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Copyright © Charloe Brives, Mahäus Rest and Salla Sariola, chapters by respective authors, 2021.
Cover photo: A variety of soil bacteria colonies growing on agar in a Petri dish. Oksana Lastochkina,
2015, CC BY-SA 4.0.
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List of Figures 7
Introducing With Microbes: From witnessing to withnessing 17
e Kilpisjärvi Collective
1 · e Deplantationocene: Listening to yeasts and rejecting the
plantation worldview 43
2 · Knowing, living, and being with bokashi 64
3 · Oimroas: Notes on a summer alpine journey 84
4 · Building ‘natural’ immunities: Cultivation of human-microbe relations
in vaccine-refusing families 100
5 · When cultures meet: Microbes, permeable bodies and the
Katriina Huunen, Elina Oinas, Salla Sariola
6 · Bathing in black water? e microbiopolitics of the River Seine’s
ecological reclamation 143
Marine Legrand, Germain Meulemans
7 · Scalability and partial connections in tackling antimicrobial resistance
in West Africa 165
Jose A. Cañada
8 · Ontologies of resistance: Bacteria surveillance and the co-production
of antimicrobial resistance 184
9 · Scenes from the many lives of Escherichia coli: A play in three acts 207
Mark Erickson, Catherine Will
10 · Micro-geographies of kombucha as methodology: A cross-cultural
A.C. Davidson, Emma Ransom-Jones
11 · Pluribiosis and the never-ending microgeohistories 247
12 · Old anthropology’s acquaintance with human-microbial encounters:
Interpretations and methods 268
LIST OF FIGURES
Fig. A Collective kisses. 42
Fig. 1.1 Yeast recording system 44
Fig. 1.2 Yeast Symphony (QR code) 45
Fig. 1.3A, 1.3B Starter, testing system, and bags of grapes for testing 51
Fig. 1.4 Biodiversity between rows 55
Fig. 3.1 Extracting the curd with a cheesecloth 86
Fig. B Sampling microbes 120
Fig. 6.1 In France, many houseboats are old commercial
barges bought at a cheap price from retiring haulers
in the 1970s and reed by the buyers. 154
Fig. 8.1 Surveillance systems in animal health 188
Fig. 8.2 Clinical breakpoints and epidemiological cut-o
(reproduced from Tascini et al. 2016) 196
Fig. 8.3 An antibiogram 197
Fig. 8.4 e triple ontology of AMR enacted through
Fig. C Microbial body intelligence 206
Fig. 10.1 A.C.’s home-brew kombucha in the kitchen 230
Fig. 11.1 Lytic and lysogenic cycles of bacteriophage viruses 250
Fig. 11.2 Petri dish containing a nutrient medium and a
bacterial strain 253
Fig. 11.3 Petri dish on which drops containing bacteriophage
viruses have been placed before placement in the
ThE IDEA FoR ThIS coLLEcTIoN GREw oUT oF A coNFERENcE pANEL IN
Graz, Austria in May 2018. At a street café next to the Kunsthaus, we decided
that it was time to edit a volume of ethnographic encounters with microbes. In
October, we sent out a rst call for abstracts to twenty colleagues. We met again
in March 2019 in Berlin, Germany to write a proposal for Maering Press. We
felt this would be the right publisher for our project and we were delighted when
we learned of the positive feedback from two external reviewers in August. In
the meantime, Salla had secured funding for a workshop with the contributors,
and she kept telling stories about the research station that the University of
Helsinki maintained at a place called Kilpisjärv i, in the north of Finland beyond
the Arctic Circle. Why not go there in the dead of the winter, we thought. So,
in January 2020, 18 people made their way through the polar night. Of course,
we were hoping for northern lights, but the moon was strong and the clouds
heavy, so instead we got a metre of snow and had to cancel our plan to climb
Saana, the fell that dominates the landscape. But we had an open replace and
a sauna by the frozen lake. Here, we decided to write the introduction for this
As editors, we are persuaded by the open access model that Maering Press
is based on, which enables open access without compromising peer review and
quality. We want With Microbes to be available and accessible to colleagues in
the global South in institutions without institutional funds to buy books or sub-
scribe to journals. e eld of the social study of microbes is new, characterised
by STS scholars, anthropologists, geographers, historians, philosophers and
sociologists working in and on interdisciplinary projects in collaboration with
life scientists, biomedical researchers, microbiologists, etc., oen in dispersed
siloes. We hope that publishing open access will serve the function of reaching
out to these scholars, forge new collaborative relations and help them to think
their own work on microbes through ours. We want to promote open access
also as a value in and of itself, working against the corporatisation of academic
publishing and instead contributing to the strengthening and advancement of
the various open science movements.
Publishing an edited volume open access is a question of funding. erefore,
we would like to acknowledge the support of the Finnish Academy (316941), the
Finnish Cultural Foundation (0116947-3), the French National Research Agency
(ANR-18-CE36-0001), the Kone Foundation (201906614 & 201802186), the
Region Nouvelle-Aquitaine (2018-1R40218) and the Werner Siemens-Stiung.
e work of editing this book was split equally between the three editors,
and the order of our names on the cover follows the conventions of the alphabet.
None of us could have done this work alone and we deeply believe that the sum
of this book is more than its parts. So, nally, we three want to thank each other
for staying together in this process throughout the year 2020.
SALLY ATkINSoN is a social anthropologist working on the intersections of
technoscience in everyday human and more-than-human life. Branching out into
medical anthropology and science and technology studies, Sally is interested in
how relations in technoscientic practice, in elds as diverse as neurodegenera-
tive disease, aging and industrial bioproduction, co-construct socio-cultural
understanding of living maers. Daughter of a cheesemaker, Sally is acutely
aware of how her life has been continually shaped by living with microbes.
SAbINE bIEDERmANN is a Berlin-based anthropologist and a member of the
Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment | Human Relations. Her research
interests comprise the social anthropology of science and technology, medical
anthropology, human-environment relations, multispecies ethnography and
posthumanism. Her current research deals with the question of how the human
microbiome is enacted in everyday practices, focusing on human-microbial
collaborations towards health and wellbeing.
chARLoTTE bRIvES is an anthropologist of science and biomedicine at the
CNRS in France. She has been working on human-microbe relationships since
her thesis, which focused on biologists-Saccharomyces cerevisiae relations in a
laboratory. She then worked on clinical trials on HIV therapies in sub-Saharan
Africa before her transformative encounter with bacteriophage viruses. For the
past four years, she has been developing interdisciplinary projects with biologists,
microbial ecologists and physicians to work on the potentialities and creative
powers of these companion species.
ANDREA bUTchER is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki.
Her expertise lies broadly in the anthropology of development, applying STS-
inspired approaches to questions of climate, environment and health in low-
resource seings. Her previous research focused on political questions of
climate, development and spirituality in the Himalayas. She began studying
human-microbial relations in the context of international development in
2017 and has worked on projects examining antimicrobial resistance drivers
in Bangladesh and West Africa.
JoSE A. cAñADA is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki,
Faculty of Social Sciences. Having earned a PhD from the University of Helsinki
in 2018, his career has especially focused on studying knowledge production
and material practices associated with socio-technical controversies, working
on topics such as pandemic preparedness and response, biobanking and the
development of water infrastructures. He is currently involved in the SoSAMiRe
project, where he studies issues related to AMR global policy-making and
national implementation in West Africa.
DENIS chARTIER is an environmental geographer and artist, professor at the
University of Paris, member of e Laboratory of Social Dynamics and Spatial
Reconstruction (LADYSS). He has been working for 20 years to identify
responses to ecological disasters at dierent scales. He also tries, by mixing
art and science, and by engaging in a dialogue with numerous allies such as
microbes, to build tools for the reappropriation of capacities to think, feel and
act in the Capitalocene.
A.c. DAvIDSoN works at the intersections of social and environmental justice
within queer and feminist theory. Alongside working as a lecturer in human
geography at the University of Hudderseld, they work with community groups
on climate action and unlearning racism. eir latest article, ‘Radical Mobilities’,
was published in Progress in Human Geography in 2020.
mARk ERIckSoN is reader in sociology, and director of doctoral studies at the
University of Brighton, UK. He is a sociologist with research interests in soci-
ology of science and technology, cultural studies of science and technology,
social theory and social research methods and methodology. His most recent
book is Science, Culture and Society: Understanding Science in the 21st Century
JoShUA EvANS i s senior researcher and leader of the Novel Fermentations Research
Group, part of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability at the
Danish Technical University. For his PhD in Geography and the Environment
at Oxford he investigated how Copenhagen’s culinary innovators and their
microbial counterparts shape each other through the pursuit of novel avours
in fermentation. His doctoral research is built on prior work at Nordic Food
Lab, a former non-prot institute for open-source research on avour and food
NIcoLAS FoRTANé is a sociologist working at the French Research Institute
for Food, Agriculture and Environment (INE). His research engages with
microbes in dierent ways: how animal health is enacted through veterinary
practices and knowledge, policy instruments and market structures. anks
to the amazing people he met via this book project he recently developed a
strong personal interest in microbial life and is now experimenting a lot with
(delicious) sourdough bread recipes.
RIINA hANNULA is living in a multispecies tribe creating a practice of more-than-
human care with earth-others such as goats, peacocks, soil, plants, microbes,
bunnies, chickens, insects and cats. eir thinking-with happens in dierent
mediums from audio and video essays to live situations. ey are a Master of
Arts in media studies and a PhD student in the Microbial Lives: Practices of
New Human-Microbial Cultures project at the University of Helsinki, Finland.
kATRIINA hUTTUNEN is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of
Helsinki. She holds an MA in development studies, and her current research
focuses on a Nordic-based vaccine trial conducted in West Africa. Katriina is
interested in the multiple relationalities of the trial context and in the ways in
which various phenomena, such as scientic knowledge production, travel and
humanitarian helping are entangled.
vEERA kINNUNEN is a social scientist working on a threshold of more-than-
human sociology, environmental humanities and feminist ethics. Her research
interests cover the material culture of everyday life, dwelling, and ways of living
with waste. Kinnunen is a senior lecturer of sociology at the University of
Lapland, Finland. In her spare time, Kinnunen experiments with her microbial
companions in bokashi and kombucha jars, and dreams of a garden of her own.
mARINE LEGRAND, environmental anthropologist, currently works as a ‘research
and knowledge sharing’ fellow at the LEESU (Environment, Water & Urban
Systems Lab), Ecole des Ponts Paris Tech. She explores social practices associated
with the ecologisation of land-use planning, from landscape design to sanitation.
She has a passion for the cycles and rhythms of the living the atomic and the
organic, and the many ways post-industrial societies deal with their own shit.
ooNA LEINovIRTANEN is an artist and MA in social sciences. Her methods are
corporeal and based on improvisation. She does not want to know too much.
At the moment, she works with movement, sculptural installation, video and
writing. She loves microbes in between and everywhere. She needs freedom and
challenges. Her dream is to live outdoors and move less in an upright position.
Ecological values are most important for her.
GERmAIN mEULEmANS is an anthropologist at CNRS in France. He is interested
in how soil and the multiple forms of life that inhabit it become recognised as
social and political actors in their own right (rather than simply as a resource
or developable land) in the worlds of soil ecology, critical urban gardening and
community projects aimed at reducing soil erosion. He conducts ethnographic
eldwork in France and the US.
JohANNA NURmI is a university teacher at the Department of Social Research,
University of Turku. Her research focuses on health-related expertise and its
contestations concerning vaccines, complementary and alternative medicine
(CAM), nutrition and microbes.
ELINA oINAS is professor in sociology at the Swedish School of Social Science at
the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her research deals with shiing knowledge
practices, power, gender, feminisms, development/transformation, health, and
embodiment in dierent organisations, contexts and collaborations in Finland,
Benin, Ethiopia and South Africa. She has been interested in how social sciences
engage with human body uids and microbes since the 1990s, with empirical
work on menstruation, HIV, and most recently diarrhoea.
EmmA RANSom-JoNES is a microbiologist who currently works as a postdoctoral
research ocer at the University of Hudderseld. Her research focuses on the
characterisation of probiotics and their eects on human health. She also works
on research projects that identify the impact of humanity on the environment
and measure the eectiveness of interventions to mitigate this damage.
mATThäUS REST works on the relations between the economy, the environ-
ment, science and time, mostly with peasant communities in the Alps and
the Himalayas. He is interested in unbuilt infrastructures, the temporalities of
fermentation and the future of agriculture. Currently based at the Max Planck
Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig , he is working with a group
of biomolecular archaeologists who trace the deep history of dairying through
the DNA of modern and ancient microbes.
SALLA SARIoLA is a sociologist of science and medicine at the University of
Helsinki. Her current research concerns the social study of microbes that
includes fermentation, composting and making enquiries into the changing
scientic practices concerning microbiota and antimicrobial resistance. Her
research has included clinical trials, mistrust, community engagement, HIV
activism, and bioethics in Sri Lanka, India, Benin and Kenya, at the intersections
of feminist and queer theory, medical anthropology, global health and science
and technology studies.
ANDIE ThompSoN thinks microbes are amazing and has a specic interest in
AMR and metagenomic technologies. She is a PhD candidate in anthropology
and STS at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the FutureHealth
project, a team studying interventions designed in the pursuit of a sustainable
and healthy collective future. Her current research involves following epigenetic
studies of toxic stress and maternal health in Portland, Oregon.
vIShNU vARDhANI RAJAN – Body philosopher. Vishnu ferments, agitates, and
pickles e v e r y t h i n g. ey use materials from the body as starter cultures
to perform fermentation. ey recommend human hair to make soy sauce,
and chilies and ant-hill mud to make yogurts. Vish brings back to Helsinki
compressed air, rocks, mud and water, especially from Hyderabad-India. A
bringing together of two articulations of home, a movement from geo-politics
cAThERINE wILL works on the sociology of science and technology at the
University of Sussex, studying how to account for inequality in eorts to mobilise
against antimicrobial resistance. e project has been a wonderful introduction
to bacteria that live with humans through the eyes of scientists, clinicians and
patients struggling with recurrent, persistent and resistant infections, and writ-
ing this piece with Mark Erickson gave a chance to debate how to foreground
microbes in the social science.
INTRODUCING WITH MICROBES:
The Kilpisjärvi Collective
IN JANUARY 2020, 15 SocIAL ScIENTISTS AND ThREE ARTISTS mET AT A
biological research station in Kilpisjärvi, Lapland, northern Finland. We spent a
week rigorously discussing a set of chapter dras for this book and experimenting
with possibilities of working and writing with microbes. e remote location by
a frozen lake, surrounded by snow-covered hills with mythical relevance to Sámi
culture, the magical polar nights, the scarcity of daylight and the warmth of the
replace all contributed to an organic and uid cohabitation and collaboration.
Intensive reading and commenting were complemented by material, corporeal
engagements with microbial worlds. Engaging with microbes was not only – and
cannot only be – textual. rough movement explorations with slime mould
and vagus nerve yoga, culturing bacteria in bread and ginger beer and making
cheese, and an artistic performance ‘Labracadabra’ that included three bioartists
collecting samples from the bodies of the participants, then culturing them in
the research station’s laboratory and giving tarot-style predictions from them,
we drew our human selves into new connections with various kinds of microbes
in ways that aimed to increase our awareness of the microbes in and around us,
and possibly change our theorisation of them.
e tone of the week was set during the rst night, with a slime mould
exercise organised by Vishnu Vardhani, one of the bioartists aending the
workshop. During a processual movement and immersion exercise, we were
asked to collectively move as one, remaining aware of our environment and of
our own and others’ boundaries, despite having our eyes closed. A slime mould
is a community of single-cell organisms with many nuclei fused together that
act as one collective entity with no central operating system (Barne 2015).
e exercise required a great deal of mutual auning, which was also central
to the work during the following days and the organising and writing of this
introduction together. We did not know then how much we would soon long
for the presence of strangers.
It would be a mistake to use slime mould as a new metaphor for the social.
While the objective of our time in Kilpisjärvi was to play with microbes, there
was also a need to dislodge notions of authority, authorship and agency of the
human. Epistemic experimentation was required to add further layers to knowing
microbes at both an individual and a collective level. We wrote this introduction
together and author it as the ‘Kilpisjärvi Collective’. In doing so, we are crossing
the many boundaries of authorship upheld by the writing norms of each of our
disciplines; and we are developing new slime mould-inspired knowledge pro-
duction practices based on what ‘we’ learned from engaging with microbial life
forms. In Kilpisjärvi, the chapters were discussed by the group. is discussion
contributed to the individual papers but also to the joint process of carving out
a new niche for the social study of microbes. As such, the whole of this book is
bigger than the sum of its parts.
We do not consider auning to microbes to be the next important turn in
the social studies of science (aer the gene, stem cell, etc.). We agree with Stefan
Helmreich (2003) that ‘microbes are good to think with’ – but they are also
so much more than that. In this volume, we circle in on the ‘with’ to describe
multiple microbial relationships and networks as they emerge and shi, and
how various relations change their contexts in so doing. Accompanying, follow-
ing, embodying these entanglements is what we decided to call ‘withnessing’.
Upon returning home, we heard the rst reports of a novel respiratory disease
making people ill in the Chinese city of Wuhan. is book was wrien during
the lockdowns of 2020, at a time when the world was struggling with a pan-
demic caused by SARS-CoV-2. e disease itself, called Covid-19, was regularly
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
described in the media in military terms; the virus was referred to as an enemy,
and societies were said to be at war with it. Such a discourse represents a view of
microbes that has dominated public health and biomedicine, and that has had
strong resonance in public lives (Brives 2020). e germ theory sees microbes
as causing diseases, and developments in public health during the twentieth
century have enforced practices that dene microbes as a quintessential enemy
of health due to their detrimental eects on human and animal lives (Sariola
and Gilbert 2020).
is paradigm remains strong throughout the world, as evidenced by the
way it shapes regulatory tools for the prevention of epidemics, hygiene and
food safety. In her analysis of raw milk cheesemakers in the US, Heather Paxson
coined the term microbiopolitics to describe the governance of microbes. Paxson
takes a cue from Foucault’s (2008) notion of biopolitics, which refers to the
ways in which power and biological life are intertwined in order to organise life
and populations. Paxson (2008: 17) denes microbiopolitics as ‘the creation
of categories of microscopic biological agents; the anthropocentric evaluation
of such agents; and the elaboration of appropriate human behaviours vis-a-vis
microorganisms engaged in infection, inoculation, and digestion’. Biopolitics
was formulated at a time when genetic medicine did not exist, and the main
cause of death was infectious disease. us, it is not surprising that, though never
explicitly articulated as such by Foucault (or Paxson), a central component
of biopolitics – the production of healthy populations through public health
measures – was the control of microbes.
Microbiopolitics, therefore, is not limited to artisanal cheesemakers, but
can be extrapolated to the ubiquity with which the governance of microbes has
penetrated various domains of modern societies. From food hygiene (Nading
2017) to the organisation of human and animal health care (Hinchlie et al.
2016; Chan et al. 2020; Keck 2015; Sanford, Polzer, and McDonough 2016),
pandemic preparedness (Lynteris and Poleyke 2018; Cadu 2012) and even
architecture (Brown et al. 2019), microbes have been predominantly framed
as contagious pathogens in need of control. Such an approach, termed an
‘antibiotic approach to life’ by Jamie Lorimer (2020), which aims to control
human-microbe boundaries with antibiotics, the quintessential modern tools for
governing microbes, has had dramatic outcomes for human and animal health,
having led to the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) (Kirchhelle 2020).
Hannah Landecker (2016) argues that antimicrobial resistance is a natural
quality of microbes, but the use of antibiotics has accelerated the evolution
of resistance, changing the biological qualities of microbes. Steve Hinchclie
(2021) describes this as ‘a play of forces’ whereby socio-political conditions
generate material (microbial) push-back. Social analyses of AMR have, for
example, pointed to the ways in which antibiotics are a ‘quick x’ (Denyer Willis
and Chandler 2019) to control and guard against infection in the absence of
health care. is applies to poorly equipped health care systems in low- and
middle-income countries as well as conditions of neoliberal pharmaceuticalised
healthcare characterised by individual responsibility via the use of antibiotics.
Aempts to control the circulation of microbes capable of rapid transnational
reach have led to a proliferation of pandemic thinking at the global level: long
before the international spread of SARS-CoV-2, in public health discourse,
the next outbreak was always just around the corner (Cadu 2015; Lako and
Collier 2008; Wald 2008). National and international infrastructures have
been set up to prevent the spread of microbes, and work by scholars in sociol-
ogy and international relations has drawn parallels between how nation states
manage their borders against outsiders and how the body is seen to defend itself
from pathogens (Brown 2019; Fishel 2017; Martin 1990). e 2000s saw an
expansion in literature on preparedness against pandemics and bioterrorism
that described regulatory measures such as surveillance, quarantine, separat-
ing high-risk individuals, monitoring and tracing, and rolling out global health
preparedness policies (Wolf 2017; Keck and Lachenal 2019; Lako 2017;
Cañada 2019; Cadu 2019).
While the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic reinforced these themes, the damage
to health and economies is masking a more dynamic and complex notion of
microbes that had been starting to take hold. An alternative denition of human-
microbial relationships, taking into account the ecological dimension of diseases,
has persisted throughout the twentieth century in disciplines such as microbial
ecology (Anderson 2004), but in public health it was not until the early 2000s
and technical developments in the eld of genetic sequencing that signicant
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
changes were observed, rst in the life sciences and biomedical sciences and
then in the humanities and social sciences.
e early 2000s saw the development of metagenomics – the study of the genetic
content of samples from complex environments that dissolves the boundaries
of individual organisms and species, both materially and conceptually. Since
then, this discipline has provided growing support for a story in which humans
and microbes share common ecologies and maintain constitutive relationships.
Work on microbiota thus provides evidence that, among other things, humans
depend on microbes from a developmental, immunological, physiological
and metabolic point of view (Gilbert, Sapp, and Tauber 2012). e concept
of the holobiont, which accounts for this entanglement between a host and its
symbionts, is thus being used more and more widely (Bosch and Miller 2016).
However, in order to avoid the pre-eminence of one entity (the human) over
the others (the microbes), Donna Haraway proposes to renounce the notion of
host; for Haraway, a holobiont is an assemblage of symbionts (Haraway 2016).
And importantly, for some ecological thinkers, viruses can also make symbiotic
relations (Dupré and Guinger 2016). Pierre-Olivier Méthot and Samuel Alizon
(2014) show how pathogenicity should be viewed as a dynamic feature of an
interaction between biological entities, rather than as a xed notion.
By bringing microbes into the focus of what it means to be human, much
that may have been taken for granted is brought into question. For example, the
role of microbes in the human immune system has led to a reconsideration of
the dichotomy between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ that has been central to immunol-
ogy for decades (Rees 2020; Martin 1990). Instead of seeing the body as a self
that protects individuality against outside inuence, philosopher of biology
omas Pradeu points out that ‘many foreign entities are tolerated by the body
and even become major constituents of the organism, especially bacteria that
have symbiotic relationships with it, such as bacteria from the gastrointestinal
tract’ (Pradeu 2008: 118-9, translation CB). Far from encouraging withdrawal
into oneself, into genetic essentialism or a xed conception of the boundaries
of what would dene us as human beings, biology tells us today that ‘foreign’
entities – microbes – become crucial constituents of the organism through the
immune system. Furthermore, microbes’ ability to share genes across species
– lateral or horizontal gene transfer – questions the self-evidence of individu-
ality at all scales. What is at stake, however, is not guring out where the ‘real’
individual lies but tracing how ‘what the individual is’ shis according to what
it is asked to do. Social sciences have long argued that persons are distributed,
non-essential, uid and relational, but work on immunity and symbiosis dem-
onstrates the profound implications of a relational conceptualisation for the
biological notion of ‘self’ that Roberto Esposito (2010) and Nik Brown (2019)
have argued reorganises relations with others by an emphasis on community
rather than immunity.
Considering microbes as relational brings aention to the broader social
relations and power structures where they are embedded. It is necessary to
address the power relations that frame human-microbial relations and consider
the status, legitimacy and capacities for political action of the dierent actors
involved. Although new forms of relationships with microbes seem to be on the
rise – characterised by Lorimer (2020) as a probiotic turn, where ‘life is being
used to manage life’ – it is important not to overestimate these relationships,
to recognise that they are above all ‘humanist’, and so to locate them within the
structures of human societies. Fermentation practices, aention to our guts,
alternative medicines and other ‘friendly microbial practices’ are not equally
distributed across the globe and within societies, and therefore do not have the
same meaning for everyone. It is important to recognise the socially situated
dimensions of such practices, and how factors such as gender, class, race, age
and culture impact, and arise within, our relations with microbes, depending
on geographical and historical contexts, existing sanitation infrastructures, life-
styles, access to types of food and health care, and the environments that people
live in – dynamics that Amber Benezra (2020) calls intersectional biosociality.
e pandemic also cautions us about the location and relationship of the new
multispecies practices with microbes in relation to the dominant framework of
biosecurity and provides reasons to analyse the possible tensions and challenges
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
that practices such as fermentation or alternative sanitation might pose to it.
A new focus on microbial scales should not imply disregard of macroscopic
structures and social justice.
Within growing bodies of work concerned with human-microbe relationalities,
both in the life sciences and social sciences, there is lile sign of consensus around
preferred methods or scales of enquiry. Approaches are numerous, techniques
and devices are varied. Microbes, uid and dynamic, thus remind us of the
strength and fragility of knowledge, whether scientic or vernacular. Given
the circular and multi-contained character of ecologically situated multispecies
relationships, there is a pressing need to develop the tools and vocabulary for
the social sciences and humanities to move away from a purely anthropocentric
focus. How can we describe, and generatively engage, microbial multispecies
relations without dichotomising nature and culture, subject and object, human
and other? And how can we describe how humans and microbes compose
common worlds together?
e chapters of this book document the entanglement/hybridisation
between dierent forms of knowledge and practices regarding microbes and
their circulation within multiple social worlds. ey resist the urge to represent
and thereby congure the object of knowledge – the microbe – as a stable
entity that can be known. e traditions of knowledge practices, where the
human involvement with microbes instrumentalises and objecties the known,
and where human intentionality, mastery and control are taken as given goals,
are challenged and refused. e knowledge, technologies or devices that are
mediating our interactions with microbes can make them either visible or
While many chapters share overlapping vocabularies, epistemologies and
ontologies, these always exist also in relation to varying ways of knowing,
making things visible or knowable as an object of care or concern. How things
are enacted by the various entities engaged in the practice produces multiple
versions of materiality (Mol 2002). Would we be speaking of ‘microbes’, even in
relational terms, if it were not for the ever-changing microbiological techniques
of making-visible, understanding, isolating and quantifying?
With Microbes examines how multiplicities of microbial life are enacted, to
develop nuanced and speculative ways of talking about the kind and degree of
human involvement with them rather than an assumed neutral observation.
is could be described as a move from ‘modest witnessing’ (Haraway 1997),
where the experiment establishes the facts about its target, towards ‘with-
nessing’. Haraway draws on the writings of Shapin and Schaer (1985) about
the seventeenth-century scientist Robert Boyle to discuss the kind of modest
witnessing accessible only to white, male and middle-class bodies. Only this
form of modesty permied the objective gaze required of witnessing in cred-
ible science. In contrast, the modesty of Haraway’s feminist mutated Modest
Witness – and the notion of withnessing we discuss below – is about knowledge
as situated, immersed and partial.
e notion of ‘withness’, raised by Sally Atkinson (2021) in Kilpisjärvi and
discussed collectively during the workshop discussions, is a commentary on
the aspired-to neutrality of the modest witness. Withnessing becomes one way
to name and bring together the otherwise diverse approaches to knowledge
production taken in this volume. e epistemic orientation of withnessing –
the ‘knowing’ – is dispersed, and non-human vitality, agency or liveliness is as
much an object of curiosity as human engagement (for a similar postulation of
withnessing as more-than-human co-existence, see Boscacci 2018). In many
chapters of this book, the intentional human engagement with microbial pro-
cesses is of interest, but it is not the central focus. By drawing on multispecies
ethnographies (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010; Tsing 2015; Haraway 2008), we
zoom in on ‘contact zones where lines separating nature from culture have
broken down, where encounters between Homo sapiens and other beings
generate mutual ecologies and co-produced niches’ (Kirksey and Helmreich
2010: 546). Here, the aim of grasping a conuence of interacting multispecies
relations decentres the human, while at the same time recognising the chal-
lenges of sidestepping it.
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
In contrast to the ocular, cerebral and objectifying gaze of the witness, in
withnessing, the relationality in any knowing process is brought to the analyti-
cal focal point. Relationality, again, means that knowing is always contingent,
emergent, sensory, embodied, social, and animated by multiple, unexpected
human, non-human and inhuman agencies. To understand through ‘withness-
ing’ is therefore not to claim a panacea or propound a celebratory account of
knowing as necessarily possible, unproblematic, reciprocal, nor even arising out
of peaceful coexistence. Even the clumsiness of the term on the tongue speaks
to the inherent discomforts, the visceral violence, unevenness, and divergences
in knowing as withnessing.
In the process of knowing as withnessing, the (infra)structures, knowers,
tools or devices for human-microbial engagement become key sites of inter-
est. e focus shis from the entity to be known to the ‘agential cut’ (Barad
2007) of knowledge production. In her seminal work on quantum physics,
Karen Barad argues that the measurement, technology, technique or surface
on which the knowledge is drawn constitutes the phenomenon itself. In With
Microbes, the microbe is sensed with widely dierent tools. Devices are seen
as technological mediators that constitute the phenomenon itself; therefore,
the site to be studied becomes one of the major choices for the ethnographer.
Bruno Latour’s (1993) historical work e Pasteurization of France was instruc-
tive in showing that a device, or a collection of devices such as the laboratory,
never only constitutes the entity but also its governance. In the science and
technology studies tradition that this book engages with, aention to disci-
plines, as well as lay knowledge, leads to a focus on practices and processes
rather than outcomes only. Importantly, the chapters counter the impression
that it is rst and foremost the laboratory where the presence and absence, the
visibilisation and invisibilisation of microbes, is enacted. Instead, the chapters
oer insights into the various other sites where microbes are co-enacted, or
‘withnessed’: gardens and farms, kitchens and communities, environments
Devices and congurations of knowledge, including disciplines, should
always be understood as both constructed through relations of power and as
the machinery through which power operates (Foucault 1980). e ideal of the
‘knower’ as a colonial, masculine, white, phallogocentric subject who controls
his object, for example, is in many respects challenged in this volume. However,
it is important to acknowledge the ways in which this ideal continues to ‘stick’
and seduce (Ahmed 2016). Similarly, an account of ‘withnessing’ microbes
could all too readily risk focusing on microbial-human relations without situat-
ing these relations within capitalist, patriarchal and white supremacist relations
of power – which condition the very possibilities and limits of these relations
and how they are valued and known. e context, obligation and cosmopoliti-
cal ethos in which these shared practices take place are part of what Isabelle
Stengers (2005) has called ‘an ecology of practices’. In turn, microbial-human
relations are enrolled to reproduce such hierarchies of value, reinforcing which
(non-)humans and ways of being (in)human(e) are valued.
e chapters that understand human-microbial relations as congured
through relations of power show special interest in how to aend to living
materiality and to the question whether the boundary between living and
non-living can be maintained as binary opposition. Power operates through
these relationships not only in terms of ‘interests’, understood as ‘political’, or
through discourse alone but also in terms of what forms, infrastructures and
understandings of humanity, life and ‘vitalness’ are sustained, and which are
le to die (Sharpe 2016). e chapters recognise that governance is not about
power over given individuals or species, but rather about power relations
within multispecies or even ecosystem-based assemblages (e.g. Agamben 1998;
Povinelli 2016; Weheliye 2014; Mbembe 2019). Of the many interpretations of
the meaning of ‘critique’ in critical analysis, Patricia Hill Collins (2019) reminds
us of denitions that are vital and even lifesaving; as in ‘critical care’. Critical
social scientists interested in microbial sciences end up entangled with their
human and non-human collaborators and the devices they operate with and
cannot quite aord arrogant sceptical oppositionalism or paranoid distancing
(Kirksey 2019; Irni 2017; Sedgwick 2003). Hence, we can but only be ‘with
microbes’, an entanglement that requires situatedness, situating and reexivity
of the methodological, conceptual and ontological positionings of who and
what is being drawn together and ‘being with’.
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
With Microbes aims to refuse the essentialisations that can arise when naming and
classifying microbes, as well as the relationships between humans and microbes
and among microbes of all kinds (see also Hird 2009). Dualistic analytics are
simplications of historically contingent, geographically and paradigmati-
cally shaped human-microbial relationships. Our ethnographic observations
are supported by work from within philosophy, technoscience and feminist
anthropology, and the insight that postulating binary oppositions between
woman and man, nature and culture, as well as human and more-than-human
represent analogous moves that legitimate domination by man, culture and
human (Strathern 1980; Haraway 1985; Braidoi 2006).
Nonetheless, while recent contributions to the social studies of microbes
have acknowledged the multiplicities of microbes (e.g. Kirksey 2019; Lorimer
2017; Paxson 2012; Helmreich 2009; Jasarevic 2015; Kalin and Gruber 2018),
the analyses of many social scientists remain dualistic. Paxson (2008: 17–8)
argued that the revival of artisanal cheesemaking in the United States ‘provides
a window onto social and regulatory negotiations of a hyperhygienic Pasteurian
social order (as forwarded by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]) and
a post-Pasteurian microbiopolitics’ advocated by raw milk activists. is binary
juxtaposition risks a simplifying depiction of the history of microbiology.
‘Pasteurian’ here might be read as a monolithic ideology concerned with seeing
microbes as nothing but pathogenic threats. In a similarly dichotomous vein,
Lorimer (2020) postulates a ‘probiotic’ turn in contrast to an antibiotic way of
controlling life, and Paxson and Helmreich (2014) frame the new discourse on
microbes using the notions of peril and promise.
With Microbes provides descriptions of the multiplicity, complexity, abun-
dance and dynamism of various relationships between humans and microbes.
We have organised the chapters into three sections that each highlight a par-
ticular mode of relating with microbes and of withnessing – sensing, regulating
and identifying. Although this division is not arbitrary, it nevertheless, like any
act of classication, cuts out and makes choices about what is put forward for
each chapter. is division does not imply an unequivocal mode of relations
with microbes but rather reects the choices of each researcher to work on a
given scale, and to emphasise one aspect among others of the interactions and
becomings of humans with microbes.
e rst chapter section, ‘sensing’, collects a number of contributions that
engage with the complex ‘arts of noticing’ (Tsing 2017) people employ in order
to create products, value and meaning as they work and engage with microbes.
In this section, we call aention to the series of situated and multisensory
practices within which microbes are known and thus come into being (Law
and Mol 2008). e chapters are positioned at the interstices of multispecies
ethnography and the anthropology of the senses, and draw from diverse sources
of the ethnographic tradition, which could be loosely grouped together as non-
representational ethnography. As conceptualised by cultural geographer Phillip
Vannini (2015), non-representational ethnography stands for making sense of
the world while simultaneously considering the partiality, situatedness, contin-
gency and creativity of that sense-making. Embodied, multi-sensory methods
have proved useful for such an understanding and have been explored to sense
kitchen microbiomes by Lorimer et al. (2019). As Sarah Pink (2012) summa-
rises it, sensory ethnography aends to the non-verbal, kinetic and sensorial ways
in which lived worlds are communicated to others. e sensory ethnography
approach thus invites us to pay aention to the interplay of sight, touch, smell,
hearing, taste and gestures, and the ways they are linked to skilled practices
and the use of the technological mediators, such as microscopes, microphones
and genome sequencing, in and through which we make sense of the micro-
bial world. e chapters experiment with diverse ways of knowing, not only
within eldwork but also in performing, articulating and communicating our
In ‘e Deplantationocene: Listening to yeasts and rejecting the worldview of
the plantation’, Denis Chartier discusses the motivations and sensory repertoire
of winemakers in France who have chosen to leave behind established protocols
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
of conventional viticulture and instead produce ‘natural wine’, a wine without
sulphur, laboratory-grown yeasts or pasteurisation. rough an exploration
of the historic connections between winemaking, colonialism and the global
plantation system that denes the Plantationocene (Haraway et al. 2016), Denis
describes these vintners’ counter-practices, embodied and sensorial, as bring-
ing forth a Deplantationocene that subverts the ways in which industrial food
production and farming create monocultures in which microbes are detached
from their environments and instead involves bringing microbes, plants, geology
and climate together. Importantly, listening to the sound of the yeast in the vat
emerges as a central form of engagement for the winemakers.
In ‘Knowing, living, and being with bokashi’, Veera Kinnunen investigates
a probiotic practice of fermenting kitchen waste called bokashi composting.
Focussing on her autoethnographic sensual engagement with waste, inter-
views with other composters and online forum contributions, she argues for
understanding bokashi as an embodied practice that recognises and nurtures
microbial wellbeing and rejects a modern ethics of waste denial that is based on
separation and rejection. Once again, smelling and touching emerge as powerful
ways of knowing microbes.
In ‘Oimroas: Notes on a summer alpine journey’, Mahäus Rest takes us
on a trip through the mountain summer pastures of the Alps where he visits
artisanal cheesemakers who work with raw milk. His essay details two scales of
pastoral care: how individual cheesemakers care for their starter cultures and
how the state keeps the cheesemakers under surveillance. He accompanies a
‘cheese consultant’ on a day of dairy visits that show how he, like the cheesemak-
ers, rst and foremost relies on his senses when encountering both humans and
microbes. Identifying a lack of detailed description of the sensual and physical
work of cheesemaking in the anthropological literature, Rest argues for an
ethnography of microbiopolitics that renders transparent specic microbes’
Johanna Nurmi’s chapter ‘Building “natural” immunities: Cultivation of
human-microbe relations in vaccine-refusing families’ explores the ways in
which vaccine-hesitant parents sense what they understand to be the eects
of microbes in strengthening their children’s immunity. e parents’ position
and practices are in opposition to the logics by which mainstream public health
programmes oer childhood vaccination. Employing the term ‘lay immunol-
ogy’, Johanna describes how parents who are critical of vaccines understand
microbes and seek to regulate both their own and their children’s relations with
microbes in their favour in order to develop immunity ‘naturally’, without the
techno-scientically constructed and controlled means to build immunity with
the aid of vaccines.
e second chapter section is ‘regulating’. Building on the governance of human-
microbe relations, a relationship with microbes – be it antibiotic or probiotic
or anything else – always involves some degree or kind of negotiation and
navigation, at times more open, at times more restricted, depending on what is
seen to be at stake, the underlying logic with which microbes are understood
and by whom, and to what ends the regulation is implemented. e theme of
regulation not only refers to the scale of governance and policies but to how, at
micro and macro levels, microbes are managed at and between levels.
STS scholarship has drawn aention to the ways in which science, technol-
ogy, law, policies and public participation are co-produced (Jasano 2004)
and shape material worlds (Faulkner, Lange, and Lawless 2012). International
standards regulating food safety are a pertinent example of how the circulation
and trade of agricultural products are governed and standardised globally, shap-
ing markets as well as everyday relations with microbes (Winicko and Bushey
2010). We can already observe new kinds of relationship with microbes that
are commodied or marketised: kombucha, raw-milk cheese, sourdough and
natural wine are among the many products that have become trendy, their avail-
ability in the markets enhanced by intermediary actors trying to create a social
demand for these products. Given the reach of international food standards
and food hygiene, which act as gatekeepers to market access, it is important to
question how socio-economic structures foster the development of and potential
for ‘alternative’ approaches to microbes. Privilege, access and structures also
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
shape the ways in which people are able to manage their bodily boundaries in
relation to microbes.
At the level of regulating relations with microbes at the boundaries of envi-
ronments and bodies, Katriina Huunen, Elina Oinas and Salla Sariola’s chap-
ter ‘When cultures meet: Microbes, permeable bodies, and the environment’
highlights the ways in which people’s everyday actions regulate the microbes
that they perceive to be in the environment and that could make them sick with
touristic diarrhoea, entering them at the boundaries of their bodies. e chapter
analyses Finnish people who travel to West Africa as part of an Escherichia coli
vaccine study. It shows how tourist-trial participants dene microbes in multiple
ways. A public health framing of microbes as pathogenic is limited, but a dualis-
tic denition of microbes as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is also seen to be redundant.
Katriina, Elina and Salla show that human-microbial relations would beer
be described on a spectrum, from antagonistic to one of friendly coexistence.
e chapters by Nicolas Fortané, Marine Legrand and Germain Meulemans,
and Jose Cañada show how microbes are regulated by policies across animals,
water and faeces by national and global health actors, demonstrating the socio-
political-technical governmentality of human-microbial contact. Crucially,
the chapters highlight, following Barbara Praisack and Ayo Wahlberg, that to
understand regulatory frameworks, an analytical focus on policy needs to reach
over and beyond policy objectives to look at the ‘meanings of social conven-
tions, political, legal, and social histories, as well as other informal practices’
(Prainsack and Wahlberg 2013: 336) that shape the policies.
Marine and Germain’s chapter ‘Bathing in black water? e microbiopolitics
of the River Seine’s ecological reclamation’ describes aempts in Paris to eliminate
faecal pollution from the River Seine in order to make it swimmable again. e
targets of the regulatory intervention to clear the waters are notably the toilets of
people living on boats along the river, which are seen to leak faecal maer, a leak
objectied and rendered visible by the monitoring of E. coli bacteria. Based on
ethnographic research with boat owners and policy makers, the chapter shows
the diculties of and the resistance to seing up the many infrastructures that
would be needed to implement this change. e bathing issue opens the black
box of sanitation and the structural limits of a centralised system that considers
the river as a diluting agent. What is for some potential gold (faeces composted
into soil for growing food) is for others maer out of place (polluted water).
ese discrepancies are embodied in dierent regulatory apparatuses.
Jose Cañada’s chapter ‘Scalability and partial connections in tackling antimi-
crobial resistance in West Africa’ also shows how microbial policies are socially
and spatially contingent. e chapter aims to go beyond the technical description
of antimicrobial resistance regulation, which Jose argues ‘tends to give a static
image of microbes’. In contrast, by focusing on AMR policy-making aempts in
West Africa, Jose identies a number of discursive and material processes that
construct these aempts that show the challenges of scale – the macro level of
global policy norms vis-a-vis local aempts to set them up. Evoking a post-scalar
view of microbes, the chapter demonstrates that while in the sciences microbes
are dened by their small scale, their discursive-material status is constituted
across dierent scales of abstraction and thus cannot be separated from the
global policies set in place to regulate them.
Nicholas Fortané’s contribution ‘Ontologies of resistance: Bacteria sur-
veillance and the co-production of antimicrobial resistance’ describes how a
regulatory mechanism of microbial surveillance for animal health was set up in
France. In contrast to claims that biosecurity programmes were ‘a new thing’ in
the 1990s, the chapter shows how programmes to regulate antimicrobial resist-
ance ‘didn’t emerge from nowhere’. Based on the history and development of
surveillance programmes, Nicholas identies three ontologies of surveillance,
their distinctions depending on the professionals involved, the main modes
of practice and how microbes were dened. Over time, these ontologies add
richness to the dierent ways in which microbes have been dened, depending
on the processes, methods and societal needs at given points in time, a theme
explored in the last section of the book.
e third and nal chapter section is ‘identifying’. Naming microbes, producing
classications and categories, is at the heart of knowledge production. Although
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
the various chapters of this book address this issue to varying degrees, identi-
cation or characterisation is sometimes concomitant with the establishment of
the relationship itself. In Sorting ings Out, Georey Bowker and Susan Leigh
Star remind us of the centrality of classication systems to our understanding of
the world. Everything that appears as universal or standard in this world is the
result of social, political and organisational negotiations, invisible and integrated
into the scientic work of describing nature. ‘Purely technical issues like how
to name things and how to store data in fact constitute much of human interac-
tion and much of what we come to know as natural’ (Bowker and Star 2000:
326). Classications produce units of time and space, multiple ways of relating.
To the multiple ontologies of microbes should then be added the articula-
tion work of dierent epistemologies. To be truly commied to this multiplicity
when it comes to microbes means ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway 2016)
of dierent, not-fully-commensurable onto-epistemologies jostling alongside
each other. ese dierent approaches emerge particularly clearly in aitudes
towards the historicity of the microbe category.
Each of the chapters in its own way stirs up relational, ontological questions
at the heart of microbial social science – questions concerning, among other
things, maers of scale, individuality and classication. Many, if not all, engage
the conventions of biological taxonomy to describe and discuss microbial kinds
as the dominant and to some degree inevitable way of ordering and thus enacting
microbial life. However, these chapters do not take on these taxonomic tools
uncritically but acknowledge their situatedness (Haraway 1988), engaging with
both what they may illuminate and what they foreclose.
In their chapter wrien in the form of a Greek tragedy ‘Scenes from the
many lives of Escherichia coli: A play in three acts’, Catherine Will and Mark
Erickson return to the very dramaturgy of the relationship linking Escherichia
coli to the various humans who have worked on and with it. Drawing on their
own experience as well as on a large body of literature, they show how the term
‘Escherichia coli’ names and identies organisms and populations that some-
times dier depending on the period or discipline by which they are classied.
Who is Escherichia coli, anyway? It is less a question of deciding what the ‘real’
Escherichia coli would be than of situating relationships, of recognising that what
makes Escherichia coli at a given moment is the material-semiotic relationship
in which it and researchers are engaged.
A. C. Davidson’s and Emma R ansom-Jones’s contribution ‘Micro-geographies
of kombucha as methodology: A cross-cultural conversation’ shows what hap-
pens when a human geographer and a microbiologist work on a common pro-
ject about kombucha and record their interdisciplinary conversations. What
is kombucha, and how is it understood? While Emma’s student extracted the
DNA of commercial kombucha in her laboratory, A. C. conducted interviews
with kombucha producers, and both brewed kombucha at home. eir experi-
mental collaboration cautions against imbuing kombucha with radical political
potential: kombuchas become within particular micro-geographical conditions
e constitutive character of the relationship when it comes to naming or
identifying microbes is at the heart of Charloe Brives’ chapter ‘Pluribiosis and
the never-ending microgeohistories’. Starting from the therapeutic use of bac-
teriophage viruses to treat bacterial infections, Charloe shows, by describing
bacteriophage collection practices, how scientists’ assignment of a name to a
viral strain actually corresponds to a snapshot, at a given time, of a microgeohis-
tory, of an ever dynamic and uctuating relationship between bacteriophages
and bacteria, and their given environments. For scientists engaged in this task,
identication is not conducive, at any point of the process, to essentialisation.
Rather, it is a way to engage with pluribiosis, with the recognition of the exist-
ence of multiple relational spectrums between entities forever in the process of
becoming, constantly shaped and transformed by their interactions with other
living things. Pluribiosis then allows us to envisage, with the actors of phage
therapy, other ways of treating and practising infectiology.
What would happen if anthropologists themselves were to repopulate the
classical theories of anthropology with microbes? What would happen if the
accounts le space to name and identify the agencies of microorganisms? is
is the question posed by Andrea Butcher in ‘Old anthropology’s acquaintance
with human-microbial encounters: Interpretations and methods’. Starting from
the observation that the structuralist ethnographies of Mary Douglas and Louis
Dumont, although based mainly on the notions of purity and impurity, leave
INTRoDUcING wITh mIcRobES
lile room for substance and materiality, developing almost exclusively symbolic
structural analyses, Andrea proposes to search for and designate hidden microbial
transcripts in the available ethnographies. She then proposes reecting on the
methodological consequences of the recognition of the place and the naming
of microbes in ethnographic narratives.
Engaging with human-microbe relations dees essentialisations in these
relationships. Instead, microbes in this volume are multiple, abundant and
dynamic, and human-microbial relationships are equally complex. Supported by
work from colleagues in technoscience, philosophy and feminist anthropology,
the chapters in this book introduce new concepts and methods to understand
human-microbial relations and contribute to a transformation of social theory
in the process.
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