States, Bodies, and Epidemics

What is an epidemic?

The first couple of critical essays we read in this class (after having read the Camus novel) are two classic articles by Charles Rosenberg, “Explaining Epidemics” (1992) and “What Is An Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (1989). These two essays laid out a social theory of epidemics that still holds sway for many scholars in medical anthropology and in the history of medicine fields.

In the essay “What is an epidemic?,” Rosenberg proposes that epidemics can be ‘read’ like plays–that is, that their development can be understood to follow a certain dramatic arc. The three stages he proposes are 1) the “progressive revelation” of the presence of disease, 2) the management of “randomness” as a characteristic of epidemics, and finally 3) the negotiation of a “public response” to the disease.

You may be able to relate or apply this tripartite model to the current pandemic of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as other epidemics. Look, for example, at the graphic below, developed by Prof. Mark Nichter that shows the phases of the 2009 Influenza pandemic.

In the essay “Explaining Epidemics,” Rosenberg discusses the different theories of disease causation that have been used over time to explain the origin of disease. He proposes the framework of “configuration” and “contamination” as the two main approaches. He closes the essay stating that, “these perspectives represent emphases, not answers–elements in a complex discourse about human-kind, fate, and social organization that is never answered, but only reconfigured by each new generation.” I discuss in more detail the relationship between these two theories of disease causation in the video below.

Here is a video I recorded responding to student questions and comments on these two essays. Please share your responses in the comments below!