MeST Seminar with Beth Greenhough, University of Oxford, UK

Meetings and minglings with microbes: Reflections on catching colds, kitchen safaris and ‘dirty’ parenting

We seem, at present, to be in the midst of a distinctively anti-biotic moment. Human populations grapple with the need to control, contain and ultimately eliminate the threat of pathogenic Covid-19 microbes and other zoonoses, alongside more established but no less significant concerns over a growing epidemic of anti-microbial resistance (AMR). Yet, at the same time, the rapid growth of microbiomics as one of the next medical frontiers, and the heralding of microbes as Nature-based Solutions to a host of environmental problems - including plastic pollution, soil restoration and carbon sequestration - evidences the vast scope and diversity of microbial worlds and paves the way for more probiotic (after Lorimer 2020) human-microbe entanglements.

Inspired by Myra Hird’s (2010) invitation to ‘meet with the microcosmos’ and Donna Haraway’s (2003) call to pay attention to the spaces where species meet and mingle, in this talk I examine three contrasting spaces where humans and microbes meet, each of which enacts a different conjunction of humans, microbes and environments. Firstly, the coming together of humans and cold viruses and other assorted critters at the UK’s Common Cold Research Unit, as humans worked to find a cause for the common cold. Secondly, an experiment in ‘participatory metagenomics’, where participants from local households worked with researchers from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment to explore the domestic microbiome of their kitchens. Finally, a thematic analysis of recent science and popular science writing around probiotic or ‘dirty’ parenting, where microbiome science is drawn on to argue for the health benefits of childhood exposure to microbial diversity.

In each case I pay attention to questions of what Haraway might term response-ability: How do humans learn to sense and respond to microbial agency, and to what effect? What tools, techniques, traditions, and capacities do humans use to apprehend microbial worlds? How are microbes ‘made present’ as matters of human concern? How, in turn, does this shape the ways in which human seek to harness, control and govern microbes (microbiopolitics)? And, importantly, are other (more probiotic) modes and forms of response possible? In particular I examine the conjunction of scientific and lay microbiologies, and how these might be drawn together to generate diverse and multiple microbiogeographies. These microbiogeographies often elude simple classifications as being either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ biotic and refuse to draw boundaries between ‘good’ and bad’ germs, but rather speak to the ways in which our meetings and minglings with microbes are both shaped by and constitutive of the communal ecologies through which they emerge.

Venue: Department of Public Health, Øster Farimagsgade 5A, Building 5, ground floor, room 22 (5.0.22) and zoom:

Time: September 10, 2021, 10.00-11.00 am.