental contamination or bacterial infection, to
the uncertainties and potential stigma of psychiatric diag-
nosis” (2013:16). Surely, Rust’s essay must be one of the few
to portray rural Americans as advocates for hard science.
A third way that DENT neurologists reanimated Freud
involved a peculiarly materialist makeover of the talk-
ing cure. Gender and class stereotypes did their part in
making Freud palatable to a doubting public. But the
real game changer was the neurologists’ incorporation of
brain-imaging technologies. Freud was trained by a leading
19th-century neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot, who sug-
gested that hysteria is not psychiatric but neurological,
caused by an elusive “functional lesion” of the brain
(Hustvedt 2014:307). In 2000, a new wave of brain re-
searchers published a study that attempted to locate Char-
cot’s functional lesions, using PET scans and comparing the
brain of an individual with conversion disorder to that of an
individual with left leg paralysis (Halligan et al. 2000). This
research set into motion a search for the material founda-
tions of conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness,
which DENT Institute neurologists involved in the Le Roy
case have now joined. Two years after the case first broke,
Mechtler and McVige edited a special issue of Neurology
Clinics, a journal devoted to neuroimaging and understand-
ing “biological processes on the central nervous system
(Mechtler 2014:xiii).
Joseph Dumit has called brain imaging “a technol-
ogy and an apparatus with its own form of veridiction
(2004:125): In the public eye, brain scans provide visual
data that validate neuroscience in a biologically deter-
ministic manner. Kelly Joyce (2010) points to the evolving
“technoscientization” of health care that serves the pecu-
niary interests of private actors, who create and expand
lucrative imaging markets with little government control.
Together, the allure of visualization and the drive for profit
have inspired consumerist beliefs in the potential of this
technology that often exceed its capability. (See Figure 5.)
We see the effects of this development in the Le Roy case,
where the mere promise of brain imaging transformed the
DENT neurologists into experts of a new kind. Their lineage
in psychiatry gave them the credentials to make a diagnosis
of mass hysteria; neurology gave them the technology
to prove it. Prominent media interviews position lead
neurologists in the case in front of computer screens filled
with 3D images of swirling neurons in vivid color or fMRI
scans of glowing left–right brain hemispheres. In one of
these interviews, Mechtler implies that a visual inspection
of the brain explains what is going on in the psyche: “We
look to see if the fibers are actually normal or they’re dam-
aged. . . . (We) see if we can look into their minds and find
out what’s so peculiar, what’s so different” (WGRZ 2012b).
American Ethnologist Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015
Figure 5. Human brain made from a gelatin mold on display at the Jell-
O Gallery Museum in Le Roy, New York. Neurologist Dr. Adrian Upton
challenged the science of new medical technologies in 1974 by connecting
an EEG machine to a dome of lime Jell-O. A placard below the display reads,
“A Bowl of Jell-O Gelatin and the Human Brain Have the Same Frequency
of Brain Waves.” Photograph by Donna Goldstein, 2014.
McVige had told us that the DENT team “threw in a
couple of brain scans” when the girls’ insurance providers
refused to cover imaging work. She had hoped the scans
would show some organic verification of their diagnosis
and was disappointed when they did not. But as Mara Buch-
binder has argued with respect to clinical neuroscientists
who treat teenagers with conditions that resist diagnostic
imaging, the use of “vivid neurobiological language, images,
and metaphors” (2014) provides its own sort of therapy.
Neither brain scans nor environmental tests thus provided
concrete answers to the cause of the girls’ symptoms. Yet
the diagnosis of conversion disorder, unlike competing
environmental claims, managed to maintain its status in
the public imagination, even when the basis for it, in the
end, did not go much beyond early Freudian theorizing.
The DENT neurologists positioned their diagnosis as
necessarily excluding any involvement of toxicity. Their
reasoning was circular: The girls exhibited tics that were
common symptoms of conversion disorder, and conversion
disorder, by definition, has no plausible organic cause.
Dr. McVige: Any neurologist in their right mind that
. . . witnessed the type of movement—anyone trained
properly—would have looked and said, that’s ridicu-
lous. I mean the first day I looked and said this is ridicu-
lous. This doesn’t make any sense neurologically.
Goldstein: Really? So it wasn’t something you had actu-
ally seen a lot of ever before? This kind of movement?
Dr. M: Conversion disorder?
G: No. The kind of movements that go along with it.
Dr. M: I do when someone has conversion disorder.
[Goldstein interview with McVige 2014]
From Mechtler’s and McVige’s positioning as neurologists,
inquiry about the potential causes of the girls’ symptoms
began and ended with the brain; their final diagnosis gave
no consideration to the possibility that the brain itself might
be affected by environmental factors. McVige was clear that
had her professional colleagues seen the girls, they would
“never” have linked the cases to regional toxicity issues.
While it is true that many harmful substances cannot
cross the blood–brain barrier, neurotoxicologist Herbert
Schaumburg (2007) points to a broad body of scientific
studies indicating that toxins can penetrate the brain and
that this process may not be visible in brain-imaging tech-
niques. This process is additionally obscured by the lack of
toxicology studies on preadult populations. A report by the
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2006)
notes that of the thousands of new chemicals brought to
the EPA for review each year, only a small percentage are
evaluated for potential effects on development, whether in
the womb, childhood, or adolescence.
Brains, mimicry, and teenage girls
The neurologists’ emphasis on brain scans captured the
imagination of a U.S. public primed by gendered popular-
izations of research into the relation between mimicking
behavior and mirror neurons, a class of cells that show
increased activity when actions are observed as well as
performed. Originally discovered in the macaque brain
(Rizzolatti et al. 1996), these neurons fire when a monkey
performs a goal-directed action, such as grabbing a peanut,
and also when a monkey observes a similar action being
performed by another individual, for instance, when the
monkey watches the experimenter grab a peanut. As the
discovery was controversially extended from monkeys to
humans (Grafton et al. 1996),10 vision to sound (Kohler et al.
2002), and, finally, goal-directed to expressive behaviors,
cognitive neuroscientists hypothesized that mirror neurons
might be the source of imitation patterns observed across
several domains of human behavior, including conver-
sation, embodiment, and emotion. V. S. Ramachandran
(2009) even named this class of cells “Gandhi neurons
for their expected role in promoting human empathy (see
also Iacoboni 2009). Over the past decade, the mainstream
media have used mirror neurons to explain everything
from social dialects and adolescent behavior—two topics
that became important in the Le Roy case—to criminality,
racism, pornography, and even culture.
Psychological research on what is often called “non-
conscious mimicry” illustrates the central role played by
imitation in human interaction: Speakers habitually imitate
each other’s movements in channels that range from facial
expression and body posture to accent, speech rate, and
tone of voice (Chartrand and Dalton 2008).11 Even if the
authors of these studies do not claim that mirror neurons
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
are involved, mirror neuron theorists view the studies as
empirical evidence that human beings are neurologically
disposed to mimic. Studies show a further correlation
between imitative behaviors and perceptions of rapport,
likability, and empathy. Studies of contagious yawning, for
instance, a frequent topic of mirror neuron specialists, re-
veal that people are more likely to copycat a yawn if they feel
empathy with their interlocutor (Norscia and Palagi 2011).
One year before the first Le Roy case was reported, psy-
chiatrists Yao-Tung Lee and Shih-Jen Tsai (2010) proposed
in the journal Medical Hypothesis that mirror neurons might
be the missing link between mass hysteria and women.
Their hypothesis builds on brain-imaging experiments that
found women’s mirror neuron systems to be more active
than men’s when subjects observed the hand movements of
others (Cheng et al. 2006). If mirror neurons are the source
of mimicry, then women should be more likely than men to
develop the mimicking behaviors associated with mass hys-
teria. “Women have empathy, sympathy, understanding,”
Dr. McVige explained. “If you read the literature, it says that
you want to be one with the other person” (Goldstein inter-
view with McVige 2014). McVige went on to describe how
northeasterners visiting places like Alabama often return
with an accent that is difficult to overcome. Her choice of a
southern state to demonstrate verbal mimicry is consistent
with popular understandings of southern dialects as highly
sociable (Preston 2004), but whether this is a fitting analogy
for the neural proclivities of teenage girls is questionable.
The connection among mirror neurons, mimicry,
empathy, and gender was tantalizing to journalists who
had been reporting for years on another expanding body of
mirror neuron research, one regarding autism, a disorder
that primarily affects males and is thought to involve lack
of empathy. Imaging studies by prominent mirror neuron
theorists have suggested that persons with autism show
diminished activity in the mirror neuron system (Iacoboni
and Mazziotta 2007; Oberman et al. 2005). Indeed, studies
have found that persons with autism are less likely to
engage in contagious yawning (Senju et al. 2007). In this
context, mass hysteria appears as the neurological opposite
of autism, caused by an overactive, not underactive, mirror
neuron system.
These “brain facts” synced perfectly with perceptions
of teenage girl interaction. Contagious behaviors com-
monly cited in media accounts of the Le Roy case in-
clude imitative upspeak, the completion of each other’s
sentences, the adoption of each other’s accents, and even
contagious yawning. Consider the following excerpt from
Dominus’s New York Times feature, which describes an in-
teraction between Thera, a cheerleader thought to be one of
the two index cases for the illness, and her best friend, Katie:
Over the course of the afternoon, both girls yawned,
one after the other; one mentioned her stomach hurt,
then the other one did, too. They spoke in shorthand
and overlapping sentences. . . .
“Katie told me that she wouldn’t wish tics on anyone,”
Thera said, “but if it had to be someone, she was glad
she was going through it with her best friend.” [2012:33]
Dominus is well versed in the mirror neuron canon and
uses it effectively in her account:
Mass psychogenic illness is the maladaptive version
of the kind of empathy that finds expression in ac-
tual physical sensation: the contagious yawn or sym-
pathetic nausea or the sibling who grabs his own fin-
ger when he sees his brother’s bleed. Any two people, as
they try to delicately disagree or flirt or compare notes
on the best route to Boston, might unwittingly match
vocal tones or even frequency of eye blinks. [2012:34]
Alluding to the “enviable unity” of high school cheerleaders,
Dominus implies that extremes of nonconscious mimicry
are gendered female. The editorial staff of the Week em-
braces this same association: “There’s . . . a theor y that co-
hesive groups, particularly those that wear matching uni-
forms and excel at synchronized movements, might be
more susceptible to mass suggestion” (Week Staff 2012).
Popular feminist Caitlin Flanagan draws a direct connec-
tion among cheerleaders, mass hysteria, and teenage girls
in general: “Most parents of adolescent girls will never
have to contend with episodes of hysteria of the kind ex-
perienced by the cheerleaders. But anyone with a teenage
daughter can attest that this is a time of emotional extremes
and high drama” (2012). Some journalists and bloggers be-
gan to refer to the Le Roy case as “cheerleader hysteria”
(e.g., Bell 2012), even though only a few of the students were
With nonconscious mimicry established as the mech-
anism of transmission, the DENT neurologists pointed to
social media as fueling the illness’s spread. Research on
what Ilana Gershon (2010) has labeled “media ideologies
suggests that technologically mediated modes of commu-
nication are popularly understood as antisocial. But these
same modes are also viewed as spreading dangerous forms
of sociality. Scholars who write about digital discourse, for
example, have exposed how journalists depict textspeak as
a kind of verbal contagion that is corrupting youth (Thur-
low 2006). Video- and image-sharing sites such as YouTube,
Vine, and Snapchat inspire similar anxieties, with com-
mentators expressing concern that adolescent viewers will
model embodied practices that range from “twerking” to
anorexia and suicide. Dr. McVige echoed these fears when
emphasizing female adolescents’ need for connection:
“When you’re a teenager, your whole mindset is what’s in
the media, what’s in Twitter and Facebook. Your whole life’s
controlled by it” (Goldstein interview with McVige 2014).
American Ethnologist Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015
The DENT neurologists thus tapped into a broader
U.S. anxiety regarding the contagious potential of social
media. David Lichter, a children’s neurology specialist
at Buffalo General Hospital, supported the idea: “It’s
remarkable to see how one individual posts something, and
then the next person posts something—not only are the
movements bizarre and not consistent with known move-
ment disorders, but it’s the same kind of movements. This
mimicry goes on with Facebook or YouTube exposure. This
is the modern way that symptomology could be spread”
(Discovery News 2012). Even Bartholomew, once a critic of
psychoanalytic understandings of mass hysteria, cited the
Le Roy case as “a milestone of mass psychogenic illness
where the primary agent of spread will be the Internet
and social media networks” (Bartholomew et al. 2012:511).
The diagnosis of mass hysteria therefore served another
purpose: It effectively prevented persons afflicted with the
illness from reaching out to media or activists.
Several people we spoke with in Le Roy rejected the
diagnosis of nonconscious mimicry and instead viewed
the behavior as what a young woman at a local museum
called “a hoax”: “Only one girl ended up with that. The
others just wanted to be in the cameras. These are stuck-up
descendants from people that have made money over the
years—popular people.” Even though the neurologists
we interviewed at DENT did not see the symptoms as
fraudulent, they similarly assumed that popular girls (i.e.,
the “index cases”) would spread the illness to impres-
sionable others. But we wonder what an ethnographic
study of this school of 630 students would have revealed.
The illness affected students from the 7th to 12th grades
and included many who would rarely socialize with each
other: cheerleaders, softball pitchers, band members,
soccer players, artists, and even an adult mother of two.
For linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists who study
identity and interaction (see Bucholtz and Hall 2004, 2005),
these diverse actors are unlikely candidates for discursive
imitation in U.S. high schools (Bucholtz 2011; Eckert
2000; Mendoza-Denton 2008). In fact, the school district’s
investigation ruled out infectious causes precisely because
“no common in-school or after school activities among
the entire group were identified” (Le Roy Central School
District et al. 2012:3). The affected students were hardly the
“cohesive group” that Mechtler referenced in several of his
media interviews (e.g., Discovery News 2012).
The banality of toxicity
In March 2013, roughly a year after the case had disap-
peared from the media, we traveled to Genesee County to
get a physical picture of the town, the school, and the fed-
eral superfund site. Our visit was decidedly preliminary—
we did not expect to talk to anyone during our brief stay.
But when we stopped at a local bakery to ask directions to
Figure 6. Carcass of a dead animal next to the limestone quarry that
borders the site of the 1970 TCE spill, Le Roy, New York. Photograph by
Donna Goldstein, 2013.
Figure 7. Signs warning of danger posted near the Lehigh Valley Train
Derailment and Superfund site in Le Roy, New York. Photograph by Donna
Goldstein, 2013.
the derailment site, a young employee informally told us
that she had grown up near it and that her younger brother
had suffered from tics his entire life. She explained that
because so many people in the town had tics from an early
age, no one could be sure which girl was really ill and which
was faking. “Every third person in Le Roy has a tic,” she told
us, “you just get used to it.”12
As we drove to the site of the train derailment, we could
see to one side the limestone quarry that many Le Roy
residents reported having swum in during their youth. (See
Figure 6.) The precise location where the train had derailed
was fenced in with danger signs posted high on the poles.
(See Figure 7.) A few rusty barrels still littered the landscape,
but what had occurred here in 1970 was largely invisible.
Later that night, we casually asked a waitress at a restaurant
in the neighboring, larger town of Batavia about the case.
Surrounded by a group of approving coworkers, she offered
this summation: “It’s like this: You have to dig real deep for
something interesting to happen in Le Roy.” We realized
that she was referencing small-town boredom as the source
of what was in her view a fabricated illness, but her answer
also seemed an apt metaphor for the industrial disturbance
of what lay beneath the earth.
The effects of toxic layering are discursive as well as
physical: The public becomes fatigued by the multiple
and recursive possibilities. A kind of numbness descends
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
on many of us as we follow extended media coverage of
environmental catastrophes like the BP Gulf oil spill or
the Fukushima nuclear plant failure. Don DeLillo (2009)
captured this fatigue for an earlier generation in his novel
White Noise, which describes how residents of a rural
midwestern college town deal with a human-made “air-
borne toxic event” initiated by a railway car derailment. His
work is fiction, but ethnographers have likewise narrated
fatigue in their analyses of real-world situations. Ottinger
(2013), to give just one example, describes the weariness
experienced by community residents involved in an air
pollution dispute with a Louisiana petroleum refinery. Al-
though the corporation cast itself as socially responsible by
developing informational programs that promoted better
communication, it continued to remain technically unas-
sailable, limiting the kinds of inquiry that could be pursued.
A similar fatigue became evident in Le Roy, except that the
multiplicity of toxic possibilities made unified activism
impossible. Locals were divided over how to interpret the
mystery illness, with a few demanding more environmental
action, others shrugging their shoulders, and still others
believing that the girls concocted their symptoms to get
attention. Even in 2014, many residents jokingly referred
to the illness as “mysteria,” questioning the diagnosis that
ultimately foreclosed environmental inquiry.
The DENT neurologists persuaded others of their
expertise in part by representing conversion disorder as the
only diagnosis that offered hope for recovery. In response
to a question about the TCE spill, Mechtler characterized a
toxicological diagnosis as a lifelong sentence: “Let me tell
you, if it is causing it, then these patients will have symp-
toms for the rest of their lives, so that’s a bad prognosis.
Half of them are already getting improved—significantly
improved. So it cannot be environmental fact, it can’t be
a toxin in the brain” (WGRZ 2012a). Parents, he implied,
should choose the diagnosis that offered a cure. The author
of an article in the Atlantic echoed his optimism: “Con-
version disorder can be treated with anti-anxiety drugs for
stress, physical therapy for uncontrollable movements, and
counseling to resolve any underlying medical or psycho-
logical issues. Interested parties may disagree about what’s
troubling the girls of Le Roy but almost everybody believes
they will each make a full recovery” (Jackson 2012).
We were unable to interview the teenage girls directly
during our visits to upstate New York, since the treating neu-
rologists did not allow them to talk with the media or other
outsiders. But we had caught the early appearance of some
of the girls on the Today Sh ow and Dr. Drew On Call.Even
then, it seemed clear to us that many avenues of inquiry had
already been closed off, perhaps for fear of what would be
found and who would be to blame, perhaps because of the
difficulty of defending an environmentally based argument.
City administrators had permitted hydraulic fracturing to
pay for a state-of-the-art high school in an economically
troubled town. According to accounts posted by locals on
a number of online forums, this exchange had made a few
people wealthy, including a school board member who, in
2000, sold the town the construction site when free land had
been offered in another location (Owens 2012c). Could the
school’s refusal to allow testing by Bowcock’s team, some
locals wondered, be part of a cover-up? Bowcock overtly
questioned the actions of school administrators: “When
I’m confronted by officials barring access to something,
they usually have something to hide” (Dr. Drew 2012a).
The January 31 report, published as new cases were
still emerging, threw its full support to the DENT neu-
rologists, giving their diagnosis equal weight with the
health department’s own investigation and stressing social
transmission among women. The language of the report
seamlessly reiterates arguments proposed by DENT neu-
rologists and widely circulated in the press: “Outbreaks of
mass psychogenic illness affect females more often than
males”; “These eight cases all had significant life stressors, a
common factor with conversion disorder”; “Tic-like symp-
toms may be a sign of conversion disorder” (Le Roy Central
School District et al. 2012:4–7). From a policy perspective,
the diagnosis of mass hysteria avoids legal questions about
responsibility and liability that accompany identification
of an environmental cause and constitute toxic tort cases.
What the public has come to understand about such cases
is that it is almost impossible for plaintiffs to win them
(Dixon and Gill 2001). A recent investigative report in the
Nation found that of 428 cancer cluster investigations
conducted since 1990 in the United States, only three have
established a link between pollution and illness, and this
only after years of litigation (Lerner 2014).
Anthropologists have discussed how the general con-
tour of scientific work is necessarily incomplete and often
messy (Fujimura 1998; Latour 1987; Latour and Woolgar
1986), making its digestion in legal proceedings difficult.
More to the point, since the 1970s, the courts have moved
away from precautionary impulses toward redefining safety
as acceptable risk (Boyd 2012) and have raised the bar on
what constitutes scientific evidence (Jasanoff 2005). They
are demanding numbers that plaintiffs can rarely produce,
such as large epidemiological studies of populations living
in the area (Goldstein and Stawkowski 2015) or reliable
baseline readings of toxicity before contamination allegedly
occurred (Goldstein 2012). In addition, the majority of sci-
entific studies on toxic harm utilize animals as “sentinels
to think through how humans might react (van der Schalie
et al. 1999), but plaintiffs who attempt to use these stud-
ies to prove causality are told that animals have limited
generalizability to humans.
The current expectation of “big data” in environmen-
tal litigation has led some analysts to challenge earlier
landmark victories for the environmental movement. Allan
C. Mazur (1998), for example, characterizes the health
American Ethnologist Volume 42 Number 4 November 2015
effects studies used in the 1970s Love Canal case as “flawed
science.” These studies, based on survey and blood test
data, convinced the federal government at that time to
provide emergency assistance to residents whose homes
and schools were built on 22,000 tons of toxic chemical
waste. Phil Brown and Richard Clapp counter that con-
taminated communities must now “bear the burden of
proof that chemical companies and government regulators
should be required to bear” (2002:97). Such communities
have recently caught the attention of ethnographers, who
follow how victims confront uncertainty in toxic landscapes
that have seen industrial accidents (Button 2010; Fortun
2001; Hanna 2014), industrial pollution (Auyero and Swis-
tun 2008, 2009; Brown 2007; Little 2009, 2014; Reno 2011),
and nuclear-era waste exposure (Brown 2013; Goldstein
2014; Johnston and Barker 2008; Masco 2006; Petryna 2002;
Stawkowski 2014).
Yet even when communities are united in their envi-
ronmental concerns, their claims are not readily addressed
or even believed. In the case of Le Roy, DENT neurologists
and supporting media disparaged Brockovich as a divisive
harbinger of potential lawsuits rather than seeing her as
an environmental activist looking to support communities.
In the end, journalists expressed what Charles Briggs and
Daniel Hallin (2010) have identified as deep ambivalence
regarding the entry of lay activists into the health-related
public sphere, adopting a “medical authority model” that
communicated the perspectives of the neurologists.
This brings us back to the issue of undone science.
Even if Brockovichs team had found harmful agents, there
remained the problem of connecting specific environ-
mental toxicities to neurological symptoms. We assert
here that the problem of causality is compounded by toxic
layering. When research on toxic materials is carried out in
laboratories, separate from the particularized terrains that
hold interacting chemicals, it cannot account for the effects
of the multiple toxic substances present in those terrains.
Nor can it account for the range of effects on diverse human
subjects, whose social and medical histories may deter-
mine the absence, presence, or severity of symptoms. In her
discussion of agricultural toxicity in the California Central
Valley, Linda Nash (2007) attempts to rescue environmental
understandings of disease and health from contemporary
shortsightedness; she suggests that the historical develop-
ment of germ theory and vector-based understandings of
disease have obscured environmental ways of knowing. Her
discussion advances the idea of toxicity as a localized event,
recalling the ways that early settlers dealt with pesticide
exposure in an era before environmentalism. Science has
moved far from the settler’s situated understanding of the
relationship between body and environment.
If society is indeed entering an age of toxic layering in
which multiple mechanisms underlie environmental harm,
parsing causality becomes a daunting project. Scientists
who entered Le Roy and carried out tests, whether from
the New York State Department of Health or Brockovichs
environmental team, were all experts in a particular area of
science. Their job was to isolate a variable and then cast it
out from the realm of possibility. But what if a combination
of factors was the culprit? How do we get to that knowledge?
Susan Sontag (1978), writing about cancer during a time
when the disease was widely thought to be related to
personality types and psychotherapy was offered as part
of treatment, taught us that societally created metaphors
can appear to blame an illness on the victim. More recently,
S. Lochlann Jain (2013) has extended this critique to the
gendered, raced, and sexually oriented metaphorical trap-
pings of contemporary oncology and cancer treatment.
In the Le Roy case, the metaphor of conversion disorder
became meaningful through its mapping onto teenage
girls. The diagnosis engaged with powerful societal ideas
about bodies that are “stressed” by being simultaneously
working class, rural, fatherless, and female (and therefore
empathetic and highly communicative)—bodies that in
turn require fMRI scans, psychotherapy, psychopharma-
cological treatment, and removal from public scrutiny and
sociality in order to heal.
We do not claim to know what the proper diagnosis of
the Le Roy students is, but what we tracked in this case was
disturbing. School district investigators who did not look for
toxic traces on the athletic fields tried to bar outsiders from
conducting their own investigations. Then community
leaders embraced one of the more implausible explana-
tions, mass psychogenic illness, even when the report noted
that the afflicted did not socialize together. The diagnosis
ultimately won the public’s approval and outscienced its
competitors, in part because neurology appears to have
deep cultural and scientific capital and in part because Le
Roy village residents lack wealth and could be readily de-
picted as parochial and uneducated in medical matters. The
diagnosis also had the advantage of not seeking to remedi-
ate harm done by a corporation, or a school board, or the
U.S. government. Instead, it sought to locate the cause nar-
rowly: inside the brain and among the afflicted themselves.
An excellent review of the Le Roy events by anthropolo-
gist Ryan Cook (2013) points out that there was “pushback”
to the biomedical diagnostics that came to dominate
this case. In Cook’s opinion, many of those pushing back
desired a less psychological diagnosis. While we agree
that there was pushback, we think that it was not so
much against psychology or psychiatry per se as against
the rather dated diagnosis of mass hysteria and its facile
mapping onto teenage girls. The neurologists countered
this datedness by revalidating psychiatry as clinical neu-
rology and giving a research basis to Freudian theorizing.
They chose to treat patients afflicted with flailing limbs,
How brain experts materialized truth American Ethnologist
stutters, and seizures with what they understood to be the
best of modern Western medicine: abstention from social
media, prescription sedatives and antidepressants, and
individualized counseling sessions to help release the stress
of everyday life in rural America.
The process of discovery that the community, local
scientists, and media engaged in over the Le Roy health
problems suggests that the U.S. public is hesitant to pursue
explanations based on industrial toxicity. This insight
begs for a larger examination of environmental inquiry in
late capitalism. The ready dismissal of known local toxins
at the school building and in the community points to
broader public fatigue regarding the resolution of toxic
harm, whether with respect to causality, remediation,
treatment, or liability. Brain science, packaged in brilliant
colors for media consumption, serves up a much simpler
and more immediate explanation than a thesis alleging
toxic causation in a multiply toxic landscape. Pictures of the
brain appear concrete next to the evidential vagueness of
environmental claims, animating correlations among sex,
class, and brain activity rather than the potential toxicity of
substances no longer preemptively studied by our defanged
EPA and extended scientific culture.
Acknowledgments. The authors would like to thank Angelique
Haugerud, editor of American Ethnologist, for her crucial sugges-
tions and comments, as well as the staff of American Ethnologist,
particularly Linda Forman and Julie Nethercutt. We are also grate-
ful to three anonymous reviewers for offering critical feedback and
to Nancy Mann and Linda Forman for providing excellent editorial
suggestions. We thank Dr. Jennifer McVige for granting a personal
interview with us, respectfully acknowledging our different read-
ings of the case. Many other colleagues have provided important
insights to our thinking, among them, Marcus Avelar, Ellen Badone,
Charles Briggs, Kate Brown, Mara Buchbinder, Mary Bucholtz,
David Caha, Jillian Cavanaugh, Ilana Gershon, Steven Goldstein,
Carla Jones, Marjoleine Kars, Susan Levine, Lindsay Ofrias, Bazil
Manietta, Claire McFadyen, Christopher Morris, Ayden Parish,
Aaron Seaman, Beth Semel, Merrill Singer, Tyanna Slobe, Magda
Stawkowski, Linda Whiteford, and the very nice people of Le Roy,
New York.
1. According to the January 31, 2012, report issued by these
investigators, this partnership began in late October, when the
Genesee County Health Department notified the New York State
Department of Health that eight Le Roy students had developed
neurological symptoms.
2. Parents of the afflicted girls were blindsided by Young’s
revelation of a definitive medical diagnosis. Jim Dupont exclaimed
to a local news station: “If my daughter had a diagnosis and I
knew about it .. . I would tell you that!” ( WHAM-TV 2012). Melisa
Philips expressed a similar reaction on NBC’s To day Sh ow (2012b):
“Where’s the proof, where’s the data, where’s the testing? When has
this been done? Nothing’s been collectively done for our daughters.
. . . Testing they say that all the girls have had, they have not had.
The facts that they’re stating just aren’t true.”
3. Bowcock continued his critique of the school district’s inves-
tigation on Dr. Drew: “The school and the New York Department
of Health have not tested for anything. They hired a ROP program
[regional occupational program] in the community, which is liter-
ally local students, to come in and do air, temperature, humidity,
and CO2. They’ve not done anything else” (2012a).
4. The report attributes the decades-long delay of remedial ac-
tion at the site to difficulties in securing coordination between the
EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Con-
servation (NYSDEC). After a series of actions that began only in the
1990s, NYSDEC took soil samples in 1992 and 1994 that registered
TCE concentrations ranging from 46 to 570,000 micrograms per
kilogram (ug/kg). Contamination was found in soil and bedrock at
the original spill site as well as in the groundwater plume In 1998,
the site became part of the EPA’s National Priorities List.
5. The Catskill Citizens Organization (2011) registered concern
that these spills were not recorded in the public record. NYSDEC
does not consider a brine leak to be a chemical spill, but Catskill
maintains that “produced water” is radioactive and contains toxic
6. EPA-sponsored reports on the plume’s movement are puz-
zling. A hydrogeologist colleague of ours found it strange that
a 1995 report by Rust Environment and Infrastructure showed
the same TCE concentration maps that a 2012 report by Unicorn
Management Consultants did. She questioned whether the plume
had remained stationary for 17 years.
7. The precise number of individuals afflicted by the illness
varies across accounts, in part because students continued to
develop symptoms long after the release of the January 31 report,
even until September of the subsequent school year. In addition,
some of those who exhibited symptoms were removed from the
subject pool because of a previous history of Tourette syndrome.
8. We are grateful to Ilana Gershon for providing this insight.
9. Race is certainly also at issue in the diagnosis of mass psy-
chogenic illness, a point we plan to address in future publications.
Categories of race and ethnicity are ignored in discussions of mass
hysteria, but groups associated with the diagnosis in the United
States are overwhelmingly white in addition to being female and
10. Mirror neurons have not been recorded directly in humans,
since researchers cannot make use of the invasive techniques that
“proved” the existence of mirror neurons in the monkey’s frontal
cortex. But brain-imaging studies point to a homologous area of
the human brain that is activated when people imitate action.
11. Studies commonly cited in the mirror neuron literature
focus on mimicking behaviors in the domains of accent, body
movement and postures, conversation, dialects, emotion, facial
expressions, rate of speech, syntax, yawning, and tone of voice.
12. Indeed, at least two of the afflicted teenagers were removed
from the patient pool because of a previous history of Tourette.
Upstate New York, like much of the industrialized Northeast, has
a higher per capita incidence of Tourette than other regions of
the United States. Data reveal the following regional prevalence
of diagnosed Tourette syndrome per 1,000 children (6–17 years):
Northeast 3.8; South 2.8; West 2.5; Midwest 2.3 (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention 2014).
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Donna M. Goldstein
Department of Anthropology
University of Colorado Boulder
Hale Building, Campus Box 233
Boulder, CO 80309-0233
Kira Hall
Department of Linguistics
University of Colorado Boulder
Hellems 290, 295 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309-0295
... An infectious outbreak is a major differential for MPI and must be ruled out. 27 Travel history was significantly more frequent amongst the cases than the controls. This, however, could be accounted for as most of the cases were boarding students from other villages and therefore required travel to visit their families during vacation time. ...
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Background: In March 2019, students at Lempu Secondary School in Kweneng District, Botswana displayed symptoms including headache, abnormal leg movements and difficulty walking. Within days, 133 students were admitted to Scottish Livingstone Hospital where mass psychogenic illness (MPI) was diagnosed. Aim: To identify predictors of this illness. Setting: Kweneng West District, Botswana. Methods: This was a case control study using interviewer-administered questionnaires. Cases were students who displayed MPI symptoms from the 2nd of March to the time of the interviews or who were admitted with MPI diagnosis. Analysis was restricted to female students. Logistic regression was used to generate odds ratios. A p value of 0.05 was considered to demonstrate significant association between variables. Results: Interviews were conducted with 142 cases and 202 controls. The median age was 15 years. Most of the cases (95.8%) were boarding girls. Residence in school campus (AOR 13.2), history of evaluation by psychologist and/or social worker (AOR 2.6), history of traumatic events (AOR 1.8), contact with sick peers (AOR 2.3) and contact with spiritual healer (AOR 2.0) were independent predictors of MPI. Additionally, perception of adequate security in the dormitories (AOR 0.3) and perception of poor lighting (AOR 6.8) were significant predictors of MPI amongst boarding girls. Conclusion: The outbreak in Lempu Community Junior Secondary School (CJSS) was typical of mass psychogenic illness affecting mainly boarding girls and was associated with psychological and environmental risk factors. Changing the boarding environment and continuous psychological support are key to preventing future outbreaks. Interventions should also target the identified risk factors.
... They refuse. I suppose that ruins influence our state unnoticeably, but their influence is layered, like layered is the toxicity of toxic debris; these layers agglomerate (Goldstein andHall 2015, Magdalena Stawkowski 2016). I am aware of the supposed abundance of the ethnographies of Russian ruins that have allegedly become a commonplace and have long been critiqued as "ruin porn" by The Calvert Journal (Rann, 2014). ...
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Abstract Citizens of the Future: Infrastructures of Belonging in Post-Industrial Eastern Siberia Vasilina Orlova, Ph.D. in Anthropology The University of Texas at Austin, 2021 Supervisor: Craig Campbell The Soviet Union’s promises of the radiant Socialist future failed to materialize but left behind material reminders—ruins, broadly conceived: not only architecture and infrastructure but also values, popular tropes, and ideas. My dissertation argues that these “ruins” of a future as imagined in the past continue producing warped meanings. They become a kind of affective infrastructure for the present. Through daily engagement with the material reminders of Socialist industrialism’s failed promise, people are entangled in a particular affective infrastructure of belonging. I study these entanglements by focusing on a village in the Priangar’e region of Siberia. In the 1950s and 1960s, the developmental transformation of Soviet infrastructure manifested in the region with the construction of the Bratsk Dam and Hydroelectric Power Station. The dam and the station were a massive terraforming project. The dam-induced flood displaced thousands of people. New settlements arouse at the shores of the Angara River. They were centrally planned. One such settlement, the primary site of my research, is the village of Anosovo. Almost sixty years since relocation, eloquently described by the Russian writer Valentin Rasputin in the novel Farewell to Matyora, Anosovo, a sister-prototype of Matyora, is still there. With the official disbandment of the USSR in 1991, Anosovo saw the drastic reduction of government support on the way of marketization, privatization, and liberalization of prices with the turn to the neoliberal market economy. Anosovo, along with countless other small settlements across the former USSR territories, found itself in a position of a monotown with the privatized enterprise with the plummeting social sphere. How do people survive there and in so doing, how do they navigate the entanglements of ruins and new beginnings? What keeps the remaining villages rooted in a place whose population has dwindled from more than 2,000 in the 1970s to a little over 500 today? How do they define their belonging and how do they effectively “belong”? This work argues that among the factors that define people’s connection to the place postponing their movement is the multiplicity of the ties of “affective infrastructure” understood in two senses: first, as the human (and animal) connections, and second, as the workings of the infrastructural agglomerations of objects upon the consciousness of the people. People become the sensitive joints in affective infrastructures. Being incorporated within these affective infrastructures and in effect manifesting as the elements of such, the villagers in Anosovo connect to the place with strong ties. The affective profile of the villagers turns out to be optimistic, directed toward the future, hopeful, nostalgic, longing for immortality and awaiting compensation or retribution. The mood is marked with what this works calls “cheerful nonchalance”: a disregard for the everyday risks and dangers of life in the industrial margins of Russian Siberia. This work argues that cheerful nonchalance—the upbeat spirit of caring less or not at all—is an affective response to precarious conditions. This ethnographic work is grounded in participant observation, collection of narratives, and my own family history: my grandmother lived in Anosovo until the death of her husband, and the story of her peregrinations, her theorization of the “Siberian character,” and the analysis of her written memoirs add a personal and intimate dimension to this study.
... In order to assure skeptics that their data was clean, these scientists began to deemphasize the rich contextual, interactional, and gestural knowledge they had collected in favor of cataloguing behaviors, cross-checking observers, and creating unassailable laboratory experiments that often introduced new problems (Stebbins 1983). In a matter of years, Chomsky-inspired experimental research had successfully "outscienced" other paradigms of the moment (Goldstein and Hall 2015). Reprinted with permission from Anthropos. ...
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This article reviews accounts of “hugging” across evolutionary paradigms to expose how understandings of gesture are shaped by scientific theorizations of the ways humans and animals differ. The divergent roles assigned to gesture in human communication by Vygotskian and Chomskyan researchers can be traced to research on human exceptionalism during key historical periods in the Soviet Union and United States. When Vygotsky introduced his sociocultural theory of cognitive development during the early Soviet period, human exceptionalism was tested through reproductive crossbreeding. When Chomsky hypothesized a language acquisition device for the human brain during the Civil Rights era, human exceptionalism was tested through interspecies communication. These scientific histories inspired critically different approaches to gestural meaning. Taking a fresh look at the great ape language debates of the 1970s, the article attributes the dismissal of ethnography in late twentieth- century human language study to a developing experimental protocol that required gesture’s eviction. Access at:
... Toxic events are informed by a context-specifi c set of dynamics, including the negotiation of scientifi c and experiential causality between a contaminant and its health or environmental impacts (Brown 2007;Checker 2005); the materiality of the toxic substance itself and the ability to establish a temporal horizon of exposure (Agard-Jones 2014; Boudia et al. 2018;Hoover 2017); the complexity of its layering or churning with other toxic substances in situ or throughout time (Frickel and Elliott 2018;Goldstein and Hall 2015;Little 2014); the role of the media and allied researchers in illuminating the hazards and risks of exposure (Ahmann 2018;Langston 2010;Murphy 2004;Wylie 2018); the degree to which independent science over corporate interest informs the regulatory process (Button 2010;Dietrich 2013;Jasanoff 1998;Schuller and Button 2016); and the strength of grassroots groups in engaging in citizen science, humanizing the victims of toxic suff ering, or pressuring for recognition and action (Brown 2007;Bullard 2005;Kimura and Kinchy 2019;Lerner 2010;Pearson 2017;Pellow 2007;Renfrew 2018). ...
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This article examines the social life of PFAS contamination (a class of several thousand synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and maps the growing research in the social sciences on the unique conundrums and complex travels of the “forever chemical.” We explore social, political, and cultural dimensions of PFAS toxicity, especially how PFAS move from unseen sites into individual bodies and into the public eye in late industrial contexts; how toxicity is comprehended, experienced, and imagined; the factors shaping regulatory action and ignorance; and how PFAS have been the subject of competing forms of knowledge production. Lastly, we highlight how people mobilize collectively, or become demobilized, in response to PFAS pollution/ toxicity. We argue that PFAS exposure experiences, perceptions, and responses move dynamically through a “toxicity continuum” spanning invisibility, suffering, resignation, and refusal. We off er the concept of the “toxic event” as a way to make sense of the contexts and conditions by which otherwise invisible pollution/toxicity turns into public, mass-mediated, and political episodes. We ground our review in our ongoing multisited ethnographic research on the PFAS exposure experience.
... 'Hysteria' as a biomedical category has traditionally been associated with gender and age and has been contested as a category invented by western psychiatry (Kleinman, 1977). Goldstein and Hall (2015) analyzed the case of teenagers in the rural US, who, also affected by mysterious symptomatology with seizures and involuntary vocal tics, were given a diagnosis of collective hysteria. The authors highlight that old-fashion ideas about adolescent girls, class assumptions, and social imaginaries about people from the rural periphery worked together to legitimate the diagnosis. ...
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How do unpleasant post-vaccination symptoms become recognized as vaccine ‘side effects'? In this paper, we argue that it is not necessarily the logical outcome of scientific verification that it is said to be. The paper draws on an ethnographic study carried out in a small town, El Carmen de Bolivar, on Colombia's Caribbean coast from February through May 2019. In 2014, hundreds of girls in the town reported a range of mysterious symptoms following mass vaccination against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Denying the girls' insistence that their symptoms were due to the vaccine, the official diagnosis was Mass Psychogenic Illness. Comparing these events with studies of controversial responses to other vaccines, we suggest that the pathway from post-vaccination symptoms to ‘side effects’ is cognitively and socially complex. In particular, it is context-dependent. Drawing on research in medical anthropology, sociology and STS, we argue that the official diagnosis was influenced by the subjects' marginal status; by a projection of the region's violent past onto individual inhabitants; by health professionals' commitment to a restricted notion of evidence (devaluing patients' own accounts); and by an institutional inability or unwillingness to stand against ‘global consensus’, which deems HPV safe.
... This makes it possible to imagine pollution as an "externality" whose ties to production can be muddled or denied. Pedaling uncertainty about the sources and effects of toxic exposure is an old corporate strategy, one that Javier Auyero and Debra Swistun call a "labor of confusion" (2008; also see Murphy 2006;Proctor and Schiebinger 2008;Goldstein and Hall 2015;Dumit 2017;Kinchy and Schaffer 2018;Little 2018). Tactics range from overwhelming stakeholders with data (Vera et al. 2019) to raising doubt about assessment methods (Oreskes and Conway 2010) to privately funded corporate "counterscience" (Benson and Kirsch 2010, 465). ...
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Breakdown, trespass, seepage, degradation: this is late industrialism. Over the past decade, the term has become synonymous with collapse, describing everything from crumbling infrastructure to outmoded paradigms. But the “late” in “late industrial” carries radical potential, too. It points toward the possibility of another world taking shape within the wreckage as people retrofit broken systems, build flexible coalitions, and work creatively with time. In this collection, we train our eyes on these refashionings, asking how late industrial systems might be put to life-affirming work. Specifically, we track cases where breath, air, and atmosphere help inaugurate a “phase shift” (Choy and Zee 2015) from breakdown toward worlds otherwise. Breath has sentinel qualities: it can warn of trouble in the air. But it is also an animating force. Taking conceptual cues from this duality, contributors attend to late industrialism as it is sensed and transformed into something vital.
... In places of environmental hazard, scientific and legal endeavors are generally called upon to parse precise distinctions between chemicals and their effects, between one oil company and another, between bodies and environments, between the synthetic and the organic. Contemporary methods in toxicology are rarely able to demonstrate causality between individual toxicants and human harm, and even less so for "cocktails" of toxicants (Boudia & Jas, 2014; Goldstein & Hall, 2015;Langston, 2010;Van der Schalie et al., 1999). Further, while scientists acknowledge that toxins and toxicants play an important role in acute and chronic diseases, many of the relations between exposure and disease are poorly understood due to individual variation, the cumulative effects of multiple toxic substances, and complex interplay between genetics and environment (Miller, 2013;Nash, 2007;Wild, 2005). ...
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While chemicals are often described and acted upon in technoscientific forums as isolated, discrete entities, vernacular experience points to possibilities of experiencing, speaking about, and imagining chemical exposures that have otherwise been rendered politically obsolete. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork in the Ecuadorian Amazon, this article invokes accounts of daily life in order to argue that vernacular experience is necessary for understanding what it means to live in a place of environmental hazard, and for building a more inclusive politics of knowledge production in models and assessments of toxicity. Descriptions such as "naked in the face of contamination," "swimming in oil," "smoke thick like marmalade," or exclamations of pain relived "tsaac!" refuse hegemonic assumptions about how chemicals alter and enable life. To take these descriptions of life seriously is to recognize the ways that chemical concentrations often far exceed the expected forms and quantities modeled in risk assessments of standard oil operations. The chemically saturated present demands a reconfiguration of toxicity-as a socio-material process, epistemic concept, and embodied experience-in order to work towards political and environmental, as well as epistemological, justice.
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This article unpacks the events and reactions surrounding a mysterious ‘fainting wave’ that swept through Angolan middle and high schools from early 2011 on. By attending to the historicity and materiality of the fainting wave, the article investigates why the strong conviction took root of a dark political intentionality behind this inexplicable phenomenon, and why this conspiratorial interpretation prevailed over alternative explanations of a more psychological or spiritual bent. Through this, the article contributes to disaggregating the seemingly monolithic, neo-authoritarian Angolan state. More importantly, it points to the limitations of analyses pivoting on an idea of opposing rationalities, while at the same time demonstrating how historically attuned, deep ethnography can help us overcome the limits of more ‘scientistic’ psychological explanations. Open Access at the JRAI
While the proliferation of industrial toxic substances over the past century has had drastic environmental and bodily effects, conventional methods of measuring and mitigating those effects continue to produce uncertainty. The project of living in a toxic world entails ethical, technical, and aesthetic efforts to understand toxicity as a contingent encounter among beings, systems, and things, rather than as a fundamental characteristic of particular substances. Anthropologists do not just observe such encounters; they live and work within them. This review examines recent anthropological research on toxicity, proposing that responses to toxic disaster and occupational exposure, as well as acts of familial, state, or corporate care, are all modes of “toxic worlding.” The review concludes with a summary of recent research in collaborative and engaged anthropology, suggesting that such approaches are essential not so much for purifying or detoxifying the world as for making it otherwise. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Anthropology, Volume 49 is October 21, 2020. Please see for revised estimates.
Levels of Analysis in Psychopathology - edited by Kenneth S. Kendler April 2020
This dissertation is a study of science and medicine after the gas disaster in1984 in Bhopal, India. It looks at the discourses, debates, suspicions, and entangled events that have shaped the narratives of causality following the catastrophe, and the ways that ideas about relief, treatment, and illness have been constructed by experts, lay activists, and survivors. In it I address the issues of suspicion, research, and power by looking at the "cyanide controversy" in the early years after the disaster, and at the ways that the consequences of uncertainty affect patients and doctors within the hospital system designed to provide "gas relief" in the aftermath. I also describe the range of ways gas survivors have categorized and produced as subjects and citizens through an analysis of epidemiological, legal, and political discussions. I take on the history of medical research after the event, and show how a vast corpus of scientific work has remained dispersed and underutilized, leaving room for sometimes-dangerous narratives of certain illness or death. Finally, I look at the consequences of this indeterminacy for care and healing. I assess access to treatments, the diversity of medical care, the undermining of the status of the gas exposed, and the ways that detoxification has been approached through notions of dosage, potency, and traditional medicine. I produce a sociology of knowledge about the catastrophe and contribute to literatures on the problem of epistemic uncertainty and risk after disasters, the production of medicalized subjects, and the politicization of knowledge. I argue that interventions that have tried to encompass the disaster within a unitary framework have been persistently inadequate, and illustrate how attempts to reduce or subsume the consequences of the disaster – through recourse to scientific indeterminacy, under reductionist legal mechanisms, by imprecise categorization schema, within flawed research methodologies, and among hollow medical infrastructures – have not only failed to meaningfully represent it but also resulted in predictable forms of reductionist violence and social suffering, through obfuscation as often as through action.
Some people recognize they speak with an accent, but many others believe their speech carries no accent. The speech of other groups may be accented, but the speech of our own friends and neighbors we tend to perceive as accentless. To a great extent, accents mark the speech of others, of outsiders to our own group, but not of “us.” From the perspective of outsiders, of course, it is not their speech but ours that carries the accent! Accents are salient triggers in our judgments of people. We favor and disfavor people - like and dislike them - partly because of the way they speak. In this chapter, Dennis Preston recounts his investigation of language attitudes among college students in the Midwest and William Labov's earlier investigation in New York City. Respondents college students in Michigan identified fourteen dialect areas of the USA, the most important being the South, the North, the Northeast, and the Southwest. In characterizing these dialects, respondents college students used polar terms like slow or fast, polite or rude, smart or dumb, good or bad, and educated or uneducated. As in earlier investigations, these judgments about language cluster into a set related to standardness and another set related to friendliness. The respondents gave high marks to their own Northern dialect on the characteristics related to “standardness,” but they rated the Southern accent more “friendly.” Preston interprets this as a group dividing its “symbolic linguistic capital,” apportioning a significant amount to their own dialect for one set of characteristics (in the case of the Michiganders, for standardness) but not for the other (friendliness).
On April 26, 1986, Unit Four of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in then Soviet Ukraine. More than 3.5 million people in Ukraine alone, not to mention many citizens of surrounding countries, are still suffering the effects. Life Exposed has been the standard-bearer in the anthropology of disaster and environmental crisis since it was first published in 2002--and it remains the most comprehensive examination of the complex political, scientific, and social circumstances that followed the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Tracing the story from initial secrecy to post-Soviet attempts to compensate sufferers, Adriana Petryna takes readers into a world whose realities are far more stark than those described by policymakers and scientists. She asks: What happens to politics when government officials fail to inform citizens of real threats to life? And what are the moral and political consequences of remedies available in the wake of technological disasters? Through extensive research in state institutions, clinics, laboratories, and with affected families and workers of the so-called Zone, Petryna illustrates how the event and its aftermath have not only shaped the course of an independent nation but have made health a negotiated realm of entitlement. She tracks the emergence of a "biological citizenship" in which assaults on health become the coinage through which sufferers stake claims for biomedical resources, social equity, and human rights. Life Exposed provides an anthropological framework for understanding the politics of emergent democracies, the nature of citizenship claims, and everyday forms of survival as they are interwoven with the profound changes that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a new introduction, Petryna reflects on the lessons of Chernobyl's "biological citizens" for recent disasters such as Japan's Fukushima nuclear accident, and shows how a social science of survival can orient knowledge and future response.