Pathways to Expertise

One of the first lessons I learned in graduate school was how to characterize an ethnography in a single phrase or sentence. These characterizations followed a predictable pattern: X is a book about Y in Z — witchcraft in the Sudan, adolescence in Samoa, AIDS in Haiti — as if the phenomenon, its place, and its people could be captured and packaged in a tidy phrase. Some books, however, defy this pattern and challenge the conventions of ethnography itself.

The Viral Network is not about H1N1 in Hong Kong, even though Theresa MacPhail spends much of her time exploring the 2009 outbreak from the vantage point of microbiologists and epidemiologists in this metropolis. Reasoning that the global and virtual nature of pandemics challenges traditional narratives and methods of ethnographic analysis, MacPhail proposes a pathography: a metanarrative of the H1N1 pandemic over multiple sites and timeframes. Like viruses themselves, the subject of MacPhail’s pathography is more nebulous and mutable than those encountered in traditional ethnography. This ambitious book tackles global public health and “pandemic humanity” as “superorganic subjects that become infected with influenza.”

What’s exciting about the pathographic approach is that it unapologetically reconfigures conventional anchors of anthropological analysis. The text traces a quasi-sentient network of individuals, institutions, and things entangled in webs of knowledge and information sharing. Like viruses, the actors in this web do not really exist on their own, nor are they situated in any one place or time; rather they emerge, interact, mutate, and communicate at different sites and moments in the the ever-expanding network.

Crucially, the viral network’s limitless growth potential offers a prompt to further expand the field of experts in global disease crises. Though this is not a book about affected communities, I am curious about how their expertise figures into the viral network, for what they know about H1N1 matters to the metanarrative. Such communities are at least partially responsible for the epistemological rupture between virologists and epidemiologists that MacPhail deftly describes throughout the book. Just as epidemiologists in Hong Kong strategically deployed “local knowledge” to assess sequence data and negotiate H1N1 standards, I have observed that those confronting H5N1 in Vietnam make claims about the knowledge and attitudes of “at risk” communities in order to define actionable information. They also package this information in ways that conform to donor requirements and governmental agendas. Adding threads to the web, we can ask specific questions about how patients, farmers, funders, and state leaders also transmit information in the viral network, whether directly or through scientists’ discourses.

MacPhail provides glimpses of such alternative knowledge bearers, particularly in her conversations with Dr. Leung, whose heretical stance on H1N1 stems from his relationships to poultry farmers. Knowing that farmers entrust virus samples to him, Leung foregrounds his responsibility to their livelihoods as he generates information from those samples. Quality is only one concern in the uneven world of influenza sample and information sharing. At stake here are the livelihoods of some of the worlds’ poorest populations, as well as the geopolitical status of states in a global health arena that, though charged with moral directives to freely exchange materials and information, at times seems anything but free.

I thus take MacPhail’s insightful analysis as a provocation to bring more entities and values into narratives of scientific production and practice. Viral anthropology can and should spin its web in many directions, capturing more and more sources of expertise in pandemic crises, and remembering that any individual or institution’s commitment to generating and sharing “good” information is always situated alongside other commitments. As MacPhail shows, webs form connections, but they are also sticky.

Admittedly, such a provocation focuses attention on more traditional ethnographic subjects at a time when MacPhail’s innovations are both welcome and necessary. Still, the incorporation of patients, farmers, funders, and statemakers into pathography could reveal that they are not only subjects of viral infection or scientific intervention, but also active in the production of scientific knowledge and value. Expanding the field of experts could reconfigure the pathways, and directions, of pandemic expertise.


Natalie Porter is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. She has published articles in American Ethnologist, Social Science and Medicine, BioSocieties, and Public Culture on global health interventions for zoonoses. She is currently completing a book length ethnography on the global exchange of materials and information in pandemic flu control, with a particular focus on Vietnam.