series event

James Fairhead - Is the Ebola reservoir in people?

A critique of the idea of 'Patient Zero' and 'spillover' in the narration and comparative analysis of Ebola epidemic origins, and its implications.

Speaker: Professor James Fairhead (University of Sussex)

Talk abstract 

When epidemiologists trace the genealogy of infection back to the first documented (or ‘index’) case, they do not imagine their narrations are doing political work. And with new tools to help, such as ‘real-time’ sequencing and phylogenetic analysis, they might imagine their task to be increasingly technical. Yet in situations where narratives of ‘origin’ segue into narratives of blame, as they often do in nightmare epidemics, is a new paradox emerging? As the identification of origins become increasingly technocratic, so its findings become all the more socially contested. This paper probes this potential contradiction in relation to the identification of the ‘index case’ of Ebola in Meliandou; its closure on a child and Meliandou’s environment; the narrative structures shaping this; the stigmatising effects, and the flawed and perhaps less-flawed narrations also produced locally. So whilst surveillance, rapid identification of index cases and ‘real time’ phylogenetic methods might be increasingly helpful in curtailing everyday infections, might their regular but unintended effects amplify the very distrust and social contestation that can render nightmare epidemics increasingly intractable?

Speaker biography

James Fairhead is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, Sussex Rights and Justice Research Centre. Before his appointment at Sussex in 2001, he was Reader in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University of London and, earlier still, Lecturer in Anthropology and Development at Oxford (Queen Elizabeth House). He holds an MA and PhD in Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and BA in Agricultural and Forestry Sciences from the University of Oxford (St. John's College).  James has been a member of the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Strategic Research Board and the ESRC International Committee. He has chaired both the joint ESRC/UK Department for International Development joint funding scheme for poverty alleviation research, and its advisory committee. He has been a member of the governing bodies of the University of Sussex (Council) and of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Council). He was chair of the Association of Social Anthropolgists of the UK and Commonwealth from 2009 to 2013. He has served twice as Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sussex.

This seminar is part of the Medical Anthropology seminar series, co-hosted with the Anthropology and Sociology Hub.

Please note that this seminar will NOT be live-streamed/recorded.


Free. First come, first served.