Plagues: Models and Metaphors in the Human “Struggle” with Disease


Sep 14-21, 2007

Organized by

Ann Herring and Alan Swedlund


Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch, Tucson, Arizona


Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present. D. Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund, eds. Berg Publishers. 2010.


  • Leslie C. Aiello Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Warwick Anderson U. Wisconsin, USA
  • Ronald Barrett Emory U., USA
  • Charles L. Briggs U. California-Berkeley, USA
  • Arachu Castro Harvard Medical School, USA
  • Marcos Cueto Cayetano Heredia U., Peru
  • Steven M. Goodreau U. Washington, USA
  • Ann Herring McMaster U., Canada
  • Mary-Ellen Kelm Simon Fraser U., Canada
  • Katherine Lepani Australian National U
  • Shirley Lindenbaum Graduate Center, City U. of New York, USA
  • Judith Littleton U. Auckland, New Zealand
  • Andrew Noymer U. California-Irvine, USA
  • Larry Sawchuk U. Toronto-Scarborough, Canada
  • Merrill Singer U. Connecticut, USA
  • Christianne V. Stephen McMaster U., Canada
  • Alan Swedlund Emeritus, U. Massachusetts, USA
  • James Trostle Trinity College, USA

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: The problem of plague in human societies, past and present, is an important site for anthropological theorizing because it sits at the juncture between the microcosmos, evolution, and human behaviour. It forms a natural bridge between the nature/culture divide. Yet, the concept of plague has received little in the way of focused attention in anthropological thinking. This symposium brought anthropologists and those from other fields together to address one of the central concerns of 21st century western society. Our goal was to explore the concept of plagues and the many historical and contemporary settings in which plagues occur, and to ask whether the concept remains salient today.

By the third quarter of the 20th century, interest in infectious disease had waned – at least in a western medical context – and epidemiologic transition theory had relegated plague and famine to the past. Patterns of disease and death were understood to be dominated by ‘degenerative and man-made diseases’. Then HIV/AIDS emerged to shake the foundations of epidemiological thought. We now live in an era obsessed with killer germs. There is a new sense of vulnerability and uncertainty with respect to infectious disease, rekindling fears of mortality on the scale of historic plagues and spurring research into the origins and circumstances that allow plagues to erupt and flourish today.

Our goal for this Wenner-Gren major symposium was to encourage a rich and productive dialogue about plague among scholars from the branches of anthropology and allied fields. We wanted to provoke a healthy creative tension by bringing scholars involved in the science of modeling plagues together with scholars interested in interpretive, critical, and metaphorical standpoints, and we wanted to develop a distinctive anthropological discourse about plague not conventional to epidemiology or the history of medicine. We wanted to produce an exciting collection of papers that were strongly theorized, grounded in empirical research and specific case studies, and that probed broad questions and themes on the subject of plague. At this conference we explored fundamental questions about how plagues are conceptualized and measured by anthropologists and other scholars. What is a plague? How have scholars used the concept? Has anthropological research influenced thinking about plagues? Has the role of plagues in human societies been fetishized or under-theorized? How do plagues in the past influence how we think about plagues today? And in the future?

We also addressed some of the structural correlates of plagues. Anthropologists and epidemiologists have developed methods and models for understanding plague in space and time, including evolutionary, demographic, social network, structural, and time series models. Epidemiological transition theory models human history as a set of stages in which the impact of infectious disease, and by implication plague, rises and falls in concert with predictable changes in human society. Another perspective considers epidemics to be inevitable, normal features of human life in a dynamic ecosystem. Epidemics occur when the complex relationship between human populations and their social and physical environment is altered, disrupted, or conducive to the flourishing of micro-organisms. Are plagues perceived or understood as ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’? Do they signal the invasion of ‘foreign germs’ that lurk in animal species, beyond the boundaries of culture, or are plagues embedded within the social order? Under what circumstances do plagues occur? Are they events or processes? Do plagues refer exclusively to phenomena involving infectious microparasites?

As students of the colonial process, anthropologists have written extensively about the role of diseases of European and African origin in the colonial and postcolonial histories of Indigenous communities worldwide. Many of these diseases are thought to have been ‘virgin soil epidemics’, epidemics characterized by unusually high mortality in all age categories. Some questions participants addressed included: Have notions of Indigenous bodies been configured by ideas about virgin soil epidemics? Have fantasies of primitivism and notions of hereditary weakness informed ideas about immunologically inexperienced and uncontaminated precontact bodies? Have conceptions of plague pathologized Indigenous people? How have our views of Indigenous people been constructed through plague and conquest? What do we know about indigenous, precontact plagues?

In western societies, emerging and resurging infectious diseases, such as avian influenza (H5N1), are generating apocalyptic terror about ‘the next pandemic’. As we wait for the next pandemic, discussions of the evolution of microorganisms, the transfer of pathogens from animal to human bodies, and the factors that contribute to human resistance and susceptibility have gained enormous significance. Yet the western preoccupation with avian flu and the threat of bioterrorism in many ways transcends the actual threat as perceived by many professional epidemiologists. In this conference we explored how models for plagues are constructed, how they are culturally specified and metaphorically sentimentalized. Themes used to organize the sessions at the symposium included: Defining Plague, Plagued Bodies, Plague Time, Plagued Spaces, and Writing Plagues/Making Knowledge.

The participants at this conference broadly represented the subfields of anthropology as well as medical sociology, medical history, and history of science. The hoped for dialogue across many points of view was even more successful than anticipated.

Wenner-Gren Symposium #138

Front: L. Obbink, S. Lindenbaum, A. Herring, A. Swedlund, J. Littleton, M-E Kelm, R. Barrett, L. Sawchuk, A. Noymer Back: J. Trostle, C. Briggs, K. Lepani, C. Stephens, L. Aiello, A. Castro, M. Singer, S. Goodreau, W. Anderson, M. Cueto