Disease as crisis, health as imagination

Jean-Yves Durand (CRIA-UMinho)
Callan CS1
Start time:
25 August, 2010 at 11:30
Session slots:


Diseases, whether affecting individuals or whole populations, are often perceived as states of crisis. Heterodox views propose other interpretations, but the institutionalized responses to diseases generally stress the exceptional character of abnormal periods of time. Sometimes, they play down fundamental rights and limit individual autonomy, imposing rules and practices (such as mass immunization): in biopolitics as in any social field, crisis can be a powerful legitimizing vector. But chronic ailments and cases in which the presence of new diseases becomes permanent lead to other reactions, pointing at the fuzzy limit between crisis and chronicity. Also, health is increasingly approached not as the normal (mute) state of the body, but as the result of an active engagement with the body, the self, and the environment, through a proliferation of practices: dietary systems, fitness lifestyles, spiritual philosophies…, combined in creative personal assemblages. The ethnography of therapeutic and wellness practices, from immunization to thermal baths, can help unravel the entanglement of the notion of "crisis" (now a metaphor of all evils) with representations of health and disease. The flu pandemic has provided opportunities for observing individual and collective reactions to a sanitary situation officially labelled as crisis, as well as the imagination (or the lack of it) deployed in institutional and individual responses. The swiftness of these events, their global diffusion and the ethnographer's unavoidable involvement in them call for methodological and theoretical imagination: can the ethnography of crisis help solve the crisis of ethnographic representation?...