Inside the Viral Network

The provocation of Theresa MacPhail’s Viral Network is her concept of Global Public Health as a “superorganism.” MacPhail distances herself from Spencer, Durkheim, and Kroeber’s conceptions of a superorganic Society or Culture autonomous from the biological or psychological (214, note 7). She draws on biologists and theorists of social networks who describe phenomena such as swarms of bees as ‘superorganisms,’ displaying unity and emergent characteristics not present in the individual members. Global Public Health, in her account, acts like a swarm of sorts, gaining capacities for “sense-making, knowledge production, and decision-making” (214, note 7) as the networked relations among its disparate members configure a concerted response to the epidemic event.

This is the viral network: a network of expertise and communication that resembles or even mimics the way an influenza virus spreads. “By the end of my fieldwork,” MacPhail writes, “I realized that global public health is as viral as the viruses it tracks, collects, studies, reproduces, manipulates, and helps to contain or eradicate” (211). She argues that the ‘global’ of global health, like a virus, relies on the infection of local host institutions, and “is constituted by information that moves and flows and mutates and self-replicates,” expanding its reach (contagion) through transformations and adaptations (mutation). Far from Kroeber’s attempt to preserve the autonomy of culture from biology, MacPhail emphasizes the formal homologies between biological genes and cultural memes.

Amidst these contagious flows and mutating forms, MacPhail locates what she considers the skeleton of the superorganism in the laboratory. In what MacPhail calls the “invisible chapter” of the book, she argues that “even if the lab techniques are often unspoken, they form the backbone of everything scientists know — or want to know — about how influenza viruses act in the world outside the laboratory” (50). In this chapter, MacPhail makes clear that the relationship between her “two main protagonists” (14) is much more than an analogy. Rather, both the influenza virus and Global Public Health are made — one could even say, co-produced — through laboratory practices. The phylogenetic trees that scientists construct to show the genetic relations between influenza viruses, for example, also build the social relations among the scientific experts that constitute Global Public Health. “Nodes in the global public health network are fashioned through work done on the influenza virus,” she writes, “so it should also not be all that surprising if those same interpersonal and institutional relationships ultimately reflect certain characteristics of the phylogenetic trees crafted through the process of sequencing, analyzing, and sharing genetic information” (22).

Historically, the laboratory has been pivotal to the very idea of a global influenza pandemic, particularly through the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN), which has provided the standards and protocols for observing the spread of influenza around the world. But MacPhail, like many of her predecessors in science studies, extends this historical role of laboratories into a general model of the production of scientific knowledge. Karl Marx wrote that political economy, “which first emerged as an independent science during the period of manufacture,” mistakenly analyzed the social division of labor in terms of the division found in manufacture, as if society were a massive factory (Capital Vol. 1, 486). For MacPhail, the laboratory is what the factory was for political economy: not only an important site in the field of global health, but also the vantage from which the vital structure and function of the entire superorganism can be observed.

But what if our anthropological models of scientific knowledge production no longer treated the laboratory as the essential organ of science, as if laboratories were the vertebrae that hold up the entire body of knowledge? This would mean not only following experts out of the laboratory, but also investigating how knowledge about influenza is made beyond expert domains (such as among Buddhist practitioners in Hong Kong or poultry farmers in China). MacPhail provides a few hints of these outsides, particularly in her ethnographic accounts of influenza research in Hong Kong. But ultimately the superorganism incorporates these outsides, reducing them to heretics that only confirm the fundamental doxa of flu research: “The heretics and the orthodox might disagree on the meaning of influenza research, but they agree on the importance of the research itself” (182) — and by research MacPhail means sequencing viruses in the laboratory (see 191; 197).

MacPhail’s concept of global health as a superorganism ultimately reaffirms the particular view of influenza, and the world, availed from the inside of the viral network. But if we leave the laboratory, and look back on its walls from the outside, we see that the superorganism, despite its global claims, remains confined within a rather limited space.


Lyle Fearnley is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities, Science and Society Cluster at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has recently published an essay in Cultural Anthropology entitled “Wild Goose Chase: The Displacement of Influenza Research in the Fields of Poyang Lake, China,” and is co-editor (with Anthony Stavrianakis and Gaymon Bennett) of Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (Fordham University Press, 2015).

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